Appeals Court Gives Jerry Seinfeld the Win in 'Comedians in Cars' Dispute

The Second Circuit affirms a decision that Christian Charles, who directed the pilot, had waited too long to challenge Seinfeld's claim of being the sole author of the show.
Courtesy of Netflix

Jerry Seinfeld has convinced an appeals court that a dispute about who created Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a lawsuit about nothing. On Thursday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals preserved the comedian's victory over Christian Charles, who directed the pilot and later sued Seinfeld for allegedly copying his work without compensation.

The case ultimately focused on whether Charles had gone to court soon enough. The plaintiff says he pitched the idea all the way back in 2002 and began working with Seinfeld on the show before it premiered on Sony's Crackle in 2012. The pilot was well received, and Charles says he had been preparing new episodes when he and Seinfeld began arguing about compensation. Seinfeld was said to have become upset that Charles wanted more than a directing fee on a "work-for-hire" basis. It wasn't until 2018 that a complaint was filed in federal court.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that anyone may bring a copyright claim within three years of infringement, meaning the deadline to sue gets reset if the infringement is ongoing, some appellate circuits have taken a harder timeline when ownership is in dispute. Here, Seinfeld successfully argued that Charles was on notice of potential claims — and that Charles had three years from that date to bring his suit.

The appeals court agrees.

"The district court identified two events described in the Second Amended Complaint that would have put a reasonably diligent plaintiff on notice that his ownership claims were disputed," states the decision. "First, in February 2012, Seinfeld rejected Charles's request for backend compensation and made it clear that Charles's involvement would be limited to a work-for-hire basis. Second, the show premiered in July 2012 without crediting Charles, at which point his ownership claim was publicly repudiated. Either one of these developments was enough to place Charles on notice that his ownership claim was disputed and therefore this action, filed six years later, was brought too late."

Perhaps what's most notable about today's decision is how quickly it came — and how uncontroversial an opinion the Second Circuit made it out to be.

The case was argued April 29, just a week ago, a remarkably quick turnaround. Perhaps appellate judges have more time on their hands given that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many to stay at home.

Also, contrast this decision with one last week from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

There, the sister appellate circuit examined a dispute about which of the Everly Brothers — Don, Phil or both — had authored the song "Cathy's Clown." Ultimately, in a contentious decision with all three appellate judges disagreeing with each other in parts, it was determined that there was a genuine factual dispute about when repudiation of an authorship claim had occurred, and thus, a ruling dismissing a suit on grounds of statute of limitations was reversed. One of the judges in concurrence examined the tests used in various circuits and predicted this issue would one day be settled by the Supreme Court.