BBC Gets Judge to Dismiss Lawsuit Over Use of 'Cosby Show' Clips

The Cosby Show Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Everett Collection

The Cosby Show Still - H 2015

BBC and Sugar Films Limited have prevailed in a copyright lawsuit brought by the producer of The Cosby Show over use of clips in a documentary titled Bill Cosby: Fall of an American Icon. On Monday, a California federal judge dismissed the complaint from Carsey-Werner Company due to lack of personal jurisdiction.

Carsey-Werner filed suit in November and insisted that The Cosby Show still had commercial value. The plaintiff alleged that BBC's documentary film about sexual assault allegations directed at Cosby used too much copyrighted material without authorization.

The lawsuit seemed to set up a showdown over fair use. BBC and Sugar Films did nod to the potential defense that they made transformative use of The Cosby Show and didn't tarnish the licensing market. However, the defendants primarily attacked the complaint as coming in the wrong forum.

BBC argued no actionable infringement could possibly have taken place within a California federal court's jurisdiction because the documentary was only broadcast in the U.K., and while Fall of an American Icon was later available via the BBC’s iPlayer, "geoblocking" prevented it from being seen in the United States absent use of virtual private networks or proxy servers to evade restrictions.

The plaintiffs alleged that it was "a predictable consequence of BBC's decision to distribute [the Program] via the iPlayer that numerous individual located in California, and an even larger number of people located elsewhere in the USA, would access that website to view."

U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson agrees with BBC.

"That some California individuals may have viewed the Program does not establish that Defendants directed their conduct toward California, particularly because any viewership in California occurred despite Defendants’ intentions and their efforts to prevent it," he writes. 

The judge adds, "Unauthorized viewers outside of the United Kingdom do not provide a basis for personal jurisdiction; rather, Defendants’ relationship with California must arise out of contacts that they themselves created with the state. … Moreover, Plaintiff neither alleges nor offers actual evidence of the extent of viewership of the Program in California."

Anderson also rejects the argument that the Bill Cosby documentary was so "California-centric" as to find conduct directed at the state, and thus, jurisdiction. The judge says interviews and filming of location shots in Los Angeles aren't sufficient.

The case is dismissed without prejudice, meaning Carsey-Werner could attempt to try again and cure deficiencies. At this point, however, the case doesn't look like it's moving forward in the United States. Carsey-Werner could also try re-filing in the U.K. where the fight would likely center on "fair dealing" exceptions to intellectual property.