CNN Beats Journalist's Copyright Suit Over Gilda Radner Documentary

Love, Gilda-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

A New York federal judge has rejected a copyright lawsuit brought by journalist Hillary Johnson against CNN Films and Magnolia Pictures over Love, Gilda, a documentary about deceased Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner.

Through her suit, Johnson claimed she was hired by Simon & Schuster in 1987 to interview Radner and help her organize her thoughts for an autobiography. Johnson alleged that the taped interviews were creative and original enough to deserve copyright protection separate from Radner's book, It's Always Something. The tapes wound up being used in Love, Gilda, a motion picture released in 2018, and Johnson's complaint asserted infringement.

The court never got to the question of whether those interviews merited copyright protection (unlike, say, a decision a few years ago over The Good Lie) nor whether Johnson herself owned them or whether they belonged to the book publisher.

Instead, Johnson's suit fails because she hadn't registered copyright on the tapes.

Johnson said she couldn't register because the audiotapes, after being discovered in an attic, were in the possession of Michael Radner, Gilda's brother. She wanted the judge to order defendants to give her access to the tapes to enable a registration.

In a footnote, U.S. District Court Judge Vincent Briccetti hints that perhaps Johnson should have sought a declaration of ownership. Such a claim might not have stalled due to the lack of registration.

But Johnson didn't do that, and Briccetti rules that she can't maintain an independent declaratory relief claim for an injunction, which would be a remedy for copyright infringement, which again, has failed without registration.

The judge also rules that the producers of Love Gilda are entitled to costs and legal fees from Johnson in this suit. Here's the full opinion and order.