Fox News Settles Lawsuit Over Interview of Michael Jackson's Ex-Wife (Exclusive)

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Fox News has settled a lawsuit that claimed the cable news network improperly aired an interview with Michael Jackson's ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, during its nonstop coverage of the singer's death in 2009.

In making the agreement, Fox News owner News Corp. puts particularly nasty litigation to bed and spares some possible embarassment at trial for chairman Rupert Murdoch, who once proclaimed there to be no such thing as "fair use," but then had to rely upon it in this case to fight copyright infringement claims.

This dispute was extraordinary from the get-go. 

In 2002, F. Marc Schaffel became aware that Jackson was being interviewed by British journalist Martin Bashir for a special that would run on ABC entitled "Living with Michael Jackson." The resulting special would prove embarassing for MJ.

Schaffel worked together with Jackson on video projects that would rehabilitate the singer's image. One such project was an interview with Rowe, produced by Shaffel.  Because of a confidentiality deal signed by Jackson and Rowe at the time of the divorce, Jackson had to personally release Rowe from her non-disclosure obligations. Portions of the interview aired in 2003 on Fox News' Geraldo at Large, but Schaffel held back hours of unaired footage that might have been deemed more sensitive for Jackson.

Seven years later, that interview resurfaced thanks to Jackson's mysterious death and Rowe's old discussion of needing sedatives.

Fox News aired the sensitive portions of the interview. So did TMZ, which may have obtained it through connections at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's office, which had executed a search warrant on Schaffel’s home.

Schaffel sued both Fox News and TMZ for copyright infringement.

The nature of the complaint against Fox News, filed in January 2010, immediately made this lawsuit personal for News Corp. executives.

To preclude any defense that the network might have fair use, the lawsuit pointed to comments that Murdoch made to Sky News Australia where he said, "There's a doctrine called 'fair use,' which we believe to be challenged in the courts and would bar it altogether."

Howard King, Schaffel's lawyer, admits that including this quote was an inflammatory move. Nevertheless, King got passionate about this case and decided to pursue much of it on his own dime.

Over the following year, the lawsuit became nastier and nastier, with both sides lobbing allegations at each other and attempting to have a judge impose sanctions on one another for "cheating and deception."

On the legal merits, Fox News not only claimed fair use, but questioned whether Schaffel should be entitled to copyright on the clip in the first place. Fox maintained the interview was a work-for-hire and that at the time of the airing, the interview was controlled by Fire Mountain Services, a company owned by Michael Jackson

Last June, the judge in the case declined to rule on that matter at the preliminary stage, and the case was on track for trial later this year.

This past March, Schaffel settled with TMZ.

Now, despite the extraordinary animosity between the sides, Schaffel and Fox News have come to an agreement on undisclosed terms. It's fair to say News Corp. has more pressing legal issues these days on the forefront.


Twitter: @eriqgardner