Jerry Seinfeld Faces Bulked-Up Lawsuit for Allegedly Stealing Hit Show

Christian Charles says he conceived of 'Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee' and developed the pilot without a "work-for-hire" deal. He is now seeking an injunction.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television
'Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee'

A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. Although comedians sometimes don't mind playing the fool, Christian Charles is seeing the wisdom of retaining counsel in a lawsuit against Jerry Seinfeld, Sony and Netflix over the hit show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Charles alleges that the idea for this show was his. The plaintiff contends he has a long history of working with Seinfeld and that he registered copyrights on a treatment and script for a pilot episode. Charles further says he conducted meetings and had email conversations with Seinfeld's reps and that after working on the pilot and demanding backend compensation, Seinfeld began to use his creativity without his involvement.

The plaintiff originally sued in February and, at the time, many news outlets wrote about it, but not The Hollywood Reporter. Although we were aware of the case before anyone had published one word on the litigation, it is this publication's policy not to write about pro se complaints, meaning ones filed without legal representation. There are a lot of reasons for why we won't. Among them are that lawyers are under specific obligations to verify statements in pleadings, meaning there's credibility in what attorneys file in court, and pro se lawsuits, like conspiracies scribbled onto cocktail napkins, hardly ever amount to real trouble.

But if there was one pro se complaint that ever made us question the wisdom of the policy, it was Charles', and not necessarily because his original complaint (read here) was the finest work of craftsmanship. It wasn't. No, instead, it's because his lawsuit had potential. So it's not surprising that he managed to find a real attorney — Brian Siff at Duane Morris — who on Friday lodged an amended complaint (read here) that at least looks much more formidable. That's not to say Charles will prevail. We're explaining only why this case now commands attention. Plus, the plaintiff initially requested credit and compensation. Charles is now pushing for an injunction against further distribution of Comedians in Cars, too.

In the lawsuit, Charles says he has worked on major television and film projects, more than a dozen Super Bowl commercials, and directed the 2002 documentary Comedian, which stars Seinfeld along with Chris Rock and Garry Shandling. In fact, Charles says his association with Seinfeld dates back to 1994, when Charles directed American Express commercials featuring the comedian.

Charles alleges that around the time he was working on Comedian, he created a television show treatment titled '67 Bug, with the alternative title Two Stupid Guys in a Stupid Car Driving to a Stupid Town. He says he pitched it to Seinfeld in 2002 but it was rejected.

Several years later, continues the lawsuit, Seinfeld engaged him and his mouseROAR company to create marketing programs for some of Seinfeld's projects, including DreamWorks Animation's Bee Movie; engaged him to develop jerryseinfeld.com; and engaged him to develop a promotional short for the launch of Seinfeld's television show The Marriage Ref.

Siff sets forth these details because he likely knows that idea theft lawsuits face challenging odds, but when it comes to claims for copyright infringement and breach of implied contract, demonstrating access and extensive association matters. The amended complaint also takes care in laying out Charles' creative approach and what exactly are the elements that are claimed worthy of legal protection.

Plus, the complaint is fairly specific with dates.

"At a meeting on July 30, 2011, at the Princess Diner in Southampton, New York, Seinfeld expressed to Charles that Seinfeld's representatives George Shapiro and Howard West were pressuring Seinfeld to come up with a new television show and/or stream of revenue after the negative reception and cancellation of Seinfeld's television show The Marriage Ref," states the complaint. "Seinfeld expressed that Shapiro West told him that he was not creating anything new and that this had to change."

Seinfeld brought up a show about comedians driving in a car to a coffee place and just "chatting."

"[T]o which Charles immediately pointed out that his suggestion was actually Charles' Two Stupid Guys Treatment that Charles had pitched to Seinfeld in 2002," continues the complaint. "Charles and Seinfeld agreed to develop further Charles' Two Stupid Guys Treatment, with Charles developing, directing, and producing the project."

Charles says that pilot was eventually shot using the working title of Comedians in Cars Going for Coffee and that Seinfeld had no creative input and that he was not involved in hiring crew or location scouting.

"As reviewed and depicted on the call sheet and production materials pre-distributed to [Seinfeld personal assistant Melissa] Gastgaber, Seinfeld, talent, and mouseROAR crew, Seinfeld is listed under 'talent' with no producer reference or credit," states the complaint.

On the principal shoot day, it is added, Seinfeld complained he "didn't want to be here," that he was in a "foul mood" and didn't want to spend money on the shoot. The complaint further alleges he refused to record necessary voiceovers.

"Despite Seinfeld's reservations, Charles suggested that he had captured enough footage to create a viable pilot episode," adds the complaint. "Charles reasoned that a great deal of work had already been done and that he would move forward with editing and post-production without Seinfeld. On or around October 16, 2011, despite Seinfeld abandoning the project, Charles graciously shared the completed Pilot (see U.S. Copyright Reg. No. PAu003900159, attached as Exhibit C) via email and link with Seinfeld, accompanied with his thoughts on typeface and design, and further elaboration on needing Seinfeld's voiceover, which Seinfeld had refused to record on set. Charles closed his email with 'I believe the idea has long legs.'"

Later, Seinfeld and his reps allegedly came around and were "thrilled" by what they saw, and Charles was asked to continue to prepare and scout locations for five to six potential episodes featuring Alec Baldwin, Colin Quinn and other guests.

Siff makes sure to mention how mouseROAR invoiced and received payment for work on the pilot.

But soon, a dispute erupted over money.

According to Charles, he had representatives at William Morris Endeavor negotiate terms with Embassy Row, a subsidiary of Sony.

"In a series of emails from January 31 through February 5, 2012, Embassy Row informed Shapiro West of Charles' request for compensation and backend involvement with the Project," states the complaint. "During this time, Shapiro West shared Charles' request with Seinfeld. Upon hearing of Charles' request, Seinfeld called Charles and expressed outrage at the notion that Charles would have more than a 'work-for-hire' directing role for the Project. Seinfeld further claimed that for his request Charles was 'ungrateful' and 'out of line,' and that Charles should expect to be compensated through his directing fee. Seinfeld also stated that there was no money to be made on the Project, with which Charles vehemently disagreed."

Charles adds that at no point did he ever agree to be "work-for-hire."

The lawsuit presents the situation as then escalating with Seinfeld telling Charles he "should be so lucky" to be paid as a director, that he was doing a similar "ungrateful thing" to him as a former co-star who once demanded a bonus and that a telephone conversation ended with Seinfeld expressing it was "too late to change the deal."

Charles says that Seinfeld refused to engage him in good-faith discussions thereafter.

"For the remainder of 2012 through 2014, Seinfeld, Columbus 81, Embassy Row, Comedians in Cars LLC, Sony Pictures Television, and Netflix continued to use without authorization Plaintiff's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and the Project for their own show also titled Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," states the lawsuit. "Defendants without authorization copied and continue to copy the entire Pilot by streaming it to viewers as Season One, Episode Seven of the Infringing Show."

Other episodes allegedly copy segments or elements from his work as well.

Now that the show has reportedly sold to Netflix for around $100 million, Charles is in court while Seinfeld insists he's the creator and owner of the project.

In early April, before the complaint was amended, Seinfeld's attorney Orin Snyder filed a motion to dismiss that characterized Charles as coming "out of the woodwork" and the "frivolous" lawsuit as "an opportunistic — and belated — attempt to capitalize on the success of comedian Jerry Seinfeld's award-winning and popular talk show."

The motion — which will now have to be redone, thanks to the new filing — also argued that claims failed because of the statute of limitations and no protectable copyright interest. Further, in a particularly serious response to what at the time was merely a pro se complaint, Snyder argued that Charles had unclean hands, that the plaintiff had fraudulently obtained a copyright registration by listing himself as the sole author.

"Mr. Charles can tinker and amend his complaints all he wants," says Snyder in reaction to the new filing. "Mr. Seinfeld is the sole creator of this show. End of story."