Journalist Hits Magnolia, CNN Films With Copyright Suit for Using Her Gilda Radner Interviews

Hillary Johnson sues over "Love, Gilda," alleging that 1987 tapes reflect her creativity and skill as an interviewer.
Screengrab/YouTube

In a new lawsuit that is hardly typical, journalist Hillary Johnson is claiming to be the copyright co-owner of numerous taped interviews with Gilda Radner, the Saturday Night Live star who tragically died of cancer in 1989.

Johnson says these Radner interviews, conducted three decades ago to assist Radner in writing an autobiography, were incorporated into the recently released motion picture, Love Gilda, from Magnolia Pictures, 3 Faces Films and CNN Films. The plaintiff is now suing these production companies for infringement.

According to the complaint, Love, Gilda producer Lisa D'apolito contacted Johnson in the fall of 2016 after coming across the taped interviews in Radner's brother's attic. D'apolito allegedly wanted to do an interview with Johnson, who in turn asked for money. Afterwards, Johnson didn't hear from anyone affiliated with Love, Gilda again.

Johnson says that a few months ago, she saw a synopsis and trailer for Love, Gilda, which referenced "recently discovered audiotapes" that "open up a unique window" into Radner.

A demand letter for compensation and credit was sent by Johnson's attorney, but there was no response. Love, Gilda was released on September 21.

Johnson says she has been unable to register copyrights in the taped interviews because they are outside her possession. She's demanding an injunction requiring access to the tapes so she may register the copyrights.

The absence of registration may become an issue in the lawsuit, as well as whether Johnson's work for Radner's autobiography constituted a work-for-hire (in which case, Radner or the publisher would be deemed the author for copyright purposes). The complaint is silent on the latter topic.

As for Radner's theory on why she's a co-owner, the complaint asserts that Johnson "invested significant time and effort creating questions for the Taped Interviews and her creativity and skill as an interviewer resulted in material that contributed to the commercial success of Radner's book."

It's added that there was "intent" by Johnson and Radner to "jointly work together to generate content for Radner's book" and therefore Johnson co-owns the taped interviews, as well as any derivative works. As this lawsuit proceeds, CNN Films (which couldn't immediately respond to a request for comment) and other co-defendants may choose to explore whether Johnson has waived by contract any claims to ownership of the book itself.

There have been other copyright lawsuits over interview tapes, such as one brought against Fox News about a decade ago. That case involved an interview with Michael Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe with Fox News raising a fair use defense before it was settled.  

Another case perhaps material to Johnson's is the one from 54 Sudanese refugees over the 2014 film The Good Lie. In that lawsuit, the refugees gave interviews to assist the filmmakers in making their feature film. A judge later explored whether the interviews had enough creativity to constitute an original work of authorship under copyright law or whether the interviews merely conveyed unprotectable ideas, facts and opinion. The judge refused to dismiss claims that the taped interviews were a "joint work." The dispute then settled.

Here's the full complaint filed by Johnson.