ABC Beats Infringement Claim Based On Broadcast of 40 Seconds of Copyrighted Footage

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Equitable estoppel and a plaintiff's bad-faith litigation prevent him from prevailing on his copyright infringement claims against ABC Inc., the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled April 23 (Slate v. ABC Inc., D.D.C., No. 1:09-cv-01761-BAH-DAR, 4/23/13).

The plaintiff, Gregory Slate, alleged that ABC had infringed his copyrights when it used a total of 40 seconds of his footage in a 20/20 program. The hidden-camera footage was produced by ABC and was filmed by the plaintiff and a third party, Policy Complaint Center, in 2007. A agreement between PCC and ABC gave ABC ownership to all of the footage produced as a result of the arrangement. After footage was taken, Slate ended his relationship with PCC. However, Slate continued to communicate with ABC, never telling the company that he was no longer affiliated with PCC.

In 2008, Slate registered some of the footage under his name with the U.S. Copyright Office. He then sent an email message to ABC revoking its license to use any of the footage and telling the company, for the first time, that he was not longer working with PCC. The message came just one week before ABC was planning on using the footage in a 20/20 program. ABC went ahead and used a total of 40 seconds of Slate's copyrighted footage, prompting Slate's lawsuit for copyright infringement.

Judge Beryl Y. Howell granted ABC's motion to dismiss based on the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Even after he stopped working with PCC Slate “cloaked himself in an agency relationship” with the company, and ABC reasonably relied that apparent agency relationship, the court held. Thus, Slate is equitably estopped from asserting copyright claims against ABC, the court determined.

In the alternative, the court said that Slate's bad-faith conduct also merited dismissal of the suit. Slate lied about winning an Emmy, “made numerous representations to the Court,” and “used (and abused) the judicial process to harass and discredit” his former PCC colleagues, the court determined. Thus ABC is entitled to dismissal pursuant to Slate's bad-faith litigation conduct, the court said.

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