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By Anandashankar Mazumdar
The registration of a copyright claim in a video more than five years after the video was first made public fails to give the registrant a presumption of having a valid copyright interest for the purposes of an infringement claim against the makers of two Death at a Funeral movies, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled June 26 in a decision designated as non-precedential and not for publication (Lawrence v. Sony Pictures Entm't, 9th Cir., No. 11-56463, 7/26/13, unpub.).
Affirming a federal district court's award of summary judgment in favor of the movie studios, the court also found no evidence that the movie makers had access to the plaintiff's works or that the movies were substantially similar to the plaintiff's works.
This book was based on an actual experience of Lawrence's during which she was attacked while attending a funeral. Indeed, in Lawrence's words, a fellow attendee “publically [sic] beat and stripped her naked while the entire episode was being videotaped.”] Lawrence registered her copyright interest in the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. The live video of the incident has since been posted onYouTube.
Lawrence then sought representation and began to enter negotiations to sell the film rights to the book. Such negotiations were ultimately unsuccessful.
In 2007, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the film Death at a Funeral, a dark ensemble comedy by British-American director Frank Richard Oznowicz p/k/a Frank Oz, best known for his work as a puppeteer and voice actor with the Muppets.
In 2010, Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures, released a remake of the movie with an all-star ensemble cast that included Danny Glover, Martin Lawrence, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Zoe Saldana, and Luke Wilson. Peter Dinklage, known for his role as the dwarf Tyrion Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones series, played the same role in both British and American versions.
Lawrence sued Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., and dozens of other entities and individuals, alleging that the Death at a Funeral movies had infringed on her copyright interests in both the book and the original video. Lawrence's complaint was riddled with accusations of premeditated fraud and theft, as well as denunciations of racial and gender bias in the movie industry.
For example, the complaint stated that “It is clear from these consorted bad faith actions by Defendants … why so few minorities over more than 15 years have not been able to find longevity in careers at Sony Pictures Entertainment, as well as, attain higher ranking position[s] as Executives.”
Judge Steven V. Wilson of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment in favor of Sony Pictures and the other defendants and also awarded attorneys' fees.
Among the district court's rulings was a finding that Lawrence had failed to establish ownership in the original video made of the real-life altercation at the funeral. The video had been made by Orlando Usher, and Lawrence had claimed that Usher had assigned her ownership of the copyright. The district court found no valid assignment based on the absence of a writing. Lawrence appealed.
In so ruling, the court pointed to Section 410 of the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §410. This provision requires that before a party may bring a claim of infringement in federal court, that the works in question must be registered.
However, Section 410(c) states that if the registration is made more than five years after the first publication of a work, then the purported copyright owner does not benefit from the presumption that the registration evidences a valid claim of copyright interest.
Turning to the question of whether Sony Pictures had infringed Lawrence's book, the court found that there was insufficient evidence to create a genuine question of material fact regarding whether Sony Pictures had actually copied the book.
This was based on the finding that Lawrence had proffered no evidence to show that there was any reasonable possibility that any of the defendants might have had access to the book. In the face of the defendants' evidence that they had no access to the book or the video during or prior to the making of the films, Lawrence had offered only speculation, the court said.
Finally, the court said, even if Lawrence could establish ownership of the video or copying of the book, the films were not substantially similar to either the book or the video and thus there could be no infringement:
Under the extrinsic test for determining substantial similarity, all of the similar elements that Lawrence has alleged are unprotectable because they are historical facts, scenes-a-faire, or ideas. … Even if the allegedly similar elements were protectable, there are few, if any “articulable similarities between the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events.” in the Book and the Video, and the Death at a Funeral movies. … Although a person is naked at a funeral in the Death at a Funeral films and in the Book and the Video, this is unremarkable since the reason why the person was naked differed substantially.
The court also found no abuse of discretion in the district court's award of attorneys' fees.
The appellate panel comprised Judge Fortunato P. Benavides, Judge Jay S. Bybee, and Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen
Lawrence represented herself. Sony Pictures was represented by Jennifer L. Brockett of Davis Wright Tremaine, Los Angeles.
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