U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan recently dismissed a suit against the comedian, ruling that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the three-year statute of limitations for copyright claims.
Statute of Limitations for Copyright Claims
Federal copyright claims are subject to a three-year statute of limitations. The Copyright Act specifically provides: “No civil action shall be maintained under the [Act] unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.”
A copyright claim accrues when the plaintiff is entitled to pursue a cause of action, i.e. an infringing act occurs. Each time a defendant infringes a copyright, the clock starts running, and the owner generally has three years to file suit for a specific copyright violation. While this may allow a copyright owner to delay filing suit, it is important to note that the defendant can not be held liable for infringements that occurred more than three years before the suit was filed.
Copyright suits seeking a declaration of ownership are treated differently. The separate-accrual rule does not apply when the suit involves copyright ownership rather than infringement. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has specifically held that when "ownership is the dispositive issue" in an infringement claim and the "ownership claim is time-barred," then the infringement claim itself is time-barred, even if there had been infringing activity in the three years preceding the lawsuit. Like many courts, the Second Circuit also follows the discovery rule with respect to copyright ownership claims. It provides that a copyright ownership claim accrues only once, “when a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have been put on inquiry as to the existence of a right.”
The suit, Charles v. Seinfeld, involves Jerry Seinfeld’s popular online series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Plaintiff Christian Charles, a writer and director, allegedly suggested to Seinfeld that he should create a television show based on the concept of two friends talking and driving. Charles produced a treatment of the show, but Seinfeld ultimately decided not to proceed with the project.
Years later, in 2011, Seinfeld allegedly mentioned to Charles that he was considering a talk show about “comedians driving in a car to a coffee place and just ‘chatting,’” as his next project. According to Charles, the two then agreed to work together on the project. Charles produced a new treatment and created a synopsis with a camera-shot list and script. In October 2011, Charles and his production company, mouseROAR, shot a pilot of the show with Seinfeld under the name “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
According to the complaint, Charles believed that his production company would provide all production services. In early 2012, he communicated a request “for compensation and back-end involvement” with the show. However, Seinfeld informed Charles that he would have no more than a work-for-hire directing role. According to Charles, his relationship with Seinfeld subsequently soured, and he had no other involvement with the project.
As set forth in the complaint, by September of 2016, "Charles concluded that Seinfeld never intended to include Charles in the Project." That month, Charles registered his treatment with the Copyright Office. In 2017, Netflix and Seinfeld signed a lucrative new deal for the show to join its platform, which prompted Charles to contact Seinfeld. Seinfeld's lawyer responded, stating that Seinfeld was the creator and owner of the show. While Charles concedes that Seinfeld had previously claimed to be the "creator" of the show in the press, this was the first time that "Seinfeld or a representative of Seinfeld had directly made this claim to Charles." In February of 2018, Charles filed suit against Seinfeld, alleging claims for copyright infringement of the treatment, script, and pilot, as well as claims for joint authorship, injunctive relief, and several state law causes of action.
Court Dismisses Copyright Claims
The federal district court ruled that the copyright claims are time-barred. In reaching her decision, Judge Nathan found that Charles’s copyright ownership claim had accrued no later than 2012. “Because Charles was on notice that his ownership claim had been repudiated since at least 2012, his infringement claim is time-barred,” she wrote.
In support of her decision, Judge Nathan emphasized that his own complaint “describes assertions made over three years before this lawsuit was filed that were sufficiently express as to put a reasonably diligent plaintiff on inquiry.” She noted that in 2011 Seinfeld twice rejected Charles's request for backend compensation and made it clear that Charles's only involvement was to be on a "work-for-hire" basis. “Even if all inferences are drawn in favor of Charles, a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have understood that Seinfeld was repudiating any claim of ownership that Charles may have,” Judge Nathan wrote.
The court also highlighted that Seinfeld went on to produce and distribute the show in 2012 without giving any credit to Charles. Even interpreting the complaint most favorably to Charles, “it clearly alleges he was aware that the show was being produced and that he was not being credited on it,” Judge Nathan wrote.
This case is now on appeal to the Second Circuit. We will report on further developments.
Key Takeaway for Copyright Owners
Determining the statute of limitations that applies, as well as any special circumstances that may exist, can be a complex task. Because time is of the essence when pursuing copyright claims, it is advisable toas soon as you suspect you may have a claim.
If you have questions, please contact us
If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, David Einhorn, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.