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Media Law in the News 3

Summary of Issue:

Jerry Seinfeld started a web-series called “Comedians in Cars” in 2012. The premise of the show was simple: put another comedian in a car with Jerry Seinfeld as they drive to do something simple (often getting coffee). The show was successful online, and it eventually gained enough traction to carry over to a full series on both Sony’s network Crackle as well as Netflix.

Recently, previous creative collaborator Christian Charles sued Seinfeld for copyright infringement over the creation of the show. Specifically, Charles wanted $150k because of a show title he had copyrighted: “Comedians in Cars Going for Coffee”. Charles claims he originally pitched the show to Seinfeld around the turn of the decade. It has been reported that Charles expected to eventually be given part ownership of the show as he directed the first episode. The court sided with Seinfeld as the rightful owner of the “Comedians in Cars” copyright.

Legal Questions Raised & Applicable Rule:

The legal processes here have to do with copyright, the statute of limitations in New York, and the uniqueness of the show “Comedians in Cars”.

1. Can Charles claim copyright on the show in question?

2. What is the statute of limitations on copyright infringement in New York?

3. Is the show “Comedians in Cars” unique and how does that affect its standing in the case?

Applying the Relevant Doctrine / Precedent:

The most important part of this case is whether or not Charles even has any chance at claiming copyright infringement. The 1976 Copyright Act defines copyright protection as applying to, “original works of authorship” that are “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” Furthermore, these are the works protected by copyright:

1. Literary works

2. Musical works

3. Dramatic works

4. Pantomimes and choreographic works

5. Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works

6. Motion pictures and other audiovisual works

7. Sound recordings

8. Architectural works

The plaintiff’s case for copyright is as follows: [a copyright plaintiff must prove]:

1. the work used is protected by a valid copyright – meaning it is an original work fixed in a tangible medium;

2. the plaintiff owns the copyright;

3. the valid copyright is registered with the Copyright Office; and

4. there is evidence that the defendant directly copied the copyrighted work or the infringer had access to the copyrighted work, and the two works are substantially similar.

The statute of limitations in New York is three years. Statute of limitations are designed to act as a bar against belated lawsuits that likely have alternative motivations. It is reasoned alternative motivations may be at play because if a copyright infringement was truly harmful to the plaintiff, it should not take three years to sue.

Comedians in cars is not a unique show. Many shows use cameras inside of cars as the set for an interview. For example, I have watched and still do watch Deadmau5’s coffee run (usually spelled in various ways) which features the same format just with a focus on musician’s and internet personalities rather than comedians.

Conclusion:

I agree with the court that Seinfeld owns the copyright for “Comedians in Cars”. The series is a tangible motion picture production. Also, Charles has no possible way of providing evidence to meet the plaintiff’s case. His strongest case is the fourth point of the plaintiff’s case, but without a recording of the two individuals going back and forth on the potential show, it also falls flat.

Charles most concrete point is that he owns the copyright for “Comedians in Cars Going for Coffee”. However, this also falls flat because the idea is not unique. One of the articles linked below features an extended list of shows which are thematically similar to “Comedians in Cars”, but suffice to say, it has been done before.

After the conclusion of the case, the Seinfeld lawyers alleged that Charles’ lawsuit was nothing more than an attempted cash-grab. As “Comedians in Cars” was a financially successful show, I am inclined to agree with this assessment. If Charles was truly concerned about his ownership of the property, he should have addressed those concerns much sooner.

Lastly, the statute of limitations for this case has long since passed. While statutes of limitation can sometimes be counter-productive to proper justice, this case stands as an example of why the statute of limitation exists.

This case reminded me of why the United States is known for its litigious population. Charles had absolutely no chance in this case. Entering the lawsuit, he could not even meet the plaintiff’s case. Just being involved with a show’s early productions and then conjuring up a story of he-said, she-said does not suffice in court. Regardless, the statute of limitations was up for this copyright filing anyway so I’m left wondering if Charles wanted more so to make some sort of point rather than actually win the case.

Sources:

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