The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a Summary Order affirming a District Court dismissal of a copyright infringement action against comedian Jerry Seinfeld. The Court found that the Appellant’s claims were time-barred.
In 2011, Christian Charles and his production company helped develop the pilot episode of the television series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. In February 2012, Charles requested backend compensation from Seinfeld. Seinfeld immediately refused. Seinfeld told Charles he worked strictly on a work for hire basis. In July of 2012, the show aired without crediting Charles.
In February of 2018, Christian Charles brought suit against Jerry Seinfeld for copyright infringement over the television series. Charles alleged he assisted in development of the pilot episode, and thus owns a copyright as an author. Seinfeld disputed Charles’ claim and asserted that he conceived of the show. Seinfeld also asserted that he hired Charles on a work for hire basis as a producer and director. The District Court granted Seinfeld’s motion to dismiss, finding a time-bar to the copyright infringement claims.
Appeals Court Decision
The Appeals Court agreed with the District Court in finding a time-bar to the copyright infringement claim. Accordingly, the Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal. The main issue was whether Charles’ contributions qualify him as the author, and thus owner of the copyright, to the show. The Court cited the statute stating any claims under the Copyright Act must be brought “within three years after the claim [has] accrued”. The Court stated that to maintain an action for infringement, the plaintiff/appellant must establish (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.
Citing Kwan v. Schlein, 634 F.3d 224, 228 (2d Cir. 2011), the Court stated that a copyright ownership claim “accrues only once, when a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have discovered that ownership was disputed”. Here, a reasonable plaintiff received notice of a dispute with his ownership claim in two different instances. First, Charles received notice of the ownership dispute when Seinfeld expressly rejected his claim for compensation and told him he hired Charles on a work for hire basis. Second, the show airing without crediting Charles was a public repudiation of any ownership claim. Thus, after either of these instances, Charles received notice as to the dispute over his ownership claim. By waiting six years to bring suit, a time-bar applied to the ownership claim.
The Court stated in cases where ownership is the main issue in a copyright infringement case, and the ownership issue is time-barred, then the infringement claim is also time-barred. This is the case even if any alleged infringing activity occurred within the limitations period. Accordingly, since a time-bar applied to the main issue of ownership, the time-bar also applies to any infringement claim.
In conclusion, this case demonstrates the importance of the timeliness in alleging copyright infringement. If Charles had brought suit within the three year period, the outcome may have been different.