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A Lawsuit About (and Amounting to) Nothing (NY)

October 4, 2019

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<p style="text-align: justify;">Can an idea about a show about nothing be subject to copyright protection?  In<em> <a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Charles-v.-Seinfeld.pdf">Charles v. Seinfeld</a></em>, Plaintiff Charles, a long-time Seinfeld collaborator, alleged that the current Netflix series <em>Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee</em> had been <em>his</em> idea, but that when he asked for a “backend” deal on the show, the reception he got from Jerry was icier than a “hello, Neuman.”  Unfortunately for Charles, the SDNY ruled this week that when it came down to his claims of ownership and copyright infringement, he simply had no hand.  The Court dismissed all of his copyright claims as time-barred.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Charles’ complaint alleged that he first suggested a show for Seinfeld based on the concept of comedians talking while driving years ago and produced a treatment for Seinfeld.  Seinfeld didn’t proceed with the idea then, but years later, in 2011, allegedly mentioned to Charles that <em>he</em> was considering a tv show about comedians in a car “chatting” as his next project.  Charles’ complaint alleged that Charles immediately noted that Seinfeld was referencing his original idea. In 2011, they agreed to work on the project together.  As production progressed, Seinfeld brought Sony into the picture, and Charles realized he was being edged out of the show.  Thus, in early 2012, Charles demanded compensation and a backend deal, but was told by Seinfeld that he would be entitled to only a ‘work for hire’ directing role on the show.  Much like grace, you either have a backend deal, or you do not.  And Charles did not.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thereafter, Charles had no involvement with <em>Comedians in Cars</em>.  In September 2015 he registered his original treatment  with the Copyright Office, and in February 2018 filed this lawsuit.  The defendants moved to dismiss arguing that the copyright claims were time-barred under the 3-year statute of limitations of the Copyright Act, and the Court agreed.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The Court noted that Charles’ complaint set forth at least two instances of Seinfeld rejecting Charles’ request for ownership in the show as far back as 2011, stating that the offer of a role limited to ‘work for hire director’ was equivalent to a repudiation of Charles’ claim of ownership interest, and sufficient to put him on notice of infringement.  Thus, the action had been time-barred as of late 2014, and Charles’ claims were summarily dismissed.  Hopefully, this ruling won’t deter others from pitching new shows starring Seinfeld just being Seinfeld, having coffee, driving a car, or otherwise.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thank you to Vivian Turetsky for her contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="mailto:chayes@wcmlaw.com">Colleen E. Hayes</a> with any questions.</p>

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