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Vague E-mails not a "Signed Writing" under Copyright Act (NY)

November 16, 2009

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Under the Copyright Act, the transfer of an exclusive license, including a license for distribution of a copyrighted work, must be effected through a signed writing from the copyright owner or its agent. The Copyright Act grants copyright owners a number of “exclusive rights,” including the right to distribute the work “to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership.” 17 U.S.C. § 106(3).

Recently, in <i>Weinstein Co. v. Smokewood Entertainment Group</i>, LLC, plaintiff alleged defendant had conveyed the exclusive right to distribute a movie owned by the defendant through a series of confirmatory e-mails regarding the deal. When the defendant instead conveyed distribution rights to another company, plaintiff filed suit in federal district court, New York.

Briefly, the substance of plaintiff’s e-mails were, “We are pleased to confirm our deal.” While the defendant’s responses were not outright rejections of plaintiff’s claims, the defendant commented on remaining, unsettled, details regarding the negotiations.

The Court held that if a copyright owner's intention in writing is unclear -- even deliberately so -- there is no legally valid transfer. The purpose of the signed writing requirement is to ensure that the copyright owner deliberately transfers its ownership interest in such a way that provides the parties with a clear guide to their rights and responsibilities. Because the e-mails between the parties here failed to accomplish that, the Court dismissed the Complaint.

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