American Broadcasting Co. successfully defended a copyright infringement claim April 5 with the "fair use" defense before the suit reached the fact-finding trial stage.


NEW YORK -- American Broadcasting Co. successfully defended a copyright infringement claim April 5 with the "fair use" defense before the suit reached the fact-finding trial stage.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted ABC a summary judgment, finding that entertainment editor Joel Siegel and segment producer Ned Berkowitz used short film clips for a "Good Morning America" piece in a transformative manner -- to comment on, and criticize, the films -- that was unlikely to harm the marketability of the films.

In the July 1997 GMA segment, Siegel explored the portrayal of aliens in American film throughout the 20th century. He showed clips of films released in the early 1900s, the 1950s and more recently. Siegel pointed out that costumes, effects and plots portrayed aliens with humanlike characteristics, and attributed this to the filmmakers' lack of creativity or resources.

Wade Williams Distribution Inc., a film licensing and distribution company that handles copyright licenses for a film library, sued ABC on July 7, 2000, alleging copyright infringement and other federal and state claims. It asserted the right to sue over three films -- "The Brain from Planet Arous" (1958), "Robot Monster" (1953) and "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959) -- under a June 2000 assignment and an October 2000 supplemental assignment.

After determining there were no genuine issues of material facts, the court applied various factors of fair use to the facts learned during discovery. It found that the film clips were clearly transformative (used as examples to critique how films portrayed aliens with human characteristics) and amounted to a sufficiently small amount as compared to the length of each film. Further, the use could not have adversely affected the market for the full-length movies.

The court also addressed the assignments made to Wade Williams, which were the basis for the company's right to sue ABC.

The June 2000 document assigned ownership of the copyrights to Wade Williams, but it did not clearly assign the right to sue for prior (accrued) infringement claims. The October 2000 supplemental assignment -- received nearly three months after the suit was filed -- assigned the right to sue for infringements that occurred prior to Wade Williams' copyright ownership.

The court held that a copyright assignment, including the right to sue for past, present and future infringements, is a sufficient basis for a party to sue for infringement. Even though Wade Williams received the supplemental assignment after filing suit -- and after the statute of limitations expired -- the company had the right to maintain the suit. The finding of fair use, however, was a complete defense to the suit.

A legal summary of the case is available in the April 26 issue of ELW's "The Fine Print."

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