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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Charles v. Jerry Seinfeld

District court dismisses lawsuit by former collaborator alleging copyright infringement and related state-law claims against comedian Jerry Seinfeld over hit series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, finding that copyright claims were time-barred and declining supplemental jurisdiction over state law claims.

The Southern District of New York put the “kibosh” on a copyright lawsuit against comedian Jerry Seinfeld and others involved in the production and distribution of the hit online series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  Writer and director Christian Charles sued Seinfeld, with whom he had collaborated dating back to the 1990s, over copyright ownership in the concept for the web and Netflix series and asserting a number of related state law claims.  Seinfeld and the other defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the copyright claims were barred by the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations.  The district court agreed, granting the motion and declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.     

Charles claimed he had suggested to Seinfeld during one of their collaborations an idea for a show based on two friends talking and driving.  He allegedly produced a treatment for the show concept, but Seinfeld ultimately decided not to proceed with the project.  According to Charles, Seinfeld told him years later that he was considering a talk show about comedians driving in a car to a coffee place and just “chatting,” leading Charles to immediately comment on the similarity to his earlier treatment.  Charles claimed that the two then agreed to work together on the project.  Charles produced a new treatment and created a synopsis with a camera-shot list and script.  In October 2011, Charles and his production company, mouseROAR, shot a pilot of the show with Seinfeld under the name Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Charles claimed that a few months later, he communicated a request “for compensation and back-end involvement” with the show, at which time Seinfeld stated that Charles would have no more than a work-for-hire directing role.  Although Charles alleged that he engaged in additional conversations with Seinfeld’s business and production partners concerning his role in the show and compensation, Charles had no further involvement in the project, which went on to become a successful online series. 

In September 2016, Charles registered his treatment for the 2011 pilot with the U.S. Copyright Office.  Charles allegedly contacted Seinfeld after the show signed a lucrative deal to join the Netflix platform, but Seinfeld’s lawyer responded that Seinfeld was the creator and owner of the show, leading Charles to file suit in February 2018.  Charles’s claims included copyright infringement of the treatment, script and pilot; joint authorship; injunctive relief; and several state law claims.  

The defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that Charles’s copyright claims were time-barred under the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations for civil actions.  Under Second Circuit case law, when copyright ownership is the dispositive issue, a copyright infringement claim is time-barred if the ownership claim is time-barred, even if there had been infringing activity within the statute of limitations period.  The Second Circuit also applies the rule that a copyright ownership claim accrues only once, “when a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have been put on inquiry as to the existence of a right.” 

The court agreed that Charles’s copyright claims were barred by the statute of limitations.  First, in 2011, Seinfeld twice rejected Charles’s request for back-end compensation and made it clear that his only involvement would be as a work-for-hire director.  The court reasoned that these statements effectively repudiated any claim of ownership by Charles and necessarily contradicted any idea that Charles was an owner of intellectual property in the “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” show.  Second, the court found that Charles was sufficiently on notice of Seinfeld’s repudiation of his ownership claim beginning in 2012, when Seinfeld and the other defendants went on to produce and distribute the show without giving any credit to Charles.  

Thus the court found that Charles’s copyright ownership claim had accrued no later than 2012, making his 2018 lawsuit barred by the three-year statute of limitations.  The court dismissed the copyright infringement, joint authorship and injunctive relief claims as untimely and with prejudice, reasoning that Charles had had multiple opportunities to amend in response to the defendants’ statute of limitations argument.  Finally, the court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims, finding no reason to deviate from the federal courts’ general practice of dismissing such claims after likewise dismissing all related federal claims.      

Summary by Linna Chen and Jordan Meddy