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Slate v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

District court grants summary judgment in favor of ABC News and related entities, finding that investigative journalist Gregory Slate was equitably estopped from asserting that he personally owned copyright in hidden-camera video footage because he held himself out as employee of corporate organization, and dismisses Slate’s action as sanction for fabrication of evidence and other bad-faith litigation tactics.

Pro se plaintiff Gregory Slate and non-party Diop Kamau, principal of an entity named the Police Complaint Center, collaborated with defendant ABC News, Inc. on at least two projects involving the surreptitious videotaping of police engaging in improper conduct. In 2006, PCC and ABC’s Cincinnati local affiliate WCPO undertook to investigate local police responses to persons seeking to file complaints. ABC agreed to pay PCC a fee of $3,000 and to cover its expenses in exchange for ownership of and rights to any video produced in the investigation, which included hidden-camera video of plaintiff’s interactions with police. Plaintiff held himself out to ABC as an employee of PCC. In 2007, PCC approached ABC with a proposal to conduct a similar project in Chicago on similar terms, in which Chicago police officers would be surreptitiously videotaped drinking excessively in bars. ABC agreed, and PCC sent investigators and videographers, including plaintiff, to scout locations in Chicago and to film interactions with police at various locations in Chicago using hidden-camera equipment provided by ABC. Plaintiff turned over all of the video he recorded to ABC. After relations between plaintiff and PCC principal Kamau soured at the end of 2007, plaintiff wrote to ABC purporting to withdraw ABC’s license to use his video and claiming that he was not an employee of PCC. ABC nevertheless aired less than a minute of plaintiff’s video footage during an episode of 20/20. Plaintiff sued ABC and its corporate affiliates for direct and contributory copyright infringement.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that (1) plaintiff was a PCC employee and that the video he recorded constituted a work for hire and was therefore owned by PCC, (2) plaintiff held himself out as a PCC employee and was equitably estopped from asserting that he personally owned the video, and (3) plaintiff had implicitly granted defendants a license to use plaintiff’s video. The court granted summary judgment in defendants’ favor on equitable estoppel grounds, finding that plaintiff and PCC’s Kamau held plaintiff out as a principal of PCC and led ABC to believe that it was purchasing video owned by PCC. The court found that plaintiff had held himself out as an employee of PCC by, among other things, using an email address with a domain name associated with PCC, proposing additional hidden-camera projects on behalf of PCC, asking for and accepting payment of expenses through PCC, and remaining silent when PCC held Slate out as one of its agents. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that defendants had not demonstrated detrimental reliance, finding that, although plaintiff asserted rights to the video before ABC actually edited and aired it, he did not do so until after ABC had expended substantial resources to create and obtain the video footage, including compensating PCC for its work.

Defendants also moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claims as a sanction for plaintiff’s bad-faith litigation conduct, including fabricating a letter that plaintiff purportedly sent to PCC prior to the Chicago video project stating that plaintiff was not a PCC employee and that he expected to be compensated separately. The court found that the letter was a fake based on the fact that defendants denied ever receiving the letter, plaintiff could not produce an electronic version of the letter, and the letter referenced plaintiff as an Emmy award-winner, even though the Emmy nominations had not even been announced as of the date of the letter. The court also found that plaintiff had engaged in vexatious and bad-faith discovery practices, including corresponding with ABC under an alias in an attempt to create evidence helpful to his case, producing discovery documents in a soiled envelope smelling of excrement, attempting to improperly videotape his own deposition, and producing voluminous irrelevant and misleading materials. Although plaintiff was proceeding pro se, the court found that this bad-faith conduct warranted severe sanctions and dismissed plaintiff’s claims.