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Charles v. Seinfeld

Second Circuit affirms dismissal of copyright infringement action brought against Jerry Seinfeld series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, holding that dispute centered on plaintiff’s claimed ownership and was thus time-barred under Copyright Act’s three year statute of limitations.

Plaintiff Christian Charles, a producer and director, brought claims in February 2018 against comedian Jerry Seinfeld and other defendants alleging copyright infringement based on plaintiff’s claimed authorship of the series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Charles and his production company allegedly helped develop the pilot episode in 2011. In February 2012, Seinfeld rejected a request from Charles for back-end compensation and made it clear that Charles’ involvement was done on a work-for-hire basis. The show later premiered in July 2012 and did not credit Charles. 

Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that Charles’ infringement claim was time-barred by the Copyright Act. The district court agreed and granted Seinfeld’s motion. On appeal, the Second Circuit, in a non-precedential summary order, affirmed the dismissal. As the Second Circuit explained, claims of copyright ownership “accrue[] only once, when a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have discovered that ownership was disputed.” Based on this principle, if ownership is the dispositive issue in an infringement case, and the ownership claim is time-barred, “the infringement claim itself is also time-barred, even if any allegedly infringing activity occurred within the limitations period.”

Agreeing with the district court, the Second Circuit held that the dipositive issue in Charles’ claim was copyright ownership, as reflected by his own filing stating that “[r]esolution of this case depends upon the answer to one simple question: who is the author of the [Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee] Pilot.” Accordingly, Charles’ copyright infringement claim accrued when he was on notice that his claim of ownership was disputed in 2012—when Seinfeld rejected Charles’ request for back-end compensation and made it clear to Charles that his work was done on a work-for-hire basis, and the show premiered without crediting Charles. Charles’ infringement claim, filed six years later, was thus barred by the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations.  

Summary prepared by Wook Hwang and Michael Segal