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Zahedi v. Miramax LLC

In copyright infringement suit over iconic photograph of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, district court grants summary judgment for defendant film studio, finding that photographer’s ownership claim was barred by statute of limitations.

Firooz Zahedi, the photographer who took photographs of Uma Thurman in character as Mia Wallace in the movie Pulp Fiction, sued studio Miramax LLC, alleging that Miramax’s use of the photograph on a famous movie poster and other consumer products constituted copyright infringement. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee granted Miramax’s motion for summary judgment and denied Zahedi’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Zahedi’s claim was barred by the statute of limitations.

Zahedi took the photograph in 1994, and Miramax LLC paid Zahedi $10,000 at the time of the photo shoot. Judge Gee noted that neither party had been able to produce a signed agreement identifying what rights each retained in the photograph, due to the fact that Miramax’s records were contaminated by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequently relocated several times. While Miramax claimed it entered a work-for-hire agreement with Zahedi, Miramax could not produce any such agreement. Further, both parties had copyright registrations. Miramax obtained a copyright registration for the poster in 2003, while Zahedi obtained a copyright registration for his photograph in 2019.

The main issue was whether Zahedi’s copyright infringement claim was barred by the statute of limitations. To establish infringement, two elements must be proven: (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. The court recognized that, generally, the first ownership prong is not in dispute in an ordinary copyright infringement case. Here, however, Miramax denied that Zahedi owned the copyright. Judge Gee therefore noted that “where the gravamen of a claim is ownership, the statute of limitations will bar a claim if (1) the parties are in a close relationship and (2) there has been an ‘express repudiation’ of the plaintiff’s ownership claim.”

Zahedi argued that he was not in a “close relationship” with Miramax and that Miramax did not clearly and expressly repudiate his ownership. The court rejected both arguments, holding that the statute of limitations barred Zahedi’s claim. 

The court first found a “close relationship” between the parties. Judge Gee opined that the parties had a prior business relationship and, at the very least, a verbal agreement regarding his photograph. 

Zahedi argued that he was not in contractual privity with Miramax, because Miramax had undergone a series of corporate mergers and sales since 1994, and his agreement was with Miramax LLC’s predecessor, Miramax Film Corp. Judge Gee found this chain-of-title issue important only with regard to Miramax’s counterclaim against Zahedi (for infringement based on publishing the photograph in his book and displaying it at galleries), finding that Miramax did not produce evidence of its chain of title during discovery and thus could not rely on that evidence at the summary judgment stage. The chain-of-title issue, however, was not determinative in deciding whether the parties had a “close relationship.” Even though Zahedi had contracted with Miramax LLC’s predecessor, Zahedi’s deposition proved he knew that Miramax LLC was exploiting the photograph. Accordingly, a “close relationship” was found. 

The court then found that Miramax had expressly repudiated Zahedi’s ownership of a copyright in the photograph. Zahedi argued that Miramax’s 2003 copyright registration did not cover his photograph and thus did not serve as an express repudiation of his ownership of that work. In its registration, Miramax checked the box to register a “2 Dimensional artwork,” not a photograph, and the poster had been slightly altered from the photograph. The court acknowledged that Miramax’s copyright registration could have plausibly been understood to cover only the poster and not the underlying photograph. The court was also skeptical of the notion that mere registration of copyright could amount to constructive notice of express repudiation. Regardless, the court did not need to decide this issue, because it found that Zahedi had actual notice. 

In 2015, Zahedi’s stepson uploaded an Instagram photograph of Zahedi holding an action figure (which Zahedi received as a gift) featuring the iconic movie poster, with the caption “Happy Birthday to my Stepdad … Turns out he didn’t get toy royalties for his famous photo of Uma™ ... But at least he has the toy now.” Zahedi then commented, “Thanks … Sometimes it’s best to settle for the little things in life.” The court found that Zahedi’s receipt in 2015 of this action figure prominently featuring the iconic poster bearing Miramax’s copyright notice, and Miramax’s failure to credit Zahedi, was uncontroverted evidence of his actual notice and knowledge of Miramax’s express repudiation of his ownership. 

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Alex Loh