Short Film Racks Up $175,000 in Legal Fees

     MANHATTAN (CN) - A film director must pay more than $175,000 in legal fees following a legal dispute over authorship on a short film that only cost $45,000 to make, a federal judge ruled.
     Robert Krakovski's 16 Casa Duse bought the film "Heads Up" in 2010 and assembled a crew. Everyone but director Alex Merkin was assigned their rights to their contributions, but Merkin never signed the agreement.
     In 2012, Merkin told Krakovski that the film couldn't be released without a "chain of title," and Merkin registered a copyright claim. Despite his promises not to transfer footage from his hard drive, he then copied a version of footage onto DVDs. When Krakovski tried to have the film screened at the New York Film Academy, Merkin's lawyer sent a cease and desist order.
     A lawsuit followed. Krakovski sought an order that Merkin lacked copyright claims, that Merkin's directing services constituted authorship of the movie, and that the director breached his contract.
     In September, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Sullivan ruled that Merkin was merely a co-author and couldn't prevent the film's licensing.
     Sullivan ruled that Merkin would have to pay $175,000 in attorneys' fees; his attorney Maurice Reichman must pay the remaining $10,000.
     "Had it not been for Merkin's empty claims and Reichman's collaboration in a meritless suit, plaintiff never would have had to waste so much money to cover its legal bills, Sullivan wrote.
     "Here, the court finds no obvious errors or clear unreasonableness," Sullivan wrote. "The hourly rates are reasonable."
     Attorney Eleanor Lackman billed $346.35 per hour for her work, while an associate, Joshua Wolkoff, billed $180 per hour. "All of these rates are well below what other courts in this district have found reasonable," Sullivan said.
     Sullivan also ruled that the 720 hours the attorneys billed is not unreasonable.
     "Although this is a large number of hours, the court cannot say it was unreasonable to spend that many hours on a case that dragged on for over a year-and-a-half and involved a preliminary injunction, summary judgment and numerous rounds of fruitless negotiations," Sullivan ruled.