Appeals Court Digs Into ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’

A few moments from episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s popular series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” which moved to Netflix in 2018.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Contesting Jerry Seinfeld’s ownership of the popular series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” a lawyer told the Second Circuit on Wednesday that the comedian had spun a tale of “unmitigated balderdash.”

The teleconferenced appeal follows the September dismissal of a lawsuit by Christian Charles, who claims Seinfeld deprived him of any credit of the series he helped develop back in 2001, a decade before shooting the pilot episode.  

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan ruled last year that the producer’s alleged “authorship” of the show does not establish ownership. The point drew objection Wednesday from Peter Skolnik, an attorney for Charles with the Montclair, New Jersey, firm Clark Guldin.

“There was never any question about the fact that Mr. Charles owned what he owned,” Skolnik said on rebuttal. “And there was no alchemy by which Mr. Seinfeld could become the owner and pass on the ownership interest to his co-defendants.”

Seinfeld’s attorney, Orin Snyder from Gibson Dunn, emphasized meanwhile that Charles missed the statute of limitations to sue. Pointing to the absence of a creator credit for Charles in the show’s 2012 premiere, Snyder said, “It’s difficult to imagine a more clear and express assertion of sole ownership.”

Skolnik disputed this characterization. “Defendants’ assertion that Mr. Charles did not dispute that the primary copyright dispute concerns ownership of the show is, if I may, unmitigated balderdash,” Skolnik said.

“Mr. Charles wrote a script, he wrote a treatment, he directed the pilot,” Skolnik added. “Under the Copyright Act, from the moment he did so, from the moment those items were fixed in a tangible medium of expression, he owned those copyrights.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler asked Skolnik when it was that Charles learned Seinfeld was contesting his authorship of the show.

“Didn’t they put out this show without giving him credit after the first pilot,” the Clinton appointee queried. “And wouldn’t that have alerted him to the fact that they contested ownership?”

Snyder told the court that it was only after Seinfeld landed a $100 million licensing deal that brought the show to streaming giant Netflix in 2018 that Charles raised his copyright claims.

“Tellingly plaintiff didn’t object to, voice a complaint to, utter a peep about Mr. Seinfeld’s ubiquitous assertion of ownership until, of course, there was a public announcement that Netflix, and Mr. Seinfeld were moving the show from the internet platform to the streaming platform in a very lucrative deal and he comes out of the woodwork demanding money six years too late,” he said.

“One hundred million streams, Emmy-award nominations, and plaintiff all the while sitting on the sidelines, laying in wait, not receiving a dime of royalties or payments typically associated with ownership,” Snyder added.

Snyder told the Second Circuit that Seinfeld made “crystal clear to Mr. Charles that he was a work-for-hire director and no more.”

Asking the Circuit to affirm the order on all grounds, Snyder said the series “is not a self-driving vehicle.”

“Jerry Seinfeld is the driver, has been all along, and in every statement he made — every public, private, and implicit act — constituted a clear repudiation of the plaintiff’s claim,” the lawyer added. 

“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” debuted on Sony’s online platform Crackle in July 2012, moving to Netflix in 2018.

After filing his suit that year pro se, Charles, whose work with Seinfeld goes back to the mid-1990s, tapped the firm Duane Morris for an amended complaint.

The Manhattanite says he got the idea for the series while directing the 2002 documentary “Comedian,” which has a scene where Seinfeld crosses the George Washington Bridge in a vintage Volkswagen Beetle, returning to New York City with his friend Barry Marder after a cross-country drive.

This moment prompted Charles to wrote a treatment in November 2001 for a television project titled “67 Bug,” with the alternative title “Two Stupid Guys in a Stupid Car Driving to a Stupid Town.”

After Seinfeld rejected the treatment that Charles and a partner pitched him a year later, Charles says the idea sat around for a decade until Seinfeld began developing “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” in August 2011.

Charles and his production company mouseROAR shot the pilot episode with Seinfeld two months later, but the two had a dispute over whether Charles would be paid to direct episodes on a work-for-hire basis, as Seinfeld wanted, or whether he would be given ownership and a piece of the backend royalties, as Charles wanted. After his relationship with Seinfeld fell apart in 2012, Charles had no further involvement in the series.

Skolnik told the court Wednesday that the $107,000 that Seinfeld paid Charles covered his client’s production expenses but not his creative contributions.

The outline that Charles employed for the pilot employed visual and style elements that became the signature of the series, according to the complaint. Every episode opens with close-up shots of Seinfeld driving alone in a vintage or collector’s model car, accompanied by a voiceover highlighting the details of the car, then introducing the guest, followed by shots of the location of the episode.

There is no audience, the guests get no instruction on the direction of the conversation, and their conversation begins naturally with no pre-interview.

The filming of a car in motion requires unique camera rigs and positions, and also ubiquitous to the episodes are close-up shots of coffee.

Judge Pooler was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Gerard Lynch, an Obama appointee, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge John Walker, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush.

The Second Circuit reserved their decision on Charles’ appeal.

Seinfeld, 66, will premiere his first stand-up comedy special in over 20 years, titled “Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill,” on Netflix next week. 

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