MANHATTAN (CN) – A spoof for the stage of the 1991 action thriller “Point Break” still benefits from copyright protections, so the playwright is entitled to royalties, the Second Circuit ruled today, affirming a $250,000 verdict.
The ruling is an unusual flip for application of fair use – often employed to protect satirists who mock copyrighted material – in that it protects the satirist from uncopyrighted use of her material.
“Point Break Live!,” a stage parody of the Keanu Reeves surfing-action movie, supplants 20-foot waves for squirt guns and a kiddie pool in place of a real one. It also lifts entire sections of dialogue from the movie screenplay and makes a mockery of Reeves’ reputation for wooden acting by calling on random audience members to play the actor’s part.
The play opened in Los Angeles but soon hit the road where it caught the attention of national press. In its 2013 review, The New York Times said “it has a deliberately homemade look” and praised the decision to have audience members act out Reeves’ role, Johnny Utah.
After it became a modest hit, the play also created a squall behind the scenes. Play author Jamie Keeling and producer Eve Hars entered into a legal battle over the play’s copyright when Hars tried to continue performances after the initial two-month run without paying Keeling any more money.
Keeling filed for copyright in 2010 and brought a federal complaint in Manhattan against Hars’ production company, New Rock Theater Productions, arguing that his play was protected by the fair-use doctrine.
Hars’ attorneys countered that, because the play was an “unauthorized derivative work,” it was not entitled to copyright protection, and that Keeling was therefore undeserving of further payment.
A jury ultimately sided with Keeling and awarded him $250,000, based on the fact that the play was a parody and that Keeling had sole owner of the play’s copyright.
The Second Circuit affirmed today.
“Typically, fair use is invoked as a defense against a claim of copyright infringement brought by the source-material rightsholder,” Judge Jose Cabranes wrote for a three-person panel. “Here, however, Keeling invoked the fair-use principle to establish an affirmative claim against defendants for unauthorized use of her [‘Point Break Live!’] parody.”
Under the Copyright Act, parodies are entitled to independent copyright protection as long as they are themselves lawful – meaning that they do not lift overwhelming sections from a movie or book without parodying those sections – the court found.
“Without any possibility of copyright protection against infringement for her original fair-use parody, playwrights like Keeling might be dissuaded from creating at all,” Cabranes wrote.
The Second Circuit court also upheld the lower court’s jury instructions, saying the court did not have to describe the four statutory factors used in determining fair use because not all of the factors applied to the case.
“Point Break” features Reeves as an undercover FBI agent and Patrick Swayze as a surfer who leads a crew of bank robbers. The play is currently playing in seven states, and several celebrities – including Gary Busey, who starred in the original movie – have reportedly attended showings.
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