ATLANTA, Ga. (CN) – The creator of “Crunk Kings,” a 2006 documentary about Grammy-winning rapper Lil Jon, got a federal judge’s green light to sue Entertainment Studios, 20th Century Fox and others over the alleged unauthorized distribution of the film.
Mark Skeete, who served as director, narrator and producer of the biopic that traces Lil Jon’s personal and professional trajectory, said he began negotiating a distribution deal with Entertainment Studios in 2005.
Founded by comedian and television personality Byron Allen, Entertainment Studios provides video content to TV stations, mobile devices and the Internet. Its home entertainment division, ESHE, has become one of the largest independent suppliers of movies and TV shows through DVD and Internet programming.
Under a term sheet for future distribution of “Crunk Kings,” ESHE and its affiliates would get worldwide distribution rights to the documentary for 15 years, according to Skeete’s lawsuit. But Skeete claimed the deal fell apart after months of negotiations because of a disagreement over a long form licensing agreement.
Skeete claimed that ESHE used fraudulent tactics to trick him into signing a licensing agreement instead of the expected distribution and marketing agreement. He said he signed and returned a short form agreement after ESHE threatened to make him repay the advance.
ESHE began unlawfully distributing “Crunk Kings” globally in 2006 and sublicensed the film to 20th Century Fox and Anchor Bay Entertainment, according to the complaint. Skeete claimed ESHE fraudulently used the short form signature page to validate the long-form agreement Skeete had refused to sign.
The filmmaker first filed the lawsuit in March 2009, but voluntarily dismissed that action through counsel and filed again pro se.
ESHE has countered copyright-infringement claims by pointing out that Skeete signed both the term sheet and the licensing agreement, granting it an express and exclusive license to distribute “Crunk Kings.”
Although Skeete conceded that he had signed the term sheet that outlined future distribution rights, he claimed the defendants had breached the term sheet by failing to offer Skeete a distribution agreement.
Chief U.S. District Judge Julie Carnes agreed, finding that the licensing agreement was never finalized because the parties could not agree on its terms and conditions. “In the absence of a finalized deal, there can be no exclusive license,” Carnes wrote.
The court also found that the signed short form agreement failed to convey an exclusive license. According to its terms, the agreement could not take effect until the long form was finalized. And, since Skeete claimed that he had never signed the long form agreement, the parties most likely never finalized the deal granting ESHE an exclusive license, the order states.
ESHE claimed Skeete had conceded its right to use and distribute his work by inquiring about royalties connected with “Crunk Kings” in 2006. But Carnes said that contact fell short of an implied, nonexclusive license.
Carnes also upheld Skeete’s state and federal RICO claims, finding they were closely related to the copyright-infringement claims.
The court dismissed Skeete’s fraud claim, noting that he had not proved ESHE’s intent to deceive him. “Particularly given his willing and active participation in the negotiations, plaintiff cannot recast the end result of the process as fraudulent without setting forth any specific allegations concerning the alleged fraud,” Carnes wrote.
The judge also declined to enter a default judgment against the defendants, finding that their short delay in responding to the complaint had not caused Skeete any prejudice.
The 22-page decision concludes with Carnes refusing the distribution companies’ request to transfer the case to California and Skeete’s motion to transfer the case back to Judge Robert Vining, who presided over the first withdrawn case.
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