Second Circuit Pulls Curtain on Producer Who Sued Seinfeld

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

MANHATTAN (CN) — Timing is everything, not just in comedy it turns out but civil procedure, a lesson that will cost one producer his claim to the ownership of Jerry Seinfeld’s series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

“An ownership claim accrues only once, when a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have discovered that ownership was disputed,” the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals wrote Thursday, affirming dismissal of a copyright suit against Seinfeld by his onetime production partner Christian Charles.

Finding one positive takeaway from ruling, Charles expressed relief that his authorship of the show withstood scrutiny.

“However complex creative ownership can be, in your gut, a creator knows who the creator is,” he said in a statement through his counsel. “I say to my peers who have had their creative work taken from them without being given credit: It’s worth the fight, as whatever the result you’ll know you sought the truth.”

It was back during the shooting of Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary “Comedian” that Charles says he came up with the idea for a new kind of talk show playing on Seinfeld’s enviable collection of automotive history.

A full decade after Charles pitched the project — running title “67 Bug” or “Two Stupid Guys in a Stupid Car Driving to a Stupid Town” — Seinfeld tapped Charles to shoot the pilot in 2011.

Charles had no further involvement in the show, however, after 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.

Some seven years later, Netflix picked up the series in what was publicized as a $100 million licensing deal, and Charles filed suit pro se.

“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,” Seinfeld’s attorney, Orin Snyder from Gibson Dunn, told the Manhattan-based federal appeals court last week in teleconferenced arguments.

“And he comes out of the woodwork demanding money six years too late.”

The Second Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit in an unsigned summary order that singles out two points in time when Charles should have begun to raise his ownership claims: first, in February 2012, when Seinfeld rejected his request for backend compensation and expressed that Charles’ involvement would be limited to a work-for-hire basis; second, when the show premiered in July 2012 without crediting Charles, at which point his ownership claim was publicly repudiated.

“Either one of these developments was enough to place Charles on notice that his ownership claim was disputed and therefore this action, filed six years later, was brought too late,” 3-page order states.

Snyder celebrated the ruling.

“At every level, the courts have seen through this ridiculous attempt to capitalize on the success of the show,” he said in a statement. “Today’s ruling by the appellate court is another vindication against these opportunistic and phony claims.”

John Kettle, a law professor at Rutgers University, told Courthouse News in a phone interview Thursday, that Charles’ authorship claims on appeal would have been shaky from the start since the District Court ​had already dismissed them as time-barred.

“When I teach my class, I raise to the class what various defenses could you raise to any infringement claim, and one of the best is the ‘S.O.L.’, you know, statute of limitations or ‘shit out of luck’, you just waited too long,” he said.

Though he tapped the firm Duane Morris for his amended complaint, Charles was represented on appeal by Clark Guldin attorney Peter Skolnik. The Montclair, New Jersey, called the Second Circuit’s ruling “wrong for the same reason the district court was wrong,” saying he intends to further appeal.

“As a nonowner, Seinfeld’s ‘repudiations’ of Charles’ ownership should have been given no more weight under the law than a repudiation from Charles’s butcher,” he said in a statement Thursday.

“Copyright law and the reasonable expectations of authors are undermined when an infringing nonowner can — by simply saying ‘you don’t own it’ —force the legitimate author to file suit to protect his creation years before recoverable damages justify the expense of litigation.”

In addition to Seinfeld, Snyder has previously represented other marquee clients including Facebook, Apple and Tinder, as well as legendary songwriter Bob Dylan

The three-judge panel was composed of U.S. Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler, a Clinton appointee, U.S Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch, an Obama appointee, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge John Walker, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush.

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

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

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