By John L. Geiger, co-author of Creativity and Copyright: Legal Essentials for Screenwriters and Creative Artists

A Federal District Court in New York recently ruled in favor of comedian Jerry Seinfeld by rejecting a copyright lawsuit brought by writer-director Christian Charles, who claimed authorship and ownership of the wildly lucrative show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”[1]

Charles’ allegations make a rather comprehensive narrative of idea theft:[2]  Charles and Seinfeld had collaborated together on various projects beginning with the highly-popular and award-winning American Express commercials in the 1990s. During one of their collaborations, Charles suggested a show based on the concept of two friends talking and driving.  Charles wrote a treatment for the proposed show, but Seinfeld decided not to pursue the project. Years later, in 2011, Seinfeld mentioned to Charles that he was considering a talk show about “comedians driving in a car to a coffee place and just ‘chatting’” as his next project. Charles reminded Seinfeld of his earlier pitch, and the two agreed to work together on the cars project. Charles then wrote a new treatment that Seinfeld liked, and in late 2011, Charles shot a pilot of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”  Despite some initial reservations, Seinfeld ultimately decided he wanted to proceed with the project, and Charles was asked to scout locations and propose 5-6 episodes. But in early 2012, the relationship soured when Seinfeld brought in a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Television to perform production work ordinarily performed by Charles. Charles then asked “for compensation and backend involvement” with the show, but Seinfeld “expressed outrage at the notion that Charles would have more than a ‘work for hire’ directing role.”

Under the Copyright Act, work-made-for-hire is work (1) prepared by an employee within the scope of their employment, or (2) work specially ordered or commissioned.[3] And whoever commissioned the writer is the “author” and owner of the work. When you write on spec, the work is yours as author and owner. When you write under commission for work-made-for-hire, the work is theirs and you have no copyright interest.  

So, was Charles working for himself on spec?  

Or was Charles performing work-made-for-hire for Seinfeld?  

We don’t know, because the judge never reached the merits. Instead, the case was (properly) dismissed on a procedural technicality—the lawsuit had been filed too late. Because Seinfeld’s position was so adverse and inconsistent with Charles’ claim of copyright ownership, the dispute became ripe, the claim accrued, and the three-year copyright statute of limitations started ticking in February 2012 (when Seinfeld asserted that Charles was merely performing under a work-made-for-hire arrangement).

Why didn’t Charles file his lawsuit earlier? Well, maybe because it’s difficult if not impossible to favorably resolve a dispute when you’re agitating the other side? Filing a formal lawsuit is escalation. Instead, Charles hoped to de-escalate the dispute and let Seinfeld cool-off enough to re-open discussions. While that could have been a good negotiations strategy, it turned out to be a fatal litigation strategy because the statute of limitations kept ticking away until the clock ran out. Negotiations don’t stop the clock, only the filing of a lawsuit stopes the clock. A lawsuit MUST be filed before the limitations period run. 

Bottom line:

  1. Know when your claim accrues and the clock starts running,
  2. Know the applicable statute of limitations and when the clock runs out of time, and
  3. Factor those time constraints into any settlement strategy. As long as there is a viable dispute, there is the potential for meaningful negotiations. But if your claim lapses, then negotiations are moot.

So that’s it. The federal copyright lawsuit is concluded. An appeal seems highly unlikely and unmeritorious. Has Seinfeld been completely vindicated, as his lawyers taut? Is there anything left for Charles to do? Stay tuned for Comedians in Cars Getting Ideas, Ops. 2: Ace in the Hole.

© 2019 by John L. Geiger

[1] Christian Charles v. Jerry Seinfeld, et al., Case No. 18-CV-1196 (AJN), United States District Court, Southern District of New York (September 30, 2019, Opinion & Order – Document 106)

[2] The statements in this paragraph are summaries of the allegations from Charles’ Second Amendment Complaint. Rather than saying “alleged” repeatedly, I’ll say it once with this footnote. But please note that these factual allegations have NOT been adjudicated (yet) by a judge or jury as true or false.

[3] Title 17, United States Code § 101