“The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a dismissal of untimely copyright infringement claims that an ex-partner brought against Jerry Seinfeld over the hit series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. Charles v. Seinfeld, 803 F. App’x 550 (2d Cir. 2020). Plaintiff Christian Charles brought suit claiming ownership over the pilot episode of the show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” that he and his production company helped develop back in 2011.
Disputing Charles’ claimed ownership of the episode, Seinfeld maintained that he conceived the show, and that Charles worked as a work-for-hire producer and director. Seinfeld filed a motion to dismiss seeking dismissal of the ownership claims based on the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations period, which commenced when Charles knew, or should have known, that ownership was disputed. The District Court granted the motion concluding that Charles should have been aware of the ownership dispute in 2012, when Seinfeld rejected Charles’ request for back-end compensation and the show premiered without crediting Charles. Because the copyright suit was not filed until six years later in 2018, which coincidentally was shortly after Seinfeld had signed a deal with Netflix for streaming the show at approximately $750,000 per episode, the court dismissed the claims as time-barred.
Seinfeld and Charles were coworkers on multiple projects since the 1990s, but the important year was 2011, when Seinfeld “allegedly mentioned to Charles that he was considering a talk show about ‘comedians driving in a car to a coffee place and just chatting.’” Charles then immediately reminded Seinfeld that this was originally his idea from back in 2002, and the two subsequently started working together on the project. According to Charles, Seinfeld was not very involved, and Charles was largely responsible for the creativity behind the script. A dispute over compensation arose in 2012 when Charles wanted to be paid on an ownership basis with backend royalties, but Seinfeld maintained that Charles would only be paid on a work-for-hire basis. Seinfeld was upset with Charles for wanting more than the directing fee, and called him “ungrateful.” Their disagreement led to a fallout of their relationship, and Charles had no further involvement in the series. The show premiered in July 2012 without crediting Charles, at which point his ownership claim was publicly repudiated. The court determined that either one of these developments was enough to place Charles on notice that his ownership claim was disputed, thereby triggering the running of the three-year statute of limitations.
The Copyright Act has a three-year statute of limitation to ensure any claims of ownership in a work are brought and adjudicated in a timely fashion. 17 U.S.C. § 507(b). The Second Circuit has previously held that when “ownership is the dispositive issue” in an infringement claim, and the “ownership claim is time-barred,” then the infringement claim itself is time-barred, even if there had been infringing activity in three years preceding the lawsuit. Kwan v. Schlein, 634 F.3d 224, 230 (2d Cir. 2011). Seinfeld argued that Charles was on notice when he was denied backend compensation in 2012, and the lower court agreed. The District Court held that a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have understood that Seinfeld had repudiated Charles’s claim of ownership, giving rise to the requisite knowledge to begin the running of the statute of limitations. Furthermore, Seinfeld went on to produce and distribute the show without giving any credit to Charles, which also should have put Charles on notice of the ownership dispute.
In May 2020, the Second Circuit agreed with the District Court’s “well-reasoned” dismissal of the suit. Based on the events in 2012, the three-year statute of limitations expired in 2015, rendering Charles’s 2018 lawsuit untimely.