More Legal Stupidity – Brought to you by “The Innocence of Muslims”

The Innocence of Muslims seems to be the place wehre really stupid free speech positions intersect with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In the latest installment, we have the dumbest copyright infringement suit filed by anyone whose name does not end in “haven.”

Actress Cindy Lee Garcia appeared in the now-infamous online film “The Innocence of Muslims.” She first filed a lawsuit in California state court, trying to get a state judge to order YouTube to remove the film from publication. (Complaint) She claimed that the director told her that she would star in a “desert adventure film,” but the actual movie was one in which the Prophet Mohammed appeared to perform cunnilingus on Garcia’s character. The state court judge refused to pull the film, and opined that Garcia was not likely to prevail on the merits of her lawsuit. (Order). Garcia then dropped her case and re-filed in federal court. Her complaint is attached. [PDF]

For the purposes of this piece, let us presume that Ms. Garcia was indeed duped and that she had no idea that she was going to appear in such a movie. If that is the case, she might have claims for fraud; she might have claims for unfair business practices; she might even have a valid claim under some other theory.

However, this article is about the truly moronic claim that her lawyers decided to bring – copyright infringement.

Before we even get into that claim, let’s take a look at the press release that came out along with the complaint. I guess her lawyers live by the credo of making sure to yell “look y’all, watch this!” before doing something completely stupid.

“We are seeking the legally appropriate mechanism and the least politically controversial one to allow Google and YouTube to do the right thing,” according to M. Cris Armenta, counsel to Ms. Garcia. “Again, this is not a First Amendment case. But, the First Amendment does protect American’s [sic] rights to freedom to express, and also the right to be free from expression.” In Ms. Garcia’s case, the words that were dubbed over her performance were not hers and she finds them personally and profoundly offensive. Ms. Garcia has publicly stated worldwide, including in live broadcasts to Middle Eastern television stations that she does not condone the message in the film and would never willingly participate in such a hateful venture.

You get that? This is not a First Amendment case. Why not? Because M. Cris Armenta says it isn’t. That might make her feel better as she is sitting around her conference room table, but it doesn’t make it so. Of course, someone with their head so far up their ass that they believe that the First Amendment protects “the right to be free from expression,” probably looks really funny sitting at a conference room table – what with the head in the ass and all.

Ms. Garcia “filed an application for a federal copyright registration for the rights in her dramatic performance ‘Desert Warrior.’” (Complaint at ¶ 11) Further, she “has issued five DMCA ‘takedown notices’ to Defendants YouTube and Google.” (Complaint at ¶ 13) But let us all remember, “this lawsuit is not an attack on the First Amendment, nor on the right of Americans to say what they think, but does request that the offending content be removed from the Internet because not only is it not speech protected by the First Amendment, it violates Plaintiff Garcia’s copyright in her performance.” (para 29) How convenient. It is not an “attack on the First Amendment” because Ms. Garcia’s lawyers cleverly simply declare that the content is “not speech.” Meanwhile, I guess that she owns the copyright in the film because she filed an application for a registration.

The press release sent out by Garcia’s lawyers claims that the attorneys responsible for this monstrosity were “previously affiliated” with Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP and both are former federal law clerks. What does that tell you? Being at the top of your class doesn’t mean that you don’t have shit for brains. Those of you attending TTT law schools take note. While chances are that your counterparts at the T14 did better on the LSAT, it doesn’t mean that you can’t wipe the floor with them when it comes to really practicing law.

Ms. Armenta and Ms. Sol’s complaint really is a piece of crap that no worthwhile attorney would have signed. Not only do the claims expose them as abject idiots, but the complaint exposes their client to a serious potential downside. First and foremost, Ms. Garcia most certainly does not own the copyright that she claims to. Thus, she does not have standing to bring this claim under the Copyright Act. This is not some obscure issue that it takes an IP law expert to figure out, but is clear from the plain language of 17 U.S.C. § 501(b), limiting actions for infringement to legal or beneficial owners of a registered work. When you don’t own anything, you don’t get to sue. Incredibly, Garcia filed suit in a court residing within the Ninth Circuit – which means there’s a small mountain of precedent examining this exact issue with a fine point. Sybersound Records, Inc. v. UAV Corp., 517 F.3d 1137, 1146 (9th Cir. 2008); Silvers v. Sony Pictures Entm’t, Inc., 402 F.3d 881, 889-90 (9th Cir. 2005); Righthaven LLC v. Hoehn, 792 F. Supp. 2d 1138 (D. Nev. 2011).

Welcome to the Pwn-Dome.

An actor’s performance in a film is not an independently copyrightable work. I am surprised that these two attorneys are unfamiliar with this rule of law. They might be well-served to review Aalmuhammed v. Lee, 202 F.3d 1227 (2000). You know, the case that is in pretty much every single copyright textbook published since before the Clinton administration ended. Jesus fucking christ, is it so much to ask that someone take a copyright course before filing a copyright infringement lawsuit?

Anyhow, back to Aalmuhammed v. Lee: In that case, Mr. Aalmuhammed contributed a significant amount of work to the Spike Lee movie, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Mr. Aalmuhammed sought to be deemed to be a co-author of the film. However, the Ninth Circuit held:

Aalmuhammed did not at any time have superintendence of the work. Warner Brothers and Spike Lee controlled it. Aalmuhammed was not the person “who has actually formed the picture by putting the persons in position, and arranging the place ….” Spike Lee was, so far as we can tell from the record. Aalmuhammed, like Larson’s dramaturg, could make extremely helpful recommendations, but Spike Lee was not bound to accept any of them, and the work would not benefit in the slightest unless Spike Lee chose to accept them. Aalmuhammed lacked control over the work, and absence of control is strong evidence of the absence of co-authorship.

Under the law, the director of the film (and not any other contributor) is the author of the work. Not the consultants, not the actors, and not the guy who brought everyone coffee. If it were otherwise, then every actor or anyone else who had any part in the creation of the film would then engage in a feeding frenzy over who actually owned the rights to the film. For a creative work, the author, and not “helpers” owns the copyright.

The Aalmuhammed court stated:

The Constitution establishes the social policy that our construction of the statutory term “authors” carries out. The Founding Fathers gave Congress the power to give authors copyrights in order “[t]o promote the progress of Science and useful arts.” Progress would be retarded rather than promoted, if an author could not consult with others and adopt their useful suggestions without sacrificing sole ownership of the work. Too open a definition of author would compel authors to insulate themselves and maintain ignorance of the contributions others might make. Spike Lee could not consult a scholarly Muslim to make a movie about a religious conversion to Islam, and the arts would be the poorer for that.

The broader construction that Aalmuhammed proposes would extend joint authorship to many “overreaching contributors,” like the dramaturg in Thomson, and deny sole authors “exclusive authorship status simply because another person render[ed] some form of assistance.” Claimjumping by research assistants, editors, and former spouses, lovers and friends would endanger authors who talked with people about what they were doing, if creative copyrightable contribution were all that authorship required.

The arts would certainly be more impoverished if every director had to contend with every actor, especially any actor who is disgruntled, claiming copyright in the film and thus, the right to suppress the film’s publication. ‘Cause that is what this is really about: suppressing the publication of the work. It has nothing to do with an “author” claiming her rights under Art. I, Sect. 8, of the Constitution or Title 17.

Remember that? The Constitution? It grants “authors” the right to profit from their works. The Copyright Clause was not put there so that Ms. Garcia could use it as a tool to try and deal with actress regret.

If she’s going to regret anything, it very well may be filing this case. Remember those consequences I mentioned above? Yeah, they can bite her in the ass pretty hard. If Mr. Nakoula has counsel that is even remotely competent, the first thing he will do is file a special motion to strike under California Civ. R. Pro. 425.16, the California Anti-SLAPP Statute. While this statute does not stop discovery in its tracks in federal court, the way it does in state court, it still places the fear of a quick dismissal and attorney’s fees on Garcia’s head. Furthermore, the Copyright Act, under 17 U.S.C. § 505 provides for prevailing party attorney’s fees. There is no way that Garcia can non-fraudulently claim a copyright interest in the motion picture. How her lawyers missed that is beyond me. If I were judging this case, she still might win (on some of her claims) but in the end, the Plaintiff would be the one writing a check.

Ms. Armenta and Ms. Sol have walked their client into a buzzsaw. They clearly either have no idea what they are doing when it comes to copyright law, don’t care what they copyright law is, or have some other ulterior motive for bringing this claim. Whatever their motivation, this is one of the dumbest copyright infringement suits I have ever seen. For the love of god, if this happens to wind up in front of their eyes, I have a message for them: STOP. FIND SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHAT THE FUCK THEY ARE DOING TO HELP YOU.

While Mr. Nakoula does not seem to be the most savory guy in the world, sometimes the bad guy wins. In this case, I certainly hope that he gets competent counsel, because this complaint deserves to be met with an anti-SLAPP motion and an award of attorneys fees heaped upon Ms. Garcia’s head. Otherwise, other idiots will see it and be emboldened to bring even more idiotic litigation into our already crowded federal courts.

6 Responses to More Legal Stupidity – Brought to you by “The Innocence of Muslims”

  1. Nicholas Weaver says:

    Which makes me wonder why Ms Garcia’s suit isn’t about fraud, with the prayer for relief being obtaining the copyright of the film for the purpose of blocking its distribution?

    It seems (as a non-lawyer) to be a much stronger, sounder, and easier case to make.

  2. Erik H. says:

    If the goal was “win the lawsuit,” filing was a bad idea.

    If the goal was “publicly signal my lack of involvement in the anti-Islamic nature of the film, so that I can live in somewhat less fear of having someone try to harm me as a result of my role” then filing was a brilliant idea.

    Personally, my moneys on #2.

  3. [...] about conferring authorship to specific contributors working on movies, and many attorneys including Marc Randazza have been dubious of her [...]

  4. [...] about conferring authorship to specific contributors working on movies, and many attorneys including Marc Randazza have been dubious of her [...]

  5. [...] about conferring authorship to specific contributors working on movies, and many attorneys including Marc Randazza have been dubious of her [...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,529 other followers

%d bloggers like this: