District court dismisses copyright infringement suit brought by actor and musician Jared Leto against TMZ.com for posting video of him criticizing Taylor Swift, finding Leto did not own video and videographer validly transferred copyright.

Sisyphus Touring Inc., a company co-owned by actor and musician Jared Leto, filed a copyright infringement action against MBLC Productions Inc. (formerly known as TMZ Productions Inc.), TMZ.com, EHM Productions Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. for publishing a video on celebrity news site TMZ.com featuring Leto talking disparagingly about Taylor Swift. The video was shot by videographer Naeem Munaf to promote Leto’s band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. Munaf and Leto did not sign any agreements at the time of the shoot to indicate the ownership status of the video. After Munaf shot the footage, he contacted TMZ.com using a pseudonym and agreed in an email that the website would pay him $2,000 for an excerpt of the video showing Leto disparaging pop star Taylor Swift.

Upon learning that TMZ.com would be posting the video on its website, Leto’s representative had Munaf sign a nondisclosure agreement. Leto’s team then registered the video with the U.S. Copyright Office and filed a copyright infringement lawsuit two days after the video was posted. The defendants moved for summary judgment and also for a default judgment in their cross-complaint against Munaf, while Sisyphus moved for a partial summary judgment.

Sisyphus argued that it owned the copyright to the video and that Munaf stole the video when he provided it to TMZ. Sisyphus claimed the video was a work made for hire, making Sisyphus the author and owner of the copyright. The district court disagreed. Under 17 U.S. Code Section 101, to qualify as a work made for hire, a work must either be prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or be a specially commissioned work for use as a contribution to particular kinds of collective works (including audiovisual works), and the parties must expressly agree in a written instrument that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.

There was no dispute that Munaf was not an employee of Sisyphus and thus the video could not be considered a work made for hire under the first prong of the statute. While the video was specially commissioned as an audiovisual work, the parties disputed whether the written instrument requirement was satisfied. Sisyphus maintained that it reached an oral agreement with Munaf prior to the shoot that Sisyphus would own the video, and that the nondisclosure agreement (which was signed after Munaf delivered the video to TMZ.com) confirmed that agreement. However, the district court, citing other judicial opinions from the Seventh Circuit and the Central District of California, agreed with the defendants that the written instrument must be executed before the actual work is created. As no such written agreement existed before the video was shot, the district court concluded Sisyphus did not own the video as a work made for hire.

Sisyphus alternatively argued that it became the owner of the copyright in the video when Munaf signed the nondisclosure agreement on Dec. 6, 2015, transferring his ownership of the copyright to Sisyphus. However, the district court pointed out that because Munaf had already transferred the copyright to TMZ.com on Dec. 4, 2015, he could not then transfer the copyright to Sisyphus two days later. Munaf had contacted TMZ.com using a pseudonym on Dec. 4, indicating he had the video. That same day, TMZ.com representatives sent him a contract to buy the video and asked him to respond to the email saying simply, “I agree,” which Munaf did. A written message transferring a copyright does not need to be complex but needs only to evidence a party’s intent to transfer the copyright, the district court noted. Therefore, it determined that the exchange at issue was sufficient to transfer the copyright in the video from Munaf to TMZ. The district court further held that such a transfer could occur through email and that an electronic signature is a valid signature.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, concluding that Sisyphus did not have any copyright ownership rights in the video. All other motions before the court were deemed moot.