USCA Fourth Circuit, February 4, 2010 (unpublished)

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Court of appeals affirms dismissal of an independent producer’s copyright infringement and breach of contract claims against NBC for broadcasting its NBC Nightly News program about adult children caring for elderly parents that allegedly copied plaintiff’s program on the same topic.  

Plaintiff Cynthia Donn Tessler, an independent producer, developed a program entitled “Parenting Your Parent,” which relates to issues involving adult children caring for their elderly parents. Tessler asserted that the NBC Nightly News segment entitled “Trading Places” directly copied, without authorization, Tessler’s original “Parenting Your Parent” materials. In her complaint, Tessler alleged copyright infringement, breach of contract, breach of implied contract, and conversion. The district court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. On appeal, Tessler challenged only the district court’s disposition of her copyright infringement and breach of contract claims.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The appeals court held that the district court properly considered material contained on MSNBC.com in dismissing the copyright infringement claim because the website was referenced in Tessler’s complaint. According to the court, a court may consider a document that the defendant attaches to its motion to dismiss if the document is integral to and explicitly relied on in the complaint and if the plaintiff does not challenge its authenticity. The appeals court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting Tessler’s challenge to the authenticity of the material contained on the website.

Regarding the breach of contract claim, the appeals court held that a federal court sitting in diversity must apply the choice of law rules of the forum state, and, under Virginia law, questions of substantive law are governed by the law of the place of the transaction or the place where the right is acquired. As the district court noted, “[i]t is not clear where the offer was made; however, both New York and Virginia law essentially require the same elements for a legally enforceable contract.” To establish a breach of contract claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) a legally enforceable obligation of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant’s violation or breach of that obligation; and (3) injury or damage to the plaintiff caused by the breach of obligation. As the court noted, in order to prove a contract, a party must prove an offer and acceptance of that offer; because Tessler failed to allege that she accepted NBC’s offer to use her materials, the appeals court held that the district court correctly dismissed the breach of contract claim.