Ahanchian v. Xenon Pictures, Inc., USCA Ninth Circuit, November 3, 2010 (not for publication)

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  • In an unpublished opinion relating to claims of copyright infringement and idea submission, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's order granting the defendants' motions for summary judgment, holding that: (a) plaintiff's implied contract claim is not barred by the statute of limitations; and (b) genuine issues of material fact exist as to joint authorship where the certificates of registration reflect plaintiff's sole authorship and the defendants claim joint authorship.

Amir Cyrus Ahanchian sued Xenon Pictures, Inc., CKrush, Inc., Sam Maccarone and Preston Lacy for breach of implied contract and copyright infringement regarding ten skits portrayed in National Lampoon’s TV: The Movie.

The defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims, contesting whether an implied contract existed, raising the statute of limitations as a bar to the implied contract claim, and raising joint authorship as a defense to the infringement claims. The district court granted the defendants’ motions for both the breach of implied contract and the copyright infringement claims, and awarded them attorneys’ fees and costs.

On appeal, with the evidence and all judicial inferences viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court on the breach of implied contract ruling, on the copyright infringement ruling as to nine skits, and affirmed the district court’s ruling regarding copyright infringement as to one skit. Accordingly, the court also vacated the award of attorneys’ fees and costs.

As to the breach of implied contract claim, the court found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the defendants’ course of conduct established an implied promise to pay. Moreover, the court found that the claim was not barred by the statute of limitations, as the statute begins running only upon discovery of loss. In this case, the court dated that breach to when Ahanchian first viewed the film, which he testified was in September 2006, a year before he filed his claim. The court credited Ahanchian’s testimony for purposes of ruling on summary judgment, making his claim timely under the two year statute of limitations, and reversed the district court.

As to the copyright infringement claims, the defendants raised joint authorship as a defense because co-authors cannot be liable for copyright infringement. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants for one skit where the certificate of copyright registration lists the defendants as co-authors with Ahanchian.

However, the court found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to the joint authorship of the other nine skits where the certificates of registration reflected sole authorship by Ahanchian.

Where, as here, the work is a collective work, there exist distinct copyright interests in each skit which vest in its author. Though the defendants presented undisputed facts that demonstrated that Ahanchian was at most a co-author with them, Ahanchian’s certificates are prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated therein. Thus to succeed, the defendants must show that they jointly authored the individual skits.

According to the court, whether the defendants made any independently copyrightable contributions to the skits is an important threshold requirement for joint authorship. Ahanchian testified that the defendants’ contributions to the skits were limited suggestions of a specific character name in two and the term “I-talians” in a third. He also testified that after he read the skits he authored to the defendants, they reacted with statements such as “Yes,” “No,” or “Go back to it.” The court found that such ideas, refinements and suggestions are insufficient to establish joint authorship.

Additionally, Aalmuhammed v. Lee, 202 F.3d 1227 (9th Cir. 2000), sets forth the three factors for determining joint authorship in the absence of a contract. First, an author of a work is identified by whether he superintended and exercised control over the work. Second, the putative co-authors must make objective manifestations of a shared intent to be co-authors. Finally, where there is joint authorship, the audience appeal of the work turns on the contributions of all co-authors, where the share of each in its success cannot be appraised. Aalmuhammed guides that the control factor in many cases is the most important factor.

In this case, all factors supported reversal for summary judgment purposes. First, Ahanchian testified that he was the sole inventive mind who maintained control over the development and composition of the skits. Second, it is disputed whether either Ahanchian or the defendants displayed objective manifestations of a shared intent to be co-authors. Finally, based upon Ahanchian’s testimony regarding the defendants’ limited contributions, the audience appeal of the skits derives solely from Ahanchian’s contributions. Though Ahanchian’s testimony is contested by the testimonies of Maccarone and a non-party, with the evidence and all justifiable inferences viewed in the light most favorable to Ahanchian, the court found genuine issues of material fact as to whether joint authorship existed in the nine skits. Accordingly, the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants on the copyright infringement claims as to those nine skits was reversed.