Monday, 25 January 2021

Florence Foster Jenkins and joint authorship

"Movie makers do lunch, not contracts", said now-retired* Judge Alex Kozinski in Effects Assoc., Inc. v Cohen, 908 F.2d 555, 556 (9th Cir. 1990), cert.denied, 498 U.S. 1103 (1991). The writers of screenplays are also disinclined to write contracts, it seems - although in the recent-decided case, Martin & Anor v Kogan [2021] EWHC 24 (Ch) (11 January 2021), it was perhaps excusable given that the two collaborators were also romantically involved. Mr Martin was (and is) a professional scriptwriter, and Ms Kogan an opera singer. 

Before they met, Mr Martin did not know of Florence Foster Jenkins, but she became the subject of the first of his feature film scripts to be produced, and the film was a great success. But was it really his script?

Mr Martin and a number of companies involved in the production sued for a declaration that he was the author of the screenplay and the sole owner of the copyright; Ms Kogan sought a declaration that she was a joint author and therefore joint owner of the copyright, and she also claimed damages for infringement against the various production companies. The case came before HHJ Hacon in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court in 2017, and he found for Mr Martin. Ms Kogan (represented by, among others, Lionel Bently) appealed, and the Court of Appeal (which included Floyd LJ, a distinguished intellectual property barrister before he became a judge, who delivered the judgment of the court) decided that the first instance judgment was wrong. Unusually, because the Court of Appeal must avoid involving itself in detailed and complex re-asessments of factual findings by a judge, it sent the case back for a new trial before a different judge - specifying a full-time circuit of High Court judge. It ended up in the Chancery Division before Meade J, who became a High Court judge on 7 September last year.

The Court of Appeal found that the judge had made a number of errors. He had tried to draw a distinction between primary and secondary skills in assessing the parties' respective contributions, a distinction that the Court of Appeal found had no basis in law. He had also failed to consider the screenplay as a dramatic work, with many differences from a literary work.

The case raises a number of important and interesting questions, of which the most significant (for a copyright lawyer) is what sort of contribution to a collaborative work is going to make the second collaborator a joint author. The secondary question of how to work out what proportion of the copyright should belong to each joint owner is also pretty significant. There is also a lot more to the case - the judgment runs to 72 pages, although it is fact-heavy so it needs a lot of exposition.

Although the largest part of the screenplay had been written by Mr Martin, the original idea had been Ms Kogan's and she had also been involved in the characterisation and had contributed some technical terms. She had been involved in the work through several drafts and the judge was satisfied that she had made an authorial contribution to the work that was not distinct from Mr Martin's; in the judge's words: 'Trying to separate them would be like trying to unmix purple paint into red and blue' - like Kamela Harris's carefully-chosen bi-partisan inaguration outfit.

The judge decided that Ms Kogan was entitled to a 20 per cent share of the copyright. The starting assumption with joint copyright is that the parties will have equal shares, but clearly the parties' respective contributions here demanded something else. The judgment confirms that the parties hold their shares as tenants in common, not as joint tenants.

*Under a cloud, it's fair to say, but I think it's still acceptable to quote him especially since he's a master of one-liners.

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