Jared Leto v. TMZ: The Copyright Battle Continues

Jared Leto v. TMZ: The Copyright Battle Continues

Late last year, TMZ got their hands on a video of Jared Leto bashing Taylor Swift. Leto didn’t like the bad press he received from the Taylor Swift super fans and sued TMZ, arguing that the video was ‘stolen’, his company (Sisyphus Touring, Inc.) was the true copyright owner, and use of the video by TMZ was a violation of his company’s copyright.

This is old news. Now let’s speed up to the present:

TMZ filed a motion for summary judgment (i.e., they told the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that Leto’s claim was bogus) and Leto fired back this week with an opposition memorandum (i.e., he told the court not to dismiss the lawsuit because he believes his claim is legit).

Who wins?

Here’s what we know:

Leto hired a guy, Naeem Munaf, to shoot some video footage of him in a recording studio. Munaf was paid for his time and allegedly agreed orally that the footage would belong to Sisyphus Touring. He left and a few months later thought it would be fun to leak the footage to TMZ for some extra cash. TMZ licensed the footage from Munaf based on Munaf’s representation that he was the owner of the footage. Munaf then decided to sign an agreement with Leto (unclear why…) which either assigned copyright ownership to Sisyphus Touring, or required that all information be kept confidential, or both.

Here’s what the law tells us:

Copyright protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Here, Munaf is the original author (aka copyright owner) of the video footage because he personally created it. Munaf can transfer authorship (aka copyright ownership) to a third party under what’s known as the “work made for hire” doctrine.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a “work made for hire” in two parts:

• A work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or • A work specially ordered or commissioned for use as, e.g., a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, if the parties expressly agree in writing that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.

Based on the facts above, the claim by Leto that copyright ownership was transferred to him actually is bogus. There is no way Munaf could be construed as an employee—he had never worked for Leto before, he showed up for two hours (probably with his own equipment), and left. The ‘oral agreement’ argument does not carry much weight either—the Copyright Act clearly requires that this kind of transfer be in writing. As for the alleged after-the-fact written transfer of ownership, this is legal, but it doesn’t mean that any agreement Munaf previously entered into is defunct. It just means that the new copyright owner (Sisyphus Touring) has to abide by the agreements that were made by the previous owner (Munaf).

So does Jared Leto have any other options?

There’s always the right of publicity, which says that you cannot use an individual’s name or likeness for commercial purposes without his or her consent. However, California Civil Code Section 3344 offers an exception to this rule (as do most state statutes) for use in connection with “news” or “public affairs” and TMZ would undoubtedly use this exception to dismiss the claim (whether or not celebrity gossip is “news” is a topic for another day).

There is also a breach of confidentiality by Munaf, but this hinges on whether Munaf was actually required to sign a confidentiality agreement before or after he gave the video footage to TMZ. Even if he did sign, the breach would be by him, not TMZ.

And lastly you have the right of privacy, which involves intrusion into the personal life of another, but most celebrities are not protected because they are in the public eye and, as previously discussed, are considered “newsworthy”.

In conclusion, the only real winner here is Taylor Swift. Leto and TMZ lose out by wasting their time and money in a frivolous lawsuit and Munaf won’t be getting a job in this town anytime soon. But Taylor Swift, yet again, finds herself in a position where the stupidity of others brings to her life free press and inevitable financial gain (see the 2011 Grammy Awards if you have no idea what I am talking about).

Katherine (Kate) Imp is an entertainment attorney at Ramo Law PC and Chicago native. She specializes in film finance, production and distribution for clients in Illinois and across the country. Contact Kate at @KatherineImp or kate@ramolaw.com.

Disclaimer: The information in this column is intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.