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Lessons from Damon Dash copyright infringement case on online film sales

On Behalf of | Jul 16, 2021 | Copyright Infringement |

At our Chicago law firm, we defend people accused of violating the copyrights of others, often through online use. Federal law gives copyright owners the right to exclusive use of their copyrighted creative works, including on the Internet. When someone faces accusations of infringing on the copyright of another, it is smart to seek legal advice as soon as possible from an experienced attorney who can begin to build a robust defense.

Many potential defenses to a copyright infringement charge exist. For example, the time to sue may have expired or the defendant may not be the actual infringer. The alleged infringer may have had a license to use the copyrighted work, may not have known it was subject to copyright or may have thought they had ownership rights in the work, among other defenses.

Joint copyright ownership dispute

Celebrity, entertainment executive, director and actor Damon Dash collaborated with author Edwyna Brooks to create a film based on Brooks’ book series called “Mafietta.” When Dash posted the film for sale on the Internet without her permission, Brooks sued him for copyright infringement and unauthorized sale, claiming that she was the copyright owner with sole commercial rights to the film.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court agreed with the trial court’s holding against Dash and its $300,000 award in favor of Brooks. The trial court also ordered Dash to stop selling, distributing or promoting the film.

One issue in the case was whether Dash was a co-owner of the copyright that would have entitled him to sell the film. Dash argued that he was the “dominant author” and that a joint work was their intention.

Co-ownership requires joint intention

The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s findings that Brooks was actually the dominant author, having written the books and related screenplay. Brooks offered their agreement and an email to support her assertion that there was no joint intention to make Dash a co-owner.

The appeals court explained that for co-ownership of copyright to exist, the parties must have had that mutual intention. To determine whether this existed, a court looks at how a “collaborator regarded herself in relation to the work in terms of billing and credit, decisionmaking, and the right to enter into contracts.”

Brooks testified that she hired Dash to direct and market the film and that his compensation would consist of half of the royalties, but Brooks retained the right to make final decisions and kept “creative control.” The court found her testimony credible in this case, but the courts’ analysis of joint ownership sheds light on how the defense works.

(The above link is to a Reuters article with a link to the appeals court opinion, which is a summary order.)

 

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