Ownership Costs Pulp Fiction Photographer Copyright Claim

Twenty-five years ago, on October 14, 1994, Quentin Tarantino pulp Fiction took the world by storm. The $8 million independent film became an international sensation, grossing over $200 million in box office sales and receiving nominations and winning over 60 awards, including from the Academy, Golden Globe , and despite competition from other well-known titles such as Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption. pulp Fiction was screened for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or for “Best Film”.

pulp Fiction is a graphic, neo-noir, multi-part dark comedy set in Los Angeles that brings together four related crime stories and organizes them thematically rather than chronologically. The film is known for its tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of the incredibly violent with catchy banter and layering of pop culture references, a style that has since become a Tarantino staple. The film featured an all-star cast including John Travolta, Samuel Johnson, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames and Uma Thurman.

In late 1993 or early 1994, Tod Tarhan, then art director of Miramax, and his colleagues developed a concept for a promotional poster. The concept art depicted Thurman (in her role as Mia Wallace) as a femme fatale lying chest up against a bed, staring at the camera and with her ankles crossed behind her. Thurman was further depicted holding a book in one hand, her hair in the other, and a gun at the ready.

Once the sketches were approved by Miramax executive Harvey Weinstein, Miramax approached Firooz Zahedi to execute his vision. Given pulp FictionWithin Zahedi’s limited budget, Miramax offered Zahedi $10,000 for the photo shoot. Zahedi accepted the offer, although it was less than his standard fee, and photographed Thurman in his studio where he selected several accessories, including his shoes.

Miramax Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 145-11.

Miramax and Zahedi have not signed any agreement identifying each party’s rights to the photograph. According to Zahedi, Miramax “did not enter into any contracts” and Zahedi “orally licensed the right to use the photograph on a physical poster to promote the film, but did not otherwise grant Miramax a license to use the photograph. “.

Miramax took the picture of Zahedi, made some edits (eg rotated the gun 90º; added the text “A QUENTIN TARANTINO FILM”, “PULP FICTION” and “10¢”; and applied an effect aging to make the poster look like a classic pulp fiction paperback cover), and created the iconic poster that was used to promote pulp Fictionfirst at the Cannes Film Festival and then in cinemas around the world.

Zahedi’s First Amended Complaint, ECF Nos. 27-16.

Over the years, Miramax has inconsistently credited Zahedi for his work. On the back cover of the 1994 film script published by Miramax Books, Miramax attributed the cover photograph to “© Firooz Zahedi”. That year, when the poster won a “Key Art” award from Hollywood journalist, Miramax again credited Zahedi as the photographer. But in 1995 when the poster first appeared on VHS tape covers, in 1996 when the poster was used on the cover of LaserDiscs, and many years later whenever the image appeared on T-shirts, socks, and other merchandise, Miramax has included a copyright notice identifying Miramax as the copyright owner. Then, in 2003, Miramax applied for and obtained copyright registration for the poster as a two-dimensional work of art. The recording does not mention Zahedi.

Zahedi was not too happy. In 2015, Zahedi received an action figure of Mia Wallace as a gift. The product packaging featured the poster and the action figure was stamped with a Miramax copyright. Zahedi’s son-in-law posted a photo of Zahedi holding the action figure on his Instagram account, pointing out that Zahedi “didn’t receive toy royalties for his famous picture of Uma.”MT…But at least he has the toy now…” In 2019, Zahedi received a pair of socks with the photo. This was the final straw for Zahedi, leading him to apply for and obtain copyright registration for his photograph. In May 2020, Zahedi filed a lawsuit against Miramax in the Central District of California asserting claims of direct, indirect, and contributory copyright infringement.

Miramax Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF #145 at 6.

In September 2021, Miramax and Zahedi filed cross motions for summary judgment. Miramax sought summary judgment on the entire suit, saying Zahedi’s claims were statute-barred or, in the alternative, estoppel et laches. Miramax further claimed that it was he, not Zahedi, who owned the photograph as a work made for hire. Zahedi moved on issues of his ownership of the photograph and defense against Miramax’s statute of limitations.

The court granted Miramax’s motion for summary judgment and denied Zahedi’s.

As to the ownership issue, the court granted Zahedi’s request to exclude Miramax’s evidence from his chain of title to the extent that Miramax offered to support his own motion for summary judgment. Zahedi argued that Miramax failed to provide enough evidence that it properly transferred the rights to the photograph over the many years of corporate mergers and transfers between 1994 and today. The court held that Miramax’s failure to produce such evidence in support of its own infringement counterclaim, on which Miramax bears the burden of proof as to its ownership, was not justified. But regarding Zahedi’s infringement claims, the court found that Miramax’s failure to disclose the chain of title evidence was justified because Zahedi had the burden of proving ownership and Zahedi had not specifically requested these documents upon discovery.

The court then analyzed Miramax’s statute of limitations argument under 17 USC § 507(b), which requires that a copyright infringement claim be filed “within three years of the constitution of the complaint”. The Ninth Circuit distinguishes between offense claims, which occur “every time the copyrighted work is published”, and ownership claims, which “run only once, at the time “when the full and express repudiation of co-ownership is communicated to the claimant, and are prescribed by three years from the repudiation”. See Pak’s Eur Trading. BV against targetNo. SA CV 18-536-DOC (DFMx), 2018 WL 8333362, at *5 (CD Cal. July 5, 2018) (citing Zuill vs. Shanahan, 80 F.3d 1366, 1369, 1371 (9th Cir. 1996)). “Where the basis of a claim is ownership, the statute of limitations will bar a claim if (1) the parties are in a close relationship and (2) there has been an ‘express repudiation’ of plaintiff’s claim of ownership. .” See Seven Filmed Arts Ent. ltd. vs. Content Media Corp. PLC733 F.3d 1251, 1256-57 (9th Cir. 2013)).

With respect to the “close relationship” aspect, Zahedi argued that (1) he and Miramax had no express contract or agreement regarding the work in question and (2) he was not in a relationship contract with Miramax, but rather its predecessor. The court rejected both arguments, finding that the parties had a prior business relationship since Zahedi took the photograph at Miramax’s request and granted at least a limited verbal license agreement regarding the photograph. In addition, the “close relationship” limitation was intended to prevent copyright owners from having to enforce their rights against possible repudiations from third parties, but Zahedi knew that Miramax was the assignee and that Miramax used photography.

With respect to the “express repudiation” component, Miramax argued that its (1) “copyright registration”, (2) “failure to provide credit”, and (3) “failure to pay royalties” testified to his express repudiation. See Aalmuhammed v. Lee202 F.3d 1227, 1231 (9th Cir. 2000); The Saenger Org., Inc., c. Nationwide Ins. Lic. Ass’n119 F.3d 55, 66 (1st Cir. 1997); Santa Rosa vs. Combo Recs., 471 F.3d 224, 228 (1st Cir. 2006); Straughter vs. Concord MusicED CV 19-1360-JFW (SHKx), 2020 WL 6821313 (CD Cal. 13 Oct. 2020)).

The court found that Miramax’s proprietary interest in the 2003 copyright registration for the poster as a two-dimensional work of art did not constitute an express repudiation of the proprietary interest of Zahedi in photography. The photograph and the poster are different, with the poster adding many additional artistic elements. Miramax did not check the “photography” box on the recording. The court was “skeptical that the mere copyright registration, or even the copyright registration plus Miramax’s assertion of its copyright in the material using the photograph, achieved the level of express repudiation (especially since the copyright registration does not clearly claim ownership of the Zahedi photograph).

However, the court found that Zahedi was informed of Miramax’s repudiation because he knew that Miramax exploited the photograph without giving him credit or royalties. Zahedi claimed that Miramax had, in fact, credited Zahedi as the copyright holder of the photograph on the cover of the 1994 script publication. He also argued that Miramax’s failure to pay royalties for his use of the photograph did not constitute an express repudiation of his ownership. However, the court found that Zahedi’s receipt of the Mia Wallace action figure “highlighting the iconic photo, bearing Miramax’s copyright notice, and failing to credit Zahedi is compelling evidence of his knowledge of Miramax’s pure and express repudiation of its property”. Regardless of Miramax’s change in position on claiming copyright from 1994 to present, Zahedi realized in 2015 that Miramax was claiming the rights to the photograph which Zahedi claimed belonged to him.

Zahedi’s Objection to Miramax’s Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 162-47.

Since the court found that the parties were in a close relationship and that Miramax had expressly denied Zahedi’s claim of ownership in 2015, Zahedi had three years (until 2018) to sue subject to the statute of limitations. of 17 USC § 507(b). Since Zahedi only filed in 2020, his copyright infringement claim was therefore barred by law.

The case is Zahedi v. Miramax LLC, CV 20-4512-DMG (CD Cal. Nov. 24, 2021).

© 2022 Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLPNational Law Review, Volume XII, Number 26