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Federal Court Snuffs out Controversial Copyright Decision and Makes Life Harder for Independent Actors

A recent decision by a federal court in California has important implications for actors looking to protect their interest or reputations based on movies they starred in. The case, Garcia v. Google, was being closely watched by the intellectual property community because the federal court involved had approved a novel theory of copyright protection; it allowed an actress, Garcia, to claim a copyright in her performance in a movie, something that had never been allowed before. However, Google appealed that ruling and the judges recently reversed it, holding that the copyright for movies vests in those who make the video or direct its creation.

Garcia’s History

The history of the Garcia case is a bit unusual, but it is important to understanding the underlying law. Ms. Garcia was cast in what she believed was an independent action/adventure film. However, when the movie was later released, she learned that her lines had been dubbed over, and that the piece was actually highly offensive and designed to be anti-muslim. The nature of the movie led to death threats being issued against Ms. Garcia, and she sued, attempting to have the movie taken off of Google’s search results. The key to this argument was that she alleged that she had a copyright in her performance, and that the movie was being distributed without her permission, which violated that right.

The case was appealed to the 9th Circuit, a federal court with 29 judges on it. As is standard procedure, a panel of three judges initially heard the appeal and ruled in favor of Garcia. However, a seldom-used procedural device allows the entire 29 member court to rehear a case and overrule the panel if they think it necessary. That happened in Garcia, and the full court overruled the panel, quashing Garcia’s novel interpretation of copyright law.

The Underlying Copyright Law

The underlying copyright law is a question of how to interpret what copyright protects. The copyright statute protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” The major issue in the case was exactly what qualified as an original work of authorship. Copyright law does protect both “motion pictures,” and “audiovisual works.” Consequently, it is uncontroversial that the movie as a whole is protected by a copyright owned by the work’s creator or director. However, Garcia wanted more. She argued that the protection provided to audiovisual works extended specifically to her short performance in the film as an independent, copyrightable work based on the original artistic decisions she made when choosing to portray her character.

The court disagreed for a variety of reasons. First, the federal copyright office has taken the position that performances in movies are merely part of the movie’s copyright, not independent works. Second, the court considered the practical implications that finding for Garcia would have. By making each performance in a movie an individual work, courts would severely complicate the task of negotiating the rights to own, sell, or show movies.

Copyright law is a complex, quickly evolving field. If you are currently engaged in a copyright dispute and want to learn more about your rights, contact a Florida copyright litigation attorney at Pike & Lustig, LLP for a consultation.

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