TCA Television Corp. et al v. McCollum et al
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER granting 55 Motion to Dismiss. Because Plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged a claim for federal or New York common law copyright infringement, Defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is G RANTED. Plaintiffs' federal and New York common law copyright claims are DISMISSED. Because Plaintiffs have insufficiently alleged a copyright infringement by Defendants of the Abbott and Costello Routine, the Complaint doesn't get past first base. The Clerk of Court is directed to close the motion at ECF No. 55. (As further set forth in this Order.) (Signed by Judge George B. Daniels on 12/17/2015) (tro)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
TCA TELEVISION CORP., HI NEIGHBOR, and:
DIANA ABBOTT COL TON,
-againstKEVIN MCCOLLUM, THE ENSEMBLE STUDIO:
COMPANY, INC., ROBERT ASKINS, HAND TO:
GOD LLC, and DOES and ABC COMPANIES 1-10,:
15 Civ. 4325 (GBD)
GEORGE B. DANIELS, United States District Judge:
Plaintiffs, TCA Television Corporation, Hi Neighbor, and Diana Abbott Colton, filed this
action against Defendants, Kevin McCollum, The Ensemble Studio Theatre, Inc., Manhattan Class
Company, Inc., Robert Askins, Hand to God LLC, and Does and ABC Companies 1-10, under 17
U.S.C. § 101 of the Copyright Act of 1976 and New York common Jaw copyright.
This action arises out of Defendants' use of dialogue from the iconic comedy routine,
Who's On First? ("the Routine"), in their critically-acclaimed Broadway dark comedy, Hand to
God, as well as in the play's promotional video. (See Am. Compl., (ECF No. 3), if 1.)
In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs, the heirs of Abbott and Costello, allege that they
own valid copyrights in Who's on First?, and that despite requests to Defendants to cease and
desist their unauthorized use of material from the Routine in Hand to God, Defendants continue
to "willfully capitalize on Abbott & Costello's world-famous reputation and Plaintiffs'
copyrighted works." (Id.
relief, and attorneys' fees. (See id.
Plaintiffs seek damages, restitution, disgorgement, injunctive
Defendants move to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant
to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)( 6), arguing, inter alia, that the Plaintiffs have failed to
allege a continuous chain of title in the Routine, that the Routine has passed into the public domain,
and that they have made fair use of the Routine. (Am. Mot. to Dismiss, (ECF No. 55); Defendant's
Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss ("Mem."), (ECF No. 51), at 1.) 1
Because Plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged a claim for federal or New York common
law copyright infringement, Defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is
Standard of Review
To survive a motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."' Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556
U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell At!. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The plaintiff
must demonstrate "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully"; stating a
facially plausible claim requires pleading facts that enable the court "to draw the reasonable
inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 678. Thus, the factual
allegations pleaded "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level."
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.
A district court must first review the plaintiffs complaint to identify allegations that,
"because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Iqbal,
556 U.S. at 679. The court then considers whether the plaintiffs remaining well-pleaded factual
allegations, assumed to be true, "plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. In deciding
The motion was fully submitted following the filing of Plaintiffs Opposition brief ("Opp'n," (ECF No.
61)) and Defendant's Reply brief ("Reply," (ECF No. 63)). This Court heard oral argument regarding this
motion on September 9, 2015. See September 9, 2015 Oral Argument Transcript ("Tr.").
the 12(b)(6) motion, the court accepts the complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations as true and
draws all reasonable inferences in the non-moving party's favor. See N.J. Carpenters Health Fund
v. Royal Banko/Scot. Grp., PLC, 709 F.3d 109, 119 (2d Cir. 2013).
"In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)( 6), the court may refer 'to documents
attached to the complaint as an exhibit or incorporated in it by reference, to matters of which
judicial notice may be taken, or to documents either in plaintiffs' possession or of which plaintiffs
had knowledge and relied on in bringing suit."' Fishbein v. Miranda, 670 F. Supp. 2d 264, 271
(S.D.N.Y. 2009), aff'd sub nom. Silverman v. Teamsters Local 210 Affiliated Health & Ins. Fund,
761 F.3d 277 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Brass v. Am. Film Tech., Inc., 987 F.2d 142, 150 (2d Cir.
1993)); see also Hayes v. Coughlin, No. 87 Civ. 7401, 1991WL220963, at *l (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 16,
1991) ("Papers outside a complaint may be incorporated by reference into the complaint when
such papers are referred to within the body of the complaint."). "[U]nder Rule 201 (b) of the
Federal Rules of Evidence, courts may take judicial notice of facts that are 'capable of accurate
and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned."'
Island Software & Computer Serv., Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 413 F.3d 257, 261 (2d Cir. 2005)
(citing Fed. R. Evid. 201(b)). The Second Circuit has held that federal copyright registrations, "as
published in the Copyright Office's registry," are among the facts of which a district court may
take judicial notice. Id.
Plaintiffs' Federal Copyright Infringement Claims
To state a claim for copyright infringement, Plaintiffs "must allege (1) 'ownership of a
valid copyright,' and (2) 'copying of constituent elements of the work that are original."' Perrin
& Nissen Ltd. v. SAS Grp. Inc., No. 06 CIV. 13089 (MOC), 2009 WL 855693, at *4 (S.D.N.Y.
Mar. 27, 2009) (citing Feist Publ'ns v. Rural Tel. Scrv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991)). To
withstand Defendants' motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs must "plead factual content" for each
element of the claim asserted such that "the court [can] draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. However, "[n]either
Twombly nor Iqbal requires a plaintiff in a copyright infringement action to plead specific evidence
or extra facts beyond what is needed to make the claim plausible." Ritani, LLC v. Aghjayan, 880
F. Supp. 2d 425, 440 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Because the Routine and the films that published it, One Night and The Naughty Nineties,
were created before January 1, 1978, they are subject to the 1909 Act. 2 See 17 U.S.C. § 30l(b)(2);
Martha Graham Sch. & Dance Found., Inc. v. Martha Graham Ctr. of Contemporary Dance, Inc.,
380 F.3d 624, 633-34 (2d Cir. 2004) (citing Playboy Enterprises, Inc. v. Dumas, 53 F.3d 549, 553
(2d Cir. 1995)). Under the 1909 Act, state common law copyright provided protection until first
publication. See Martha Graham, 380 F.3d at 632-33 (citing 17 U.S.C. §§ 2, 10, 12, 19, 21, 24
(repealed); Shoptalk, 168 F.3d at 590). Thereafter the work was entitled to an initial twenty-eightyear term of statutory copyright, provided that adequate statutory notice was given at publication,
or appropriate registration and deposit were made. See id. In the absence of adequate statutory
notice at publication, a work was injected into the public domain. See id. If adequate statutory
notice was given, then application for renewal made during the last year of the initial term extended
the copyright for a renewal term of twenty-eight additional years. See id.
This Court uses "published" as a term of art. Specifically, "' [P]ublication occurs when by consent of the
copyright owner, the original or tangible copies of a work are sold, leased, loaned, given away, or
otherwise made available to the general public .... "' Shoptalk, Ltd. v. Concorde-New Horizons Corp.,
168 F.3d 586, 590 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Bartok v. Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., 523 F.2d 941, 945 (2d Cir.
A. Existence and Ownership of a Valid Copyright
As a threshold matter, a federal infringement claim requires that Plaintiffs allege they
possessed a valid copyright at the time of the alleged infringement. See Perrin, 2009 WL 855693,
at *4. Plaintiffs allege that Abbott and Costello first performed the Routine on March 24, 1938,
as a live radio broadcast for The Kate Smith Hour. (Am. Compl.
32.) However, in November
1940, the duo signed a "work-for-hire" agreement with Universal Pictures Company, Inc. ("UPC")
that assigned to Universal "all the rights to the duo's performances of Who's On First in One Night
and The Naughty Nineties." 3 (See Am. Compl. ~ 43.) Plaintiffs thus allege that upon execution of
the November 1940 Agreement, "Abbott and Costello expressly granted UPC the right to use [the
Routine] in the 1940 Motion Picture[, One Night in the Tropics ("One Night"),] and also assigned
their rights in the version that appeared in that motion picture." (Opp'n at 6; see also Am. Compl.
The relevant portions of Abbott and Costello's November 1940 agreement with Universal provide:
FIRST: [T]he producer hereby engages and employs the Artists, severally and as a team ..
. to render to the Producer their exclusive services as actors, performers and entertainers in
the portrayal of such roles or parts as may be designated by the Producer in such photoplays
as may be designated by the Producer, and further employs the Artists to render their
services in consulting, advising, collaborating with and assisting the Producer in the
preparation of stories and screen plays upon which such photoplays are to be based and in
otherwise performing such services as many be required of them pursuant to the provisions
of this agreement.
[ ... ]
FIFTH: The Artists agree to furnish and make available to the Producer all literary and
dramatic material and routines heretofore used by the Artists either on the radio or otherwise
and now owned by the Artists, and the Producer shall have the right to use said material and
routines to such extent as the Producer may desire in connection with any photoplay in
which the Artists render their services hereunder and in connection with the advertising and
exploitation of such photoplay. The Artists warrant that they know of no claims that the use
of said material and routines or any part thereof as herein permitted will violate or infringe
any copyright or any other right or rights of any other person, firm or corporation
(Rachman Deel. Ex. A at 1, 5; see Am. Comp!.~ 43.) While Plaintiffs did not append the November
1940 Contract to the Amended Complaint, they clearly referenced the agreement in the Amended
Complaint. As such, this Court may look to the November 1940 Contract as incorporated by
reference. See Hayes, 1991 WL 220963, at *1 ("Papers outside a complaint may be incorporated
by reference into the complaint when such papers are referred to within the body of the complaint.").
i-fi-f 43-44.) According to Plaintiffs, One Night was the first publication of the Routine relevant to
copyright registration under the 1909 Copyright Act. (See Am. Compl. if 42.) In 1945, Abbott and
Costello then expanded the One Night version of the routine in another UPC film, The Naughty
Nineties. (See id.)
Plaintiffs further allege that as the assignees of the rights to the Routine, UPC registered
One Night in 19404 and The Naughty Nineties in 1945 5 with the United States Copyright Office,
and then timely renewed those two copyrights. (See Am. Comp!. i-fi-f 43-45, Exs. 1-2; Opp'n at 1217.) According to Plaintiffs, the 1970 Copyright Act and Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension
Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 108, 203(a)(2), 30l(c), 302, 303, 304(c)(2), extended the protection afforded to
the Routine as performed in the two movies another ninety-five years until 2035 and 2040,
respectively. (See Am. Comp. i-fi-f 47-48.)
Continuing along the chain of title, Plaintiffs allege that on March 12, 1984, Universal
Pictures ("Universal"), 6 quitclaimed "all rights, title, and interest, under copyright or otherwise, in
and to the Who's on First performance scenes in both One Night and The Naughty Nineties ... "
to Abbott & Costello Enterprises ("ACE"), a general partnership formed by the duo's heirs. (Id.
The quitclaim assignment, which Plaintiffs maintain made ACE the sole owner of the two
copyrights at issue, can be found in Copyright Office Volume 343 7 at page 851. (See id. if 51; Ex.
3 at 2-3.)
Upon ACE's dissolution, 50% of the copyrights' ownership was assigned to TCA, a
corporation formed by Costello's heirs, 25% to Abbott's daughter, Vickie Abbott Wheeler, and
if 44.) The 1972
One Night in the Tropics' initial copyright registration number was LP 10042. (See Am. Comp I.
The 1967 renewal number was R 423759. (See id. if 45).
The Naughty Nineties' initial copyright registration number was LP 13337. (See id.
renewal number was R 532048. (See id. if 45).
According to Plaintiffs, Universal is a division of Universal City Studios, Inc., the "successor to UPC."
(Am. Compl. if 50.)
25% to Abbott's son, Bud Abbott, Jr. (See id.
ilil 50, 54; Ex. 4.)
After Bud Abbott, Jr.'s death in
1997, his daughter, Diana Abbott Colton, inherited his 25%. (See Am. Comp!.
allege that Vickie Abbot Wheeler also transferred her 25% to her company, Hi Neighbor. (See
id.) Plaintiffs thus contend that a chain of title to the Routine's copyright has continuously existed,
and that they are now its owners.
1. The Routine as Performed in The Kate Smith Hour
Plaintiffs correctly contend that none of Abbott and Costello's pre-1940 radio and
vaudeville performances of the Routine, including the Kate Smith Hour performance of the
Routine, "were deemed a 'publication' for copyright purposes." (Opp'n at 9; Am. Comp!.
As this District has previously found, "[p ]ublic performance of a work is not considered a
publication that divests an author of copyright protection." Silverman v. CBS Inc., 632 F. Supp.
1344, 1350 (S.D.N.Y. 1986) (citing 1 Nimmer§ 4.08[A]), decision supplemented, 675 F. Supp.
870 (S.D.N. Y. 1988), aff'd in part, vacated in part, 870 F .2d 40 (2d Cir. 1989). A "rendering of
the performance before the microphone," such as Abbott and Costello's performance of the
Routine on the radio show, The Kate Smith Hour, "cannot be held to be an abandonment of
ownership to it by the proprietors or a dedication of it to the public at large." Id. at 1350 (internal
quotations omitted). Thus, Abbott and Costello retained common law copyright protection of the
Routine, as performed on The Kate Smith Hour. See Shoptalk, 168 F.3d at 590 (stating that the
1909 Act "'specifically exempt[ ed] from coverage (and from preemption) the common-law right
of an author of an unpublished work"') (quoting Roy Export Company Establishment of Vaduz,
Liechtenstein v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 672 F .2d 1095, 1101 (2d Cir. 1982) (internal
quotation marks omitted)).
Defendants conjecture that the contents of the Routine as performed on The Kate Smith
Hour are unknown, as are Abbott and Costello's rights to the Routine in relation to The Kate Smith
Hour, where the duo made regular appearances. (See Tr. 3:13-25; Mem. at 5-6.) However, on a
motion to dismiss, all that is required is that Plaintiffs allege facts that allow this Court to draw a
reasonable inference in Plaintiffs favor.
See NJ Carpenters Health Fund, 709 F .3d at 119.
Accordingly, the radio broadcast of the Routine did not constitute a publication and did not divest
Abbott and Costello of their common law copyright in the Routine.
2. Assignment of the Common Law Copyright in the Routine to UPC
A valid assignment of statutory copyright requires a writing, Martha Graham, 380 F.3d at
643 (citing 17 U.S.C. § 204(a)); Jasper v. Bovina Music, Inc., 314 F.3d 42, 46--47 (2d Cir. 2002).
However, courts in this Circuit "have ruled that assignments of common law copyright need not
be in writing." See id. (citing Houghton Mifjlin Co. v. Stackpole Sons, Inc., 104 F.2d 306, 311 (2d
Cir. 1939) (finding that German possession of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf manuscript sufficed to
imply assignment of common law copyright)); Epoch Producing Corp. v. Killiam Shows, Inc., 522
F.2d 737, 747 (2d Cir. 1975) (noting that assignment need not be in writing) (citing Dave
Grossman Designs, Inc. v. Bartin, 347 F. Supp. 1150, 1154 (N.D. Ill. 1972)); see also Siegel v.
Warner Bros. Entm 't. Inc., 658 F. Supp. 2d 1036, 1086 (C.D. Cal. 2009) ("[D]uring the time the
1909 Act was in effect, at common law, a copyright was capable of assignment so as to completely
divest the author of his rights, 'without the necessity of observing any formalities."' (quoting
Urantia Foundation v. Maaherra, 114 F.3d 955, 960 (9th Cir. 1997))). Thus, "[t]he assignee of
an author's common law copyright might by virtue of such assignment, claim statutory copyright."
Siegel, 658 F. Supp. 2d at 1085. Furthermore, such an assignment could be oral or could be implied
from the parties' conduct.
See id. (concluding that agreements and actions can indicate an
assignment of the initial and renewal copyright term) (citing Jerry Vogel Music Co. v. Warner
Bros., Inc., 535 F. Supp. 172 (S.D.N.Y. 1982); Van Cleef & Arpels, Inc. v. Schechter, 308 F. Supp.
674 (S.D.N.Y. 1969)).
According to Plaintiffs, Abbot and Costello "granted their pre-existing common law
copyright in Who's on First to UPC." (Opp'n at 9.) As alleged by Plaintiffs, "Paragraph Fifth" of
the November 1940 Agreement between UPC and the duo provides:
The Artists agree to furnish and make available to the Producer all literary and dramatic
material and routines heretofore used by the Artists either on the radio or otherwise and
now owned by the Artists, and the Producer shall have the right to use said material and
routines to such extent as the Producer may desire in connection with any photoplay in
which the Artists render their services hereunder and in connection with the advertising
and exploitation of such photoplay.
(Rachman Deel. Ex. A at 5 (emphasis added).) The contract language, together with UPC's
subsequent registration of the copyrights for One Night and, later The Naughty Nineties, constitutes
an implied assignment of the initial copyright from Abbott and Costello. See Siegel, 658 F. Supp.
2d at 1086 ("Although the words 'assign' or 'transfer do not appear in the ... agreement, such an
intent was demonstrated by other language contained in the agreement .... Such expressed receipt
of the 'original' material in question and the ability to license that material is not the language used
to describe the recipient of a mere license to the material in question, but as one of an assignee.")
Furthermore, for Abbott and Costello not to register a copyright to the Routine as performed in
One Night and The Naughty Nineties after executing the November 1940 contract is consistent
with an assignment of the copyright to UPC. (See Opp'n at 17-18.)
Defendants contend that Abbott and Costello did not assign or grant UPC all of their rights
in the Routine, but rather gave UPC a license. (See Mem. at 14.) Defendants support their
argument with contractual language stating that Abbott and Costello "reserve[d] the right to use
on the radio and in person appearances authorized under the terms of this agreement." (Rachman
Deel., Ex. A at 5; Tr. at 14:14-16:8.) Defendants also argue that "Abbott and Costello's personal
registration of the script of the 1944 Radio Version fortifies the conclusion that no ownership of
the Routine or of other preexisting [Abbott and Costello] routines had vested in Universal Studios."
(Mem. at 14-15; Tr. at 14:16-15:19, 32:17-33:1.)
The language of the November 1940 contract does not explicitly state that Abbott and
Costello were keeping ownership of the copyright. (See Rachman Deel., Ex. A at 5-6.) Retaining
a "right to use" material is not the equivalent of retaining a copyright. See Jim Henson Prods.,
Inc. v. John T Brady & Assocs., 16 F. Supp. 2d 259, 277 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). Courts in this District
have contemplated this difference, noting that "there [i]s the strongest presumption that even when
an author transferred the copyright in a work in which a character was fully delineated, the author
retained the right to use the character in sequels or other works." Id.
Defendants also attempt to introduce a purported 1944 copyright registration of an
unspecified "Abbott and Costello Baseball Routine," made in the name of the artists, as proof of
behavior inconsistent with an assignment of the copyright to UPC. (Lawless Deel., Ex. B; Tr. at
Even if this Court were to take judicial notice of the purported 1944
Copyright Registration, its existence does not render Plaintiffs' factual allegations implausible. As
this Court noted during oral argument, Abbott and Costello could have mistakenly believed they
owned the copyright to the Routine when (and if) they registered the Routine in 1944, even though
they gave up the copyright ownership with the November 1940 Agreement. (See Tr. at 19:5-12.)
As this Court must accept the Amended Complaint's factual allegations as true and draw all
reasonable inferences in the non-moving party's favor, it is certainly plausible and is sufficiently
alleged that Abbott and Costello assigned their common law copyright in the Routine to UPC. See
NJ. Carpenters Health Fund, 709 F.3d at 119.
3. First Publication in a Derivative Work, the 1940 Film, One Night in the Tropics
As previously noted, "publication occurs when by consent of the copyright owner, the
original or tangible copies of a work are sold, leased, loaned, given away, or otherwise made
available to the general public .... " Shoptalk, 168 F.3d at 590 (quoting Bartok v. Boosey &
Hawkes, Inc., 523 F.2d 941, 945 (2d Cir. 1975) (internal quotations omitted)). Release of a motion
picture is indeed a well-recognized form of publication for purposes of copyright law. See, e.g.,
Richlin v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Inc., 531 F.3d 962, 972 (9th Cir. 2008) (finding that
an unpublished movie treatment was "published by virtue of the release and distribution of the
Motion Picture" based upon that treatment). 7 In this case, One Night and The Naughty Nineties
constitute publications of derivative works. Derivative works are "[ c ]ompilations or abridgments,
adaptations, arrangements dramatizations, translations, or other versions of works in the public
domain or of copyrighted works." Shoptalk, 168 F.3d at 591.
When a previously unpublished work is "embodied in a [derivative] motion picture, so
much of the [underlying work] as is disclosed in the motion picture is published when the motion
picture is published."
Shoptalk, 168 F.3d at 592. Therefore, when, as Plaintiffs allege, UPC
released One Night in 1940 for public consumption, see id., it was also "the first time that [the
Routine] was published." (Opp'n at 9; Am. Compl.
Viewing the alleged facts in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, UPC's registration
of the initial copyrights in One Night in its name was "therefore the first time that it obtained
[statutory] copyright under the 1909 Act[,] upon UPC' s registration with the Copyright Office."
(Opp'n at 9; Am. Comp I.~ 42). Specifically, the portion of the pre-existing Routine published in
One Night was covered by the copyrights owned and registered by UPC. See Shoptalk, 168 F .3d
Neither Plaintiffs' nor Defendants' briefing explicitly addressed the underlying common law copyright
in the 1938 broadcast of the Routine and the effects of publication upon the common law protection.
at 592. The publication of the Routine within the film, therefore, extinguished whatever common
law copyright Abbott and Costello had in the unpublished version of the Routine and had later
assigned to UPC. See Shoptalk, 168 F.3d 586, 590, 591-92 (2d Cir. 1999) (holding that "because
'a single work cannot be protected from copying under both federal and state law'" simultaneously,
"the securing of a statutory copyright, either by general publication with a proper notice or by
registration of the work, ended the common-law protection") (quoting Roy Exp., 672 F.2d 1095,
1101 n.13 (2d Cir. 1982)); see also, Sanga Music, Inc. v. EM! Blackwood Music, Inc., 55 F.3d 756,
758 (2d Cir. 1995).
4. Portions of the Routine Covered by the One Night and the Naughty Nineties
Under the 1909 Act, "derivative works are explicitly included in the subject matter of
copyright by the 1909 Copyright Act." Tempo Music, Inc. v. Famous Music Corp., 838 F. Supp.
162, 168 (S.D.N.Y. 1993) (citing 17 U.S.C. § 7). However, to extend protection to derivative
works, "[f]irst, the original aspects of a derivative work must be more than trivial. Second, the
scope of protection afforded a derivative work must reflect the degree to which it relies on
preexisting material and must not in any way affect the scope of any copyright protection in that
preexisting material." Id. at 167-168 (citing Durham Indus., Inc. v. Tomy Corp., 630 F.2d 905,
909 (2d Cir. 1980); 17 U.S.C. § 7). "Absent a genuine difference between the underlying work of
art and the copy of it for which protection is sought, the public interest in promoting progress in
the arts-indeed, the constitutional demand ... could hardly be served." Id. at 170.
Defendants concede that Plaintiffs have established a chain of title "to the newly created
material" added to the Routine in One Night that differed from the Kate Smith Hour performance.
(See Tr. at 27: 19-25.) However, Defendants argue that the original aspects of the derivative
work-the version of the Routine in One Night-are trivial. (See Mem. at 9-10). Because the
Routine did not change substantially between the 193 8 and 1940 performances, according to
Defendants, the Routine remained protected by either the underlying copyright in the Routine or
UPC's copyright registration of One Night only "for the initial term of copyright through
1968 .... " (Mem. at 9, 15.) Defendants contend that after 1968 Abbott and Costello's heirs were
required to register a renewal of the copyright to the Routine. (Id. at 15.) Given the plausible
allegation that Abbott and Costello assigned their common law copyright in the Routine to UPC
with the 1940 Agreement, Defendants argument that the duo's heirs had to register a renewal of
the copyright is unavailing.
Because as much of the 1938 Routine as was disclosed in the motion picture was published
when the motion picture was published, and because the law treats motion pictures as a unitary
works, the copyrights in One Night and The Naughty Nineties that UPC registered "merged" the
Routine with the films. See 16 Casa Duse, LLC v. Merkin, 791F.3d247, 257-58 (2d Cir. 2015)
(holding that because "[f]ilmmaking is a collaborative process typically involving artistic
contributions from large numbers of people," statutory copyright in the film itself could be
undermined if"copyright subsisted separately in each of their contributions to the completed film"
(citing Richlin, 531 F.3d at 975 ("A motion picture is a work to which many contribute; however,
those contributions ultimately merge to create a unitary whole."))); see also Garcia v. Google,
Inc., 786 F.3d 733, 743 (9th Cir. 2015) ("Untangling the complex, difficult-to-access, and often
phantom chain of title to tens, hundreds, or even thousands of standalone copyrights [in a film] is
a task that could tie the distribution chain in knots."). Thus, Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged a
continuous chain of title encompassing the Routine.
B. Infringing Use
The second element of a copyright infringement claim that Plaintiffs must allege is that
Defendants "cop[ied] constituent elements of the work that are original." Perrin, 2009 WL
855693, at *4. "To demonstrate unauthorized copying, the plaintiff must first 'show that his work
was actually copied'; second, he must establish 'substantial similarity' or that 'the copying
amounts to an improper or unlawful appropriation."' Cooley v. Penguin Grp. (USA) Inc., 31 F.
Supp. 3d 599, 605-06 (S.D.N.Y. 2014), as corrected (July 14, 2014) (quoting Tufenkian
Import/Export Ventures, Inc. v. Einstein Moomjy, Inc., 338 F.3d 127, 131 (2d Cir. 2003)) (internal
quotation marks omitted)).
Here, Defendants concede that they use part of the Routine in Hand to God, characterizing
the use as "part of a sophisticated artistic expression." (Mem. at 2.) Specifically, Jason, the play's
shy and repressed main character, finds a creative escape from his religious small-town life through
his hand sock-puppet, named Tyrone. (See Am. Compl. iJ 58.) Initially, Jason used Tyrone for his
church's "Christian Puppet Minstry," led by his mother. (See id.
Broadway Review: Hand to God,
iJ 61 (citing Marilyn Stasio,
(Apr. 7, 2015), http://variety.com/2015/legit/
reviews/hand-to-god-review-broadway-1201467612/.)) Over the course of the play, Tyrone, the
puppet, begins to develop a life of its own, possibly due to demonic possession. (See Mem. at 4.)
About fifteen minutes into the play, Jason attempts to impress his crush, Jessica, by performing
about one minute and seven seconds of the Routine, with Tyrone as Costello and Jason as Abbott.
(See Am. Comp!. iii! 65-66, 75.) Impressed, Jessica asks Jason ifhe made up the dialogue himself,
and he says "yes." (See id.) The audience is intended to recognize the famous Abbott and Costello
sketch and find humor when Tyrone, the puppet, calls Jason a liar and tells Jessica that the sketch
"is a 'famous routine from the Fifties."' (See id. at 64, Ex. 5 at 22-24; Mem. at 3.) The puppet
proceeds to insult Jessica, saying, "You'd know that if you weren't so stupid," and then exposes
Jason's feelings for Jessica. (Mem. at 3; Am. Compl. Ex. 5 at 24 ("It doesn't matter because he
thinks you're hot.").)
Providing a contrast with the soft-spoken Jason, the puppet Tyrone's
outrageous and subversive behavior escalates over the course of the play, and its post-Routine
outburst provides a starting point for the gradual exposure of the darker side of Jason's personality.
(See Mem. at 3-4.)
1. Fair Use Defense
Given Defendants' concession that they used part of the Routine, as performed in One
Night and The Naughty Nineties, the relevant inquiry is whether the scene in Hand to God is
nonetheless a noninfringing "fair use" of the Routine.
Congress passed the Copyright Act "'[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful
Arts,' U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8, 'by granting authors a limited monopoly over (and thus the
opportunity to profit from) the dissemination of their original works of authorship."' BWP
Media USA, Inc. v. Gossip Cop Media, LLC, 87 F. Supp. 3d 499, 504-05 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) (citing
Authors Guild, Inc. v. HathiTrust, 755 F.3d 87, 95 (2d Cir. 2014)). However, Congress also
recognized that giving authors total control over their own works might not always expand
public knowledge, but in fact limit it. See Authors Guild v. Google, Inc., 804 F .3d 202, 212 (2d
Cir. 2015). Thus, the doctrine of fair use developed, and was eventually reflected in § 107 of the
Copyright Act of 1976, authorizing the public to draw upon copyrighted materials without the
permission of the copyright holder in certain circumstances. See BWP Media USA, 87 F. Supp.
3d at 504-05. 8
As to whether the fair use inquiry is appropriate for a motion to dismiss, under certain circumstances, it
is sometimes possible to resolve this mixed question oflaw and fact at this stage of the proceedings.
BWP Media USA, Inc., 87 F. Supp. 3d at 505. In such circumstances, "the only two pieces of evidence
needed to decide the question of fair use ... are the original version and the allegedly infringing work."
Determining fair use is "an open-ended and context-sensitive inquiry," id. (internal
quotations omitted), requiring this Court to weigh four nonexclusive factors to determine
whether a given use is fair:
( 1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a
commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted
work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted
17 U.S.C. § 107. It is well-established in this Circuit that fair use analysis always "calls
for a case-by-case analysis." Bill Graham Archives, LLC. v. Darling Kindersley Ltd., 386
F. Supp. 2d 324, 328 (S.D.N.Y. 2005), ajf'd sub nom. Bill Graham Archives v. Darling
Kindersley Ltd., 448 F.3d 605 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting
Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 577 (1994)).
a. The Nature of the Copyrighted Work
"[T]he nature of the copyrighted work[,] focuses on the value of the materials used."
Adjmi, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 532 (internal quotation marks omitted). This factor distinguishes
between creative or factual original works. See id. While both types of work are covered by
copyright protection, creative works are "closer to the heart of copyright." Id.
The Routine as performed in One Night and The Naughty Nineties is clearly a creative
work. Indeed, it has reached iconic status as Time magazine's "Best Comedy Routine of the
Twentieth Century" in 1999. (See Am. Compl.
iJiJ 36-39.) The instantly recognizable nature of
Id. (internal quotations omitted); see also Adjmi v. DLT Entm't Ltd., 97 F. Supp. 3d 512, 527 (S.D.N.Y.
2015), appeal withdrawn (June 25, 2015) ("Courts in this Circuit have resolved motions to dismiss on fair
use grounds in this way: comparing the original work to an alleged parody, in light of applicable law.").
the Routine is further highlighted by the American Film Institute's designation of only one line
of the play, "Who's on first?" as one of the "l 00 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time." (See id.
38.) In fact, Tyrone, the sock puppet, acknowledges how well-known the Routine is when he
says to Jessica, "You'd know [Jason didn't make it up] if you weren't so stupid." (Am. Compl.,
Ex. 5 at 23.) Overall, this factor weighs in favor of the Plaintiffs, but "assumes less importance
in the overall fair use analysis relative to the other three factors." See Acijmi, 97 F. Supp. 3d at
532; Cariou, 714 F.3d at 710 (citing Bill Graham Archives v. Darling Kindersley Ltd., 448 F.3d
605, 612 (2d Cir. 2006)).
b. The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used in Relation to the
Another statutory fair use factor considers "whether 'the amount and substantiality of the
portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole' ... are reasonable in relation to the
purpose of the copying." Acijmi, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 532-33 (quoting 17 U.S.C. § 107(3); see also
Campbell, 510 U.S. at 586). Courts in this Circuit "consider the proportion of the original work
used, and not how much of the secondary work comprises the original." Cariou, 714 F.3d at
710. Furthermore, this factor employs a "sliding scale: the larger the volume (or the greater
importance of the original taken), the less likely the taking will qualify as a fair use." Acijmi, 97
F. Supp. 3d at 533.
The play Hand to God runs for one hour and fifty-five minutes. According to Plaintiffs,
the play uses about one minute and seven seconds of the Routine. (Am. Compl. ii 66.) The
Routine performed in One Night runs about three minutes, while The Naughty Nineties
performance lasts almost nine minutes. (Mem. at 21; Lawless Deel., Ex. C). Defendants use a
hybrid of the first thirty-seven seconds of One Night and the first minute and six seconds of the
Routine as performed in The Naughty Nineties. 9 (Am. Comp.
While Plaintiffs argue that
the amount taken is substantial, the number of minutes used is not the only consideration when
assessing the third factor. As the Adjmi court noted, "the greater the importance of the original
taken ,the less likely the taking will qualify as a fair use." Adjmi, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 533.
"If a challenged work appropriates what amounts to 'the heart' of an original work, even
if only in a few words, then such an appropriation is substantial for purposes of the fair use
inquiry." Castle Rock Entm 't v. Carol Pub. Grp., Inc., 955 F. Supp. 260, 269 (S.D.N.Y. 1997),
aff'd sub nom. Castle Rock Entm 't, Inc. v. Carol Pub. Grp., Inc., 150 F .3d 132 (2d Cir. 1998)
(citing Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539, 564 (1985)). The
fact that even only one line of the play, "Who's on first?" is instantly recognizable, (see Am.
if 38.), and that Defendants use more than merely "the introductory premise" of the
Routine, (see Mem. at 21. ), tips this factor slightly in favor of the Plaintiffs. However, the highly
trans formative nature of the new use ultimately outweighs this comparatively less important
factor. Adjmi, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 534.
c. The Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market for or Value of the
Another statutory factor of the fair use analysis looks to "the effect of the use upon the
potential market for or value of the copyrighted work." 17 U.S.C. § 107(4). "The copyright law
is primary concerned with protecting the ability of a copyright holder to exploit the market for
his work. Use of a copyrighted work which does not usurp the market for the copyrighted work
leans the fourth factor favorably towards fair use." Bill Graham Archives, LLC. v. Darling
Kindersley Ltd. (Bill Graham Archives I), 386 F. Supp. 2d 324, 331 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (citing
Plaintiffs allege that Hand to God "uses about 25% of the entire [R]outine from the 1940 Motion Picture,"
One Night, and "about 20% of the entire routine from the 1945 Motion Picture[,]" The Naughty Nineties.
(Am. Comp. if 66.)
Campbell, 510 U.S. at 593), aff'd sub nom. Bill Graham Archives v. Darling Kindersley Ltd.
(Bill Graham Archives JI), 448 F.3d 605 (2d Cir. 2006).
Plaintiffs' argue that Defendants' use of part of the Routine without paying any fees
diminishes its' potential licensing and royalty market. (Opp'n at 24). However, this factor
applies mainly to the market for the original work. See Cariou, 714 F.3d at 708 ("[T]he
application of this factor does not focus principally on the question of damage to Cariou's
derivative market."). It is unlikely that a reasonable observer of the new work would find that
Jason and his puppet's reenactment of the Routine could usurp the market for the original Abbott
and Costello performance of the Routine. See Bill Graham Archives I, 386 F. Supp. 2d at 331.
Furthermore, Defendants' transformative use of the Routine could arguably broaden the market
for the original work, as it exposes a new audience of viewers to the work of the classic
American comedy duo. See Cariou, 714 F.3d at 708 ("Our court has concluded that an accused
infringer has usurped the market for copyrighted works, including the derivative market, where
the infringer's target audience and the nature of the infringing content is the same as the
original.") This factor, therefore, weighs in favor of the defendants. Cariou, 714 F.3d at 708.
d. The Purpose and Character of the Allegedly Infringing Use
The determinative statutory factor in this fair use inquiry, which has been described as
"[t]he heart of the fair use inquiry," Cariou v. Prince, 714 F.3d 694, 705 (2d Cir. 2013), cert.
denied, 134 S. Ct. 618 (2013), (alterations in original) (quoting Blanch v. Koons, 467 F.3d 244,
251 (2d Cir. 2006)) (internal quotation marks omitted), examines the purpose and character of
the allegedly infringing work. See Adjmi, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 529. Hand to God is an artistic
work with a commercial purpose because "the user stands to profit" from use of the Routine
without paying licensing fees-this weighs against fair use. See id.; BWP Media USA, 87 F.
Supp. 3d at 506 ("The greater the private economic rewards reaped by the secondary user (to the
exclusion of broader public benefits), the more likely the first factor will favor the copyright
holder and the less likely the use will be considered fair."). As Plaintiffs note, the scene using
the Routine is highlighted as part of an online video clip to promote the show and sell tickets.
(See Am. Comp!.
Defendants made an affirmative decision to use that particular clip in
promoting the play because it is representative of its plot and "specifically mentioned in many
articles and reviews of the play." (Id.) "However, the Supreme Court has discounted the force
of commerciality in applying a fair use analysis, noting 'no man but a blockhead ever wrote,
except for money."' Kane v. Comedy Partners, No. 00 CIV. 158, 2003 WL 22383387, at *3
(S.D.N.Y. Oct. 16, 2003) (citing Campbell, 510 U.S. at 584), ajf'd, 98 F. App'x 73 (2d Cir.
2004). Therefore, the for-profit secondary use is not determinative as to this statutory factor.
Rather, the heart of the "purpose and character" inquiry is whether the new work "merely
'supersede[s] the objects' of the original ... or instead adds something new, with a further
purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message."
Adjmi, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 529 (quoting Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579
(1994); see also Castle Rock Entm 't. Inc. v. Carol Publ'g Grp. Inc., 150 F.3d 132, 141 (2d Cir.
1998)). That is, whether the use of the original is "transformative," id., based on a "reasonable
perception" of the new work. Cariou, 714 F .3d at 707. "The use must be productive and must
employ the quoted matter in a different manner or for a different purpose from the original."
Blanch v. Koons, 396 F. Supp. 2d 476, 480 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting
Pierre Leval, Toward a Fair Use Standard, 103 HARV. L. REV. 1105, 1111 (1990)), aff'd, 467
F.3d 244 (2d Cir. 2006).
The Second Circuit has specifically rejected the contention that commentary is necessary
to the fair use defense, holding that "[t]he law imposes no requirement that a work comment on
the original or its author in order to be considered transformative." Cariou, 714 F.3d at 706.
Courts have found that use of the original work, "in furtherance of the creation of a distinct
visual aesthetic and overall mood" for the audience, is transformative. See Sandoval v. New Line
Cinema Corp., 973 F. Supp. 409, 413 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) aff'd, 147 F.3d 215 (2d Cir. 1998) ("The
use of plaintiffs Photographs was transformative, in the sense that defendants used the visual
images created in plaintiffs work in furtherance of the creation of a distinct visual aesthetic and
overall mood for the moviegoer watching the scene in the killer's apartment."). When a work is
transformative, it deserves protection so that "the goal of copyright, to promote science and the
arts, is generally furthered." Blanch, 396 F. Supp 2d at 480 (citing Campbell, 510 U.S. at 579;
Leval, supra at 1111 ).
Although Plaintiffs contend that Defendants' use of the Routine does not "add anything
materially new or provide a different aesthetic," and claim that the actor playing Jason "merely
re-enact[s] the [R]outine as Abbot and Costello performed it," the tone of the new performance is
markedly different. (See Opp'n at 21.)
Hand to God uses the Routine to create context and "a
background for the ever more sinister character development of Tyrone, the alter-ego sock
puppet." (Mem. at 20.) On the other hand, simply because the Routine occurs in a different time
period, a different setting, and between a teenage boy and his sock puppet does not necessarily
make the Routine's use transformative. See Aqjmi, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 530 ('"It is hardly parodic
to repeat [the] same exercise ... just because society and the characters have aged.").
It is the performance through the anti-hero puppet, Tyrone, that, according to Defendants,
creates new aesthetics and understandings about the relationship between horror and comedy that
are absent from Abbott and Costello's performances of the Routine in One Night and The
Naughty Nineties. See Cariou, 714 F .3d at 706. (See also Mem. at 4 (citing Jason Zinoman,
Hand to God Melds Gore and Giggles, Each Often Elicited by a Puppet, N.Y. TIMES, May 26,
2015, http://www.nytimes.com/ 2015/05/27 /theater/theaterspecial/hand-to-god-melds-gore-andgiggles-each-often-elicited-by-a-puppet.html?_r=O).) Whereas the original Routine involved two
actors whose performance falls in the vaudeville genre, Hand to God has only one actor
performing the Routine in order to illustrate a larger point. The contrast between Jason's
seemingly soft-spoken personality and the actual outrageousness of his inner nature, which he
expresses through the sock puppet, is, among other things, a darkly comedic critique of the social
norms governing a small town in the Bible Belt. Thus, Defendants' use of part of the Routine is
not an attempt to usurp plaintiffs material in order to "avoid the drudgery in working up
something fresh." Campbell, 510 U.S. at 580. Nor is the original performance of the Routine
"merely repackaged or republished." Authors Guild, Inc. v. HathiTrust, 755 F.3d 87, 97 (2d Cir.
2014) (quoting Leval, supra at 1111 ).
Furthermore, Plaintiffs' contention that "the scene in the Play is performed ... for the
same exact purpose-for audience laughs"- cannot defeat the transformative use argument.
(See Opp'n at 21; Tr. at 53:21-54:7.) 10 While the Routine, as performed in the play, also results
in comic relief for the audience, it does so for reasons different from why audiences found the
During Oral Argument, Plaintiffs shed further light on their argument:
Mr. Rachman: [The Routine] is performed by Jason and his puppet for the very purpose
of eliciting laughs, which is the purpose of that original work, and it creates those laughs
in the play.
The Court: I have never heard an argument that how this is the same [is] because it was
funny then and it is funny now. That is not the analysis. (Tr. at 53:21-54:2.)
original sketch humorous. (See Mem. at 19; Tr. at 29: 7-19.) Tyrone, the sock puppet, breaks
the "fourth wall" with the audience when he says to Jessica, "You'd know [Jason didn't make
the Routine up] if you weren't so stupid," sharing with them an inside joke. (Am. CompI., Ex. 5
at 23.) The audience laughs at Jason's lie, not, as Plaintiffs claim, simply the words of the
Routine itself. See HathiTrust, 755 F.3d at 96 ("Added value or utility is not the test: a
transformative work is one that serves a new and different function from the original work and is
not a substitute for it."). For the lie to be apparent, the play requires that the audience be able to
recognize the original source of Jason's sock puppet performance. See Authors Guild v. Google,
Inc., 804 F.3d 202, 215 (2d Cir. 2015) ("A taking from another author's work for the purpose of
making points that have no bearing on the original may well be fair use, but the taker would need
to show a justification."). This statutory factor, therefore, weighs strongly in favor of
Defendants. "The more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other
factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use." Cariou, 714 F.3d at
708 (citing Campbell, 510 U.S. at 579).
Based upon the allegations in the Amended Complaint and the materials incorporated by
reference therein, Plaintiffs, therefore, fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' federal claim of direct infringement is therefore
II. Plaintiffs' New York Common Law Copyright Infringement Claims
Plaintiffs argue that to the extent "all pre-1972 radio broadcast performances" of the
Routine remain unpublished, they remain protected by New York's common law copyright. (See
Because Defendants have made a showing of fair use to defeat Plaintiffs' direct infringement claim, this
Court need not consider Plaintiffs' federal vicarious and contributory infringement claims.
Opp'n at 25; Am. Compl. ~ 63.) However, this Circuit has held that "because 'a single work cannot
be protected from copying under both federal and state law at the same time,' ... where the author
of a previously unpublished work consented to its inclusion in a published collection, that
publication extinguished the common-law copyright in the underlying work." Shoptalk, 168 F.3d
at 591 (quoting Roy Exp., 672 F.2d at 1101 n. 13, and then citing Sanga Music, Inc., 55 F.3d at
758). Therefore, Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' common law infringement claims is
Plaintiffs' federal and New York common law copyright claims are DISMISSED. Because
Plaintiffs have insufficiently alleged a copyright infringement by Defendants of the Abbott and
Costello Routine, the Complaint doesn't get past first base.
The Clerk of Court is directed to close the motion at ECF No. 55.
Dated: New York, New York
December 17, 2015
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?