202 F.3d 1227 (9th Cir. 2000), 99-55224, Aalmuhammed v. Lee

Docket Nº:99-55224
Citation:202 F.3d 1227
Party Name:JEFRI AALMUHAMMED, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SPIKE LEE; FORTY ACRES AND A MULE FILMWORKS, INC.; BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY CINEMA, INC.; WARNER BROTHERS, a division of Time-Warner Entertainment LP; VICTOR COMPANY OF JAPAN LIMITED; LARGO INTERNATIONAL N.V.; LARGO ENTERTAINMENT, INC.; JCV ENTERTAINMENT, INC., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:February 04, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
 
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202 F.3d 1227 (9th Cir. 2000)

JEFRI AALMUHAMMED, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

SPIKE LEE; FORTY ACRES AND A MULE FILMWORKS, INC.; BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY CINEMA, INC.; WARNER BROTHERS, a division of Time-Warner Entertainment LP; VICTOR COMPANY OF JAPAN LIMITED; LARGO INTERNATIONAL N.V.; LARGO ENTERTAINMENT, INC.; JCV ENTERTAINMENT, INC., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 99-55224

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

February 4, 2000

Submitted April 19, 19991

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL: Philip H. Stillman and Stephen S. Lux, Flynn, Sheridan, Tabb & Stillman, Del Mar, California, for the plaintiff-appellant.

Bruce Isaacs, Karen Brodkin & Jason A. Forge, Wyman, Isaacs, Blumenthal, & Lynne, Los Angeles, California, for the defendants-appellees.

Bruce P. Vann, Kelly, Lytton, Mintz & Vann, Los Angeles, California, for the defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; J. Spencer Letts, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-95-07885-JSL

Before: William C. Canby, Jr., John T. Noonan, and Andrew J. Kleinfeld, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

KLEINFELD, Circuit Judge:

This is a copyright case involving a claim of coauthorship of the movie Malcolm X. We reject the "joint work" claim but remand for further proceedings on a quantum meruit claim.

I. FACTS

In 1991, Warner Brothers contracted with Spike Lee and his production companies to make the movie Malcolm X, to be based on the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Lee co-wrote the screenplay, directed, and co-produced the movie, which starred Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. Washington asked Jefri Aalmuhammed to assist him in his preparation for the starring role because Aalmuhammed knew a great deal about Malcolm X and Islam. Aalmuhammed, a devout Muslim, was particularly knowledgeable about the life of Malcolm X, having previously written, directed, and produced a documentary film about Malcolm X.

Aalmuhammed joined Washington on the movie set. The movie was filmed in the New York metropolitan area and Egypt. Aalmuhammed presented evidence that his involvement in making the movie was very extensive. He reviewed the shooting script for Spike Lee and Denzel

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Washington and suggested extensive script revisions. Some of his script revisions were included in the released version of the film; others were filmed but not included in the released version. Most of the revisions Aalmuhammed made were to ensure the religious and historical accuracy and authenticity of scenes depicting Malcolm X's religious conversion and pilgrimage to Mecca.

Aalmuhammed submitted evidence that he directed Denzel Washington and other actors while on the set, created at least two entire scenes with new characters, translated Arabic into English for subtitles, supplied his own voice for voice-overs, selected the proper prayers and religious practices for the characters, and edited parts of the movie during post production. Washington testified in his deposition that Aalmuhammed's contribution to the movie was "great" because he "helped to rewrite, to make more authentic." Once production ended, Aalmuhammed met with numerous Islamic organizations to persuade them that the movie was an accurate depiction of Malcolm X's life.

Aalmuhammed never had a written contract with Warner Brothers, Lee, or Lee's production companies, but he expected Lee to compensate him for his work. He did not intend to work and bear his expenses in New York and Egypt gratuitously. Aalmuhammed ultimately received a check for $25,000 from Lee, which he cashed, and a check for $100,000 from Washington, which he did not cash.

During the summer before Malcolm X's November 1992 release, Aalmuhammed asked for a writing credit as a cowriter of the film, but was turned down. When the film was released, it credited Aalmuhammed only as an "Islamic Technical Consultant," far down the list. In November 1995, Aalmuhammed applied for a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, claiming he was a co-creator, co-writer, and codirector of the movie. The Copyright Office issued him a "Certificate of Registration," but advised him in a letter that his "claims conflict with previous registrations " of the film.

On November 17, 1995, Aalmuhammed filed a complaint against Spike Lee, his production companies, and Warner Brothers, (collectively "Lee"), as well as Largo International, N.V., and Largo Entertainment, Inc. (collectively "Largo"), and Victor Company of Japan and JVC Entertainment, Inc. (collectively "Victor"). The suit sought declaratory relief and an accounting under the Copyright Act. In addition, the complaint alleged breach of implied contract, quantum meruit, and unjust enrichment, and federal (Lanham Act) and state unfair competition claims. The district court dismissed some of the claims under Rule 12(b)(6) and the rest on summary judgment.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Copyright claim

Aalmuhammed claimed that the movie Malcolm X was a "joint work" of which he was an author, thus making him a co-owner of the copyright.2 He sought a declaratory judgment to that effect, and an accounting for profits. He is not claiming copyright merely in what he wrote or contributed, but rather in the whole work, as a co-author of a "joint work."3 The district court granted defendants summary judgment against Mr. Aalmuhammed's copyright claims. We review de novo. 4

Defendants argue that Aalmuhammed's claim that he is one of the authors of a joint work is barred by the applicable statute of limitations. A claim of authorship of a joint work must be brought within three years of when it accrues.5 Because creation rather than infringement

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is the gravamen of an authorship claim, the claim accrues on account of creation, not subsequent infringement, and is barred three years from "plain and express repudiation" of authorship. 6

The movie credits plainly and expressly repudiated authorship, by listing Aalmuhammed far below the more prominent names, as an "Islamic technical consultant." That repudiation, though, was less than three years before the lawsuit was filed. The record leaves open a genuine issue of fact as to whether authorship was repudiated before that. Aalmuhammed testified in his deposition that he discussed with an executive producer at Warner Brothers his claim to credit as one of the screenwriters more than three years before he filed suit. Defendants argue that this discussion was an express repudiation that bars the claim. It was not. Aalmuhammed testified that the producer told him "there is nothing I can do for you," but "[h]e said we would discuss it further at some point." A trier of fact could construe that communication as leaving the question of authorship open for further discussion. That leaves a genuine issue of fact as to whether the claim is barred by limitations, so we must determine whether there is a genuine issue of fact as to whether Aalmuhammed was an author of a "joint work."

Aalmuhammed argues that he established a genuine issue of fact as to whether he was an author of a "joint work," Malcolm X. The Copyright Act does not define "author," but it does define "joint work":

A "joint work" is a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.7

"When interpreting a statute, we look first to the language."8 The statutory language establishes that for a work to be a "joint work" there must be (1) a copyrightable work, (2) two or more "authors," and (3) the authors must intend their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole. A "joint work" in this circuit "requires each author to make an independently copyrightable contribution" to the disputed work.9 Malcolm X is a copyrightable work, and it is undisputed that the movie was intended by everyone involved with it to be a unitary whole. It is also undisputed that Aalmuhammed made substantial and valuable contributions to the movie, including technical help, such as speaking Arabic to the persons in charge of the mosque in Egypt, scholarly and creative help, such as teaching the actors how to pray properly as Muslims, and script changes to add verisimilitude to the religious aspects of the movie. Speaking Arabic to persons in charge of the mosque, however, does not result in a copyrightable contribution to the motion picture. Coaching of actors, to be copyrightable, must be turned into an expression in a form subject to copyright.10 The same may be said for many of Aalmuhammed's other activities. Aalmuhammed has, however, submitted evidence that he rewrote several specific passages of dialogue that appeared in Malcolm X, and that he wrote scenes relating to Malcolm X's Hajj pilgrimage that were enacted in the movie. If Aalmuhammed's evidence is accepted, as it must be on summary judgment, these items would have been independently copyrightable.

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Aalmuhammed, therefore, has presented a genuine issue of fact as to whether he made a copyrightable contribution. All persons involved intended that Aalmuhammed's contributions would be merged into interdependent parts of the movie as a unitary whole. Aalmuhammed maintains that he has shown a genuine issue of fact for each element of a "joint work."

But there is another element to a "joint work." A "joint work" includes "two or more authors."11 Aalmuhammed established that he contributed substantially to the film, but not that he was one of its "authors." We hold that authorship is required under the statutory definition of a joint work, and that authorship is not the same thing as making a valuable and copyrightable contribution. We...

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