EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, March 29, 2012

George Lucas, Mike Judge, And The Best Evidence Rule

After my post yesterday about Steven Spielberg, I thought that I would follow up with a post about George Lucas. If you've taught the Best Evidence Rule, you're likely aware of Seiler v. Lucasfilm, Ltd., 808 F.2d 1316 (9th Cir. 1986). This is the classic case in which 

Lee Seiler, a graphic artist and creator of science fiction creatures, alleged copyright infringement by George Lucas and others who created and produced the science fiction movie "The Empire Strikes Back." Seiler claimed that creatures known as "Imperial Walkers" which appeared in The Empire Strikes Back infringed Seiler's copyright on his own creatures called "Garthian Striders." The Empire Strikes Back appeared in 1980; Seiler did not obtain his copyright until 1981.


At trial, Seiler could not produce his original drawings of his creatures and instead sought to prove his case through "reconstructions" he created for trial.  Seiler alleged that the Best Evidence Rule did not apply to his drawings because they did not consist of letters, words, or numbers, meaning that they were not "writings" as defined in Federal Rule of Evidence 1001(1)Rule 1001(1), however, defines a "writing" as "letters, words, numbers, or their equivalent set down in any form," and the Ninth Circuit found that Seiler's  drawings "'consist[ed] not of letters, words, or numbers’ but of ‘their equivalents.'"  It found that the drawings were "equivalents" because "[j]ust as a contract objectively manifests the subjective intent of the makers, so Seiler's drawings are objective manifestations of the creative mind." So, are there any cases similar to Seiler? Well, you can ask Mike Judge.

Judge is the creator of "Beavis and Butt-Head" (a staple in my 1st year dorm) as well as, among other things, "Office Space." (Like Peter Gibbons in the movie, my job in the fall of 1999 was to change the code in my employer's computer database so that every 99 became 1999 on the eve of Y2K). Like George Lucas,Judge (and MTV) faced a lawsuit from a graphic artist who claimed that he was the creator of the animated characters wearing the Metallica and AC/DC shirts. And like Seiler, the graphic artist in the "Beavis and Butt-Head" case tried to prove his case through recreations. Here's a hypothetical setting forth the facts of the case:

Hypothetical 6: James Kodadeck claims that he made numerous drawings of two cartoon characters called “Beavis and Butthead” in 1991.  He alleges that he gave one of the drawings to a man who identified himself as Mike Judge.  In 1993, MTV aired a TV show entitled “MTV’s Beavis and Butthead,” with creative credit going to Mike Judge.  Kodadeck brings a claim sounding in copyright infringement and unfair competition against Judge. Kodadeck does not produce his 1991 drawings in response to the defendants’ motion for summary judgments, but he does produce illustrations that he drew after the premiere of MTV’s show that allegedly closely approximate his 1991 drawings.  Can the illustrations be admitted, or would their admission violate the Best Evidence Rule? Cf. Kodadeck v. MTV Networks, Inc., 152 F.3d 1209 (9th Cir. 1998).

This hypothetical is one of nineteen contained in my Best Evidence Chapter, recently published and available for free as part of the eLangdell Project. Also available for free are my Jury Impeachment and Rape Shield Chapters.



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