Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Verdict for Authors

The Court of Appeals of Massachusetts has upheld a jury award of $22.5 million to Holocaust survivor Misha Levy Defonseca and an additional $9.9 million to Vera Lee, who was hired to co-write Defonseca's memoir of her experiences during the Second World War. The jury found for co-authors Defonseca and Lee and against their publisher Mt. Ivy  Press and its owner Jane Daniel. The facts of the case are fairly complex, involving the establishment of additional corporations, secret agreements involving two of the parties but not the third which had the effect of driving "a wedge between Lee and Defonseca" in the words of the trial judge, the sale of foreign rights, and questions of federal preemption. Lee had sued "Mt. Ivy, Daniel, and Defonseca, alleging breach of contract, interference with contractual relations, fraud, violation of G.  L. c.93A, quantum meruit, and unjust enrichment..."

The defense asserted that federal law preempts any copyright claims at issue here. However, in  upholding the jury verdict, the appellate court found that "the dispositive factor is the nature of the claim asserted. Where the extra element renders the claim `qualitatively different' from a Federal copyright claim, the State cause of action will survive a preemption challenge....In determining whether a State law claim is qualitatively different from a copyright claim, courts look beyond the label and evaluate what right the plaintiff was seeking to protect or enforce and the theories on which the claim was brought." Here the court found that the private rights (contractual obligations) that Lee and Defonseca "sought to enforce...were qualitatively different from the exclusive rights provided by [section]106 of the Act." Further the court found that the "plaintiff's fraud in the inducement claims were not preempted."

Read the court's lengthy opinion here.

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