ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ownership of Steve Harvey's Comedy Tapes Is Ambiguous

Ambiguous contracts can be a nightmare to untangle, especially twenty years later. A recent case out of the Northern District of Texas, Cooper v. Harvey, Civil Action No. 3:14-CV-4152-B (behind paywall), illustrates just that. 

Steve Harvey, currently the host of "Family Feud," has been sued by Joseph Cooper over Harvey's attempts to curtail Cooper's use of performances Cooper taped at Harvey's comedy club in 1993. Cooper claims Harvey gave him permission to film the performances, paid Cooper to film them, and gave Cooper ownership of the videotapes and the right to use and display them. Since that time, Harvey and Cooper have had multiple disputes over the footage, most recently over Cooper's posting of some of it to YouTube. 

Harvey disputes Cooper's claim. He says that he paid Cooper to tape the performances so that Harvey could use them "as study material," and that he never granted Cooper ownership or any rights in the videotapes. Harvey alleges that Cooper uses the video footage as a type of blackmail, essentially, knowing that Harvey might find the material on the videotape embarrassing to have made public. 

This case isn't just he-said/he-said, in that there does appear to be an actual written contract between the parties, even if there is some debate whether or not Harvey ever signed it. At any rate, seeking summary judgment, Harvey argues that the written contract is ambiguous and that the court can therefore hear parol evidence as to whether the parties intended for Harvey to bargain away all of his rights to the work in question. Cooper, for his part, argues that the contract is unambiguous and that, according to its terms, bargaining away all of his rights is exactly what Harvey did. 

The court agreed with Harvey that the contract is ambiguous in whether Cooper or the Comedy House was intended to own the videos under the contract. But, turning to the parol evidence, the court found that nothing Harvey had put forth shed any light on Cooper's intent in entering into the contract. Harvey provided an affidavit that he did not intend the contract to convey his ownership rights but that didn't resolve what the parties' intent was when they signed the contract in 1993. Therefore, the court denied summary judgment on the breach of contract claim. 

Which seems like, in the end, this written contract is going to come down to he-said/he-said.

Celebrity Contracts, Commentary, Film Clips, Recent Cases, Television, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink


Seeing how you like interesting celebrity contract cases, here's an English case you might like: Reveille v Anotech [2016] EWCA Civ 443. (easily findable on BaILII and other websites) about a contract to promote cookware on the MasterChef TV show. The Deal Memo (standard form MOU) between the parties said the deal would not be valid without a separate signed contract. But the parties started to perform without ever signing the contract. Later, the cookware company (Anotech) refused to pay the fees due to the TV company (Reveille). The England and Wales Court of Appeals held that, despite Reveille never signing the anticipated written agreement, there was nonetheless a binding contract because, inter alia, by conduct the parties had waived their right only to be bound by a written agreement.

Posted by: Marian Dent | Oct 4, 2016 3:00:27 AM

Oooh, thank you! I do love those cases and this will be perfect when my students are debating whether letters of intent are enforceable! Thanks for pointing it out to me!

Posted by: Stacey | Oct 12, 2016 5:21:00 PM