Monday, December 28, 2020
This article in the Baltimore Sun, and other similar articles, tell of a realtor who is trying to get out ahead of the story by posting signs outside of the houses she is trying to sell advertising that the houses are verifiably "Not Haunted."
How can the realtor, Joy Sushinsky, be so sure? She interviews the sellers, and if they say the house isn't haunted, that's all the evidence Sushinsky needs. After all, she reasons, "People know if they’re living in a haunted house. And they’ll tell you.” Would they? Under Maryland law, they are not required to do so.
The scene in which the prior owners of the house at issue in The Amityville Horror (right) warn the new owners that the house is haunted must have landed on the cutting-room floor. Similarly, in the Academy-cward-winning short film, The New Tenants, nobody told the eponymous couple of the triple homicide that had occurred in their new apartment and explained its sudden availability (complete with "dead guy chips"). They didn't even get a break on the rent.
Nonetheless, Sushinsky is convinced based on personal experience. She lived in a haunted house, as her cat, the Instagram influencer Killer, would attest, were he still alive. Unfortunately, the odd bumps in the night ended with Killer's death, so Sushinsky cannot introduce reporters to her ghost, although she insists that her dog will back her story. In the alternative, Sushinsky also suggests that the "Non Haunted" signs are a joke, as we can all use a good laugh.
Monday, October 26, 2020
We're a bit late to this party, but since a second Borat film has just come out, it seems timely enough. We covered the first Borat release obsessively here (and also here, here, here and here), since it actually generated a contract dispute that was resolved in Sacha Baron Cohen's favor. For those interested in a more sober take on the affair, Russell Korobkin has that angle covered here.
Cohen (pictured as Ali G, left) is in trouble again for having broadcast his encounter with Alabama politician Roy Moore for a television show called "Who Is America." Mr Cohen induced Mr. Moore into a purported demonstration of a device that a disguised Mr. Cohen touted as a pedophile detector. To Mr. Moore's dismay, the device seemed to identify him as a pedophile.
Moore and his wife sued, alleging defamation per se, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud. The fraud claim is crucial. Mr. Cohen was able to defend himself against false light claims in earlier cases based on releases that the plaintiffs had signed. Mr. Moore signed a similar release, but despite Mr. Cohen's lawyers' insistence that the release clearly covered any allegations of fraud in the inducement, the District Court is allowing the case to proceed, perhaps because there is some question as to the identity of the parties to the release. Cohen's joke of acting through alter egos may backfire if a court can't even tell whether he and his co-defendants are parties to a release.
But Moore's case (and Rudy Giuliani's inevitable case) seems distinguishable from the suit against the first Borat movie. Moore and Giuliani are public figures, and First Amendment protections for ridiculing public figures are very generous.
Two cents on the movie. Cohen's shtick is getting old and predictable. His accents are terrible. Also, I know it is supposed to be a low-budget movie made by a Kazakhstani agency, but the production values are ridiculously poor. The entire film is in terrible taste, but every once in a while, it's really, really funny. Maria Bakalova is the breakout star of the movie. She manages to induce suspension of disbelief when such suspension no longer seems possible.
Mr. Cohen is also being sued by the estate of a Holocaust survivor, Judith Dim Evans, who appeared in a completely gratuitous scene. The scene wasn't funny, even by the Cohen standard, under which cringe-inducing awkwardness is supposed to be funny, and it didn't advance the plot. Still, the suit is confusing, Ms. Evans appeared as an embodiment of empathy and humanitas, ignoring Mr. Cohen's preposterous anti-Semitic costume and literally embracing him. Yes, the film invites us to laugh at anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, but haven't we been doing that at least since The Producers? I'm not sure that being surprised that one has been used as a hallmark of Jewish menschlichkeit in a film that satirizes racial and religious bigotry provides the basis for a cause of action.
Sunday, May 24, 2020
Building on the runaway success of yesterday's frivolity (silence is not necessarily ridicule), today was invite our remaining readers to share ideas for movies (or films if they are fancy) on the theme of contagion and confinement.
We'll get things rolling with two picks:
The Andromeda Strain tops the list for being about contagion within the necessarily confined quarters of an isolated lab.
And then there's World War Z, which is just fun, even though I usually hate zombie movies. Also, the zombies' "fleetness of foot" reminds me of my favorite dialogue from Breaking Bad:
Friday, August 9, 2019
Many contracts have arbitration clauses these days, and parties consistently challenge their enforceability, and consistently get told they have to arbitrate. The challenges make some sense in consumer contracts where we might not expect the consumer to grasp all of the ins and outs of the legalese. However, I'm always a bit confused by arbitration clauses being challenged by more sophisticated parties in contracts that were negotiated. They were part of those contract discussions, much more so than consumers ever are. If they didn't want to have to arbitrate, they didn't have to put that clause in. Once it's in, though, they're bound by it.
A recent case out of the District of Arizona, Gravestone Entertainment LLC, v. Maxim Media Marketing Inc., No. CV-19-03385-PHX-GMS (behind paywall), is yet another case reminding us of this. The plaintiff produces horror films and licensed the defendant to distribute those films. Eventually, the relationship between the parties deteriorated and the licensing agreement was terminated. The plaintiff, however, alleged that the defendant went on distributing the films, thereby infringing on the plaintiff's copyright.
The defendant moved to dismiss and arbitrate the claims, and the court agreed, based on the terminated licensing agreement's arbitration clause, which was worded broadly enough to cover these claims and to survive the termination of the agreement. Nor, the court found, was it unconscionable.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Was Leaving Neverland a breach of contract by HBO based on its airing of a 1992 Michael Jackson concert?
HBO's Leaving Neverland documentary, detailing the allegations of sexual abuse leveled at Michael Jackson, has resulted in an interesting lawsuit in the Central District of California, Optimum Prods. v. Home Box Office, CV 19-1862-GW(PJWx) (behind paywall).
Because Jackson is dead, there is no defamation claim to be brought; therefore, this lawsuit is grounded in a contract between Jackson and Optimum's predecessor entity and HBO regarding televising one of Jackson's concerts from his Dangerous world tour, which HBO aired in October 1992. The contract contained a provision prohibiting HBO from making "any disparaging remarks concerning" Jackson. Optimum alleges that HBO has breached this provision by airing the Leaving Neverland documentary.
Naturally the contract also contained an arbitration provision, which provided that the parties would choose an arbitrator and, if they couldn't agree, eventually the Superior Court of the State of the California for the County of Los Angeles would select the arbitrator. Optimum initially filed its complaint in state court, but HBO removed it to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction. Optimum does not dispute the existence of diversity jurisdiction but argues that the arbitration provision also acts as a forum selection provision requiring the litigation be heard by California Superior Court in Los Angeles County.
The court declines to construe the arbitration provision as conferring exclusive jurisdiction to California state court. The arbitration provision does not discuss exclusive jurisdiction at all. The plain language of the provision only provides the state court with one responsibility: choosing an arbitrator if the parties can't agree on one. That is not a conferral of exclusive jurisdiction.
There is also a dispute between the parties over whether the suit needs to be arbitrated. The court is torn on that issue. The American Arbitration Association's rule that arbitrability of a contract be decided by the arbitrator came into effect after the parties had signed the 1992 contract, and the court is hesitant to apply it retroactively. There is precedent to support retroactive application but the court thinks it doesn't make sense to pretend that the parties "clearly and unmistakably" agreed to be bound by rules that did not even exist. None of the precedent provided to the court was binding, so the court requests that the parties discuss the issue further at an upcoming hearing.
Monday, December 10, 2018
I got really excited when I saw this case because it's always nice to have a recent parol evidence case to look at, and this one involves movies!
It's a recent case out of Mississippi, Rosenfelt v. Mississippi Development Authority, No. 2017-CA-01120-SCT (you can listen to the oral arguments here). The MDA had communications with Rosenfelt regarding his movie studios' attempt to make movies in Mississippi, eventually guaranteeing a loan through a term sheet signed by the MDA and by Rosenfelt on behalf of his two movie studios. When Rosenfelt wanted to make another movie and applied for another loan under the terms of the agreement, the MDA turned down the request. Rosenfelt then sued for specific performance and damages. Rosenfelt initially triumphed on a motion for partial summary judgment but then, during the specific performance debate in the case, the MDA filed a summary judgment motion challenging Rosenfelt's standing, which resulted in dismissal of Rosenfelt's complaint.
Rosenfelt appealed, alleging that there was an agreement between him personally and the MDA. However, the court noted that all communications from the MDA were directed explicitly to Rosenfelt as president of the relevant movie studio. The court's decision came down to contract interpretation: All of the written documents in the case unambiguously referred to Rosenfelt in his official corporate capacity or were signed by Rosenfelt in his official corporate capacity. Given the lack of ambiguity on the face of the documents, the court refused to consider parol evidence as to whether Rosenfelt was personally a party to any of the agreements. Because all of Rosenfelt's allegations concerned his personal agreement with the MDA, the court dismissed the suit.
This case serves as a reminder that, once you have set up corporate entities, you need to be careful to remember how those corporate entities impact not just your legal liabilities but also your legal rights.
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Yet another contract aspect has emerged to the Harvey Weinstein situation, beyond the NDAs with the accusers, the contracts between lawyers and private investigators, and the complicated situation with the National Enquirer. Now insurance policies have stepped into the fray. According to this article, Weinstein's insurance companies are denying coverage based on alleged exclusions of "blatantly egregious and intentionally harmful acts." Weinstein, as his defense has stated, denies the accusations against him and counters that the insurance companies are siding with the accusers in order to get out of paying their obligations.
According to the insurers, Weinstein is facing eighteen lawsuits and other claims that have been filed in the past year. Naturally, Weinstein's defense is costing a great deal of money. Whether the insurance companies need to pay out under the policies (and which insurance companies need to pay out) probably depends on the exact wording of the policies, which seem to all be slightly different. For instance, one carrier was providing "crisis assistance" in the event of "significant adverse regional or national media coverage." Another was apparently a policy for legal defense that according to Weinstein explicitly included criminal investigations.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Recently a video went viral showing a 2016 altercation around an umpire ejecting Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard after he threw a fastball behind the Dodgers' Chase Utley. Umpires wear microphones during Major LeagueBaseball games, and the resulting (often loud and profane) discussions with Mets players and especially Mets manager Terry Collins was recorded.
The video recently surfaced in an apparent leak, because MLB has announced its intention to try to scrub the video from the internet. MLB's reason for this is that it violates a "commitment" that "certain types of interactions" involving umpires during baseball games would not be made public, claiming it was "in the collective bargaining agreement" and that there was "no choice" but to scrub the video from the internet. Indeed, according to one report it had already been scrubbed.
Not so fast, though, because I found it still embedded in news reports about it. It's hard to get anything to vanish from the internet, especially once it's gone viral, but it's not that difficult to locate this video at all.
And it's not hard to see why it went viral. It's a fascinating glimpse into a part of the game fans seldom get to see. As others have pointed out, the umpire does a fantastic job in the clip, so it's hardly like he's being cast in a bad light. The manager doesn't even come across all that poorly. In fact, in my opinion, the party that comes out of the clip looking the worst is Major League Baseball and its confusing way of handling the explosive Chase Utley situation.
It's unclear what "interactions" were agreed to be withheld from the public, but this one is certainly an interesting one. I'd love to know what the contract terms actually are.
Sunday, April 1, 2018
Lots of people have been discussing the recent Central District of California ruling, Disney Enterprises v. Redbox Automated Retail, Case No. CV 17-08655 DDP (AGRx) (those links are a random selection), a lawsuit brought by Disney against Redbox's resale of the digital download codes sold within Disney's "combo pack" movies, which allow instant streaming and downloading of the movie. There is an obvious copyright component to the dispute, but I thought I'd highlight the breach of contract portion of the decision.
The DVD/Blu-Ray combo packs were sold with language on the box reading "Codes are not for sale or transfer," and Disney argued that Redbox's opening of the DVD box formed an enforceable contract around that term, which Redbox breached by subsequently selling the codes. However, the court found no likelihood of success on the breach of contract claim, based on the fact that the language on the box did not provide any notice that opening the box would constitute acceptance of license restrictions. The court distinguished other cases that provided much more specific notice. Redbox's silence could not be interpreted as acceptance of the restrictions. This was especially so because the box contained other language that was clearly unenforceable under copyright law (such as prohibiting further resale of the physical DVD itself). Therefore, the court characterized the language as "Disney's preference about consumers' future behavior, rather than the existence of a binding agreement."
The court ended up denying Disney's motion for preliminary injunction.
Saturday, February 24, 2018
The Weinstein Co. has had yet another lawsuit filed against it for breach of contract over the Canadian distribution rights of “Paddington 2.” Prior to the allegations against co-founder Harvey Weinstein, the company had an agreement with Toronto-based EOne to distribute the film throughout Canada. In their lawsuit, EOne is seeking to recover $7.8 million that it advanced to Weinstein to obtain the rights to distribute the film throughout Canada. Amidst the controversy surrounding Harvey Weinstein, the company sold the rights to Warner Bros. After Weinstein broke the agreement, EOne terminated the distribution deal. The original contract provided for post-termination repayment of the advance.
Beyond the $7.8 million advance that EOne paid the Weinstein group, an action for lost profits may be available. The movie has so far grossed $192 million. The U.S. and Canadian box offices opened at $11 million. However, if EOne does decide to try to recover lost profits, it had better act fast. Since the allegations of misconduct were levied against Harvey Weinstein, the company has been on the verge of bankruptcy. The sale of “Paddington 2” to Warner Bros was enough to keep the company afloat until January. According to Reuters, the company is $375 million in debt. Killer Content and Abigail Disney have said that bankruptcy may be the best option for Weinstein Co.
Also found in the complaint is an allegation that Bob Weinstein telephoned the EOne division president to apologize for the sale to Warner Bros and to acknowledge that they would have to compensate EOne. It will be interesting to see if this argument is permitted. Further, the term “compensate” could be construed to include further damages. While only time will tell what the fallout will be from the ongoing Weinstein court battles, it is clear that the bucket is draining quickly.
Friday, February 9, 2018
I teach many Beyonce cases in entertainment law, but usually in an intellectual property context. The New Orleans Advocate reports that Beyonce has been sued in connection with her single Formation, but the lawsuit is contractual in nature. The plaintiff, Kimberly Roberts, is alleging that she entered into a contract with Beyonce to use footage from her documentary in exchange for a lump-sum payment and royalties. Roberts is alleging that Beyonce has breached the contract by failing to pay royalties. Roberts also alleges that Beyonce has exceeded the scope of the license that Roberts granted.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Those posting ideas to the internet, in tweets or YouTube trailers or other websites: take note. This is an older decision, but one worth recounting on this blog I think. Out of the Central District of California, Alexander v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc., CV 17-3123-RSWL-KSx, warns you that making your ideas available for free can mean that you forfeit the right to pursue compensation if someone else uses them.
The case concerns the movie "Creed," which the plaintiff Alexander alleged he came up with. He sued the defendants for misappropriation of his idea, breach of implied contract, and unjust enrichment. The misappropriation of idea claim fails in California, so the court moves on to the breach of implied contract claim, where Alexander also faltered because he failed to allege that he ever offered the "Creed" idea for sale. In tweeting the idea at Sylvester Stallone, the court read the allegations as portraying a gratuitous offer of the idea to Stallone.
Alexander argued that he thought he would be paid for the idea based on industry custom, and that the defendants understood that he tweeted the idea at them with the expectation of payment. But the court disagreed. All Alexander did was tweet the idea at Stallone and post it all over the internet; those actions were not compatible with expecting compensation, since the idea was widely available for free. There was never any communication between Alexander and the defendants, so the court found that it "strain[ed] reason" to imply an agreement for compensation from an unanswered tweet and the posting of the idea in other places on the internet.
Finally, the unjust enrichment claim also failed. Alexander could not allege how the defendants benefitted from his idea, since he never alleged how the defendants accepted the idea. At any rate, since the idea was available for free all over the internet, the court stated that it was "unclear" why the defendants should be expected to compensate Alexander.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
The other day, I happened to re-listen to "Rent." The 20th Anniversary Tour is coming to town next month, and I have my ticket in hand, and, excited about the upcoming show, I pulled the original Broadway cast album up on Spotify for a re-listen. The thing about "Rent" is its one of those shows that I find it difficult to be rational about. It has its flaws, but I was in high school the first time that I heard "Rent," and it blew me away then, and it still stays fresh to me. Even when I think it should have aged, I hear the first notes of "One Song Glory," and they get me every time, and by the end of my re-listen I'm sitting in floods of tears on my living room and thinking, ...Huh, this whole musical is about a breach of contract.
Because it is!
If you don't know the plot, it's loosely a re-telling of "La Boheme" that revolves around a number of young New York artists struggling to survive in an age when AIDS is ravaging their community. The titular "Rent" is the first major song in the musical, and it's a reaction to one of the characters, Benny, going back on a promise he made to the main characters, Mark and Roger. Benny used to be roommates with Mark and Roger but now (with his rich bride's money behind him), he's become their landlord. However, when he bought their building the year before he told Mark and Roger they were "golden". Nonetheless, at the beginning of the play, he shows up and demands all of the previous year's rent, which Mark and Roger allege he led them to believe they didn't have to pay (and which Benny never really refutes).
There are a lot of critiques of the characters of "Rent" and how annoying it can be to listen to the show as an "adult." Yes, you do find yourself asking why Mark can't just rake in some dough for a little while to pay off the debt. Isn't this what all adults have to do? We all have to go out and get jobs to pay for the roofs over our heads. But Mark and Roger shouldn't have been in the rent-money debt in the first place, because they had an agreement with Benny. Are there issues with the formation of this contract? Yes. It's pretty informally done, after all, because of their friendship. And it probably suffers from a consideration issue, because it seems like a gift from Benny to Mark and Roger (the musical doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the details of the transaction, tbh, but it seems like he made the offer because he was feeling generous toward his friends). But I think it could be saved by promissory estoppel. Benny made that promise to Mark and Roger, and he's got to know them well enough to know they were going to rely on it by not worrying much about a source of income for the year, which in fact Mark and Roger did. And now Benny is demanding an entire year's worth of rent all at once, which would be a lot for anyone to come up with, never mind starving artists with uncertain sources of income.
So it's not entirely Mark and Roger's fault that they owe a year's rent. They were led to believe they didn't. But, more than that, the more I think about the critiques of "Rent," the more I think that actually that's the point of rent. Mark and Roger are annoying and entitled, yes, not just because they don't want to have to pay rent that their friend told them they wouldn't have to pay, but because they don't want to have pay rent going forward, because the payment of rent pushes them into making compromises regarding their art and the type of life they want to live. When you listen to "Rent" as a sixteen-year-old, it's different than listening to it as a thirty-six-year-old, and that difference is that yes, I grew up, and I realized that suddenly I'm no longer on the side of the artists who want to create and live their lives. And then that makes me think about the fact that I'm on the side of people not following dreams because I grew up and I compromised and I paid my rent. And I don't think it's a failing in "Rent" that it makes me pause to think about that, that there was a teenager in me who believed in La Vie Boheme who became an adult who didn't. I think that's the point. The story takes place in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, when these people are losing friends left and right, and so it makes sense that they don't feel like they have time to pretend to be other than what they are. Maybe the joke's on all of us that we feel like we do have time.
Because, let's face it, for all of "Rent"'s enduring genius as a musical achievement--and there's a lot of it--"Rent"'s story is also the story of all the music that its composer never got to write. Jonathan Larsen died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before the musical's Off-Broadway premiere. He left far too early and left us with just this one perfect masterpiece, about people with uncertain lives clinging stubbornly to their dreams. It's hard for you to reach the end of "Rent" without an appreciation for how lucky we are that some people live that way and give it their all in their time here on Earth. Jonathan Larsen only wrote the one masterpiece, and that's a tragedy, and he didn't live to see the huge success it became, which is an even bigger tragedy, but at least he got to write one, which meant he got to leave a legacy behind him that you've got to think he'd be pretty happy with. And how lucky we all are that he stuck with his art.
None of which has anything to do with contracts law, oops. EXCEPT EVERYTHING HAS TO DO WITH CONTRACTS LAW. Including the entire plot of "Rent." The end, back to regularly scheduled cases, here, have a song:
Friday, June 30, 2017
Denise Daniels of Minnesota, who says that she has worked with children’s social and emotional development for more than four decades, claims that she pitched her idea for what became the 2015 animated box office success "The Moodsters" to Disney-owned Pixar a number of times between 2005 and 2009 with the understanding that she and her team would be compensated if Disney used her idea.
Ms. Daniels just filed a complaint in federal court in the Central District of Los Angeles stating that she had an implied-in-fact contract that obligated Disney to compensate and credit her if the studio used her idea. Ms Daniels also argues that "The Moodsters" would have featured five color-coded, anthropomorphic characters, each representing a single emotion: happiness, sadness, anger, love and fear. The characters would reside in an abstract world within a child. The movie "Inside Out" features five characters based on the emotions joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. The characters reside in the mind of a young girl named Riley, who must learn to adjust to a new life when her family moves to San Francisco.
In March, Disney was also sued over 2016's "Zootopia." In that lawsuit, a screenwriter claimed that the studio stole his original idea and copied his designs for the movie's animal characters.
So, how would you advise your students to best take care of the interests of clients seeking advise in pitching ideas to major entertainment companies? “Get a contract in writing ahead of time” is easier said than done. If you really have a good idea for a movie or the like, how do you even get to talk to a studio about it without at least revealing something about your idea? - And if you do, might it then not already be too late? For example, it seems odd to seek to discuss potential ideas with an entertainment company simply saying “I have a good idea, but first, let’s talk legal details.” Wouldn’t the company just tell you to get lost, if you even got a response at all? On the other hand, so many of these suits seem to take place that at least some sort of preliminary writing seems to be a good idea for both parties.
In 2004, Disney lost a case over profits for ABC’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” which resulted in a $320-million verdict against Disney in favor of a British licensing company.
Is Disney just too risk-willing in these types of cases, or are private individuals people egged on by the chance of winning some “big money”? It’s hard to tell. Asked why Daniels waited two years before filing her lawsuit against Disney, Daniels’ attorney says “you don’t file these cases lightly” and that such time gaps are not unusual in these types of cases.
Thus, the moral of this story might simply be: get something in writing and if anything goes wrong, take legal action as soon as possible to be on the safest side possible.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
An article on CNN Media posted on June 21 reads, in part: “A contract for the current season of ‘Bachelor in Paradise,’ which CNNMoney … has confirmed as authentic, provides a rare window behind the scenes of reality shows, in the ‘Bachelor’ franchise and beyond, revealing how they are able to manipulate ‘reality’ and create drama where none actually exists….” Shocker! More surprising, perhaps, is the extent to which the companies producing these types of TV shows seek to avoid liability in potential legal proceedings.
Whereas the “Bachelor in Paradise” contract requires participants to “refrain from unlawful behavior or harassment” and to acknowledge that the producers “do not encourage intimate or sexual contact with other contestants on the show,” the contract also tries to free the producers from any responsibility if a contestant is injured, even if that injury comes from “unwelcome/unwanted sexual contact or other interaction among participants.” Participants will also have to agree that the producers are not liable for almost anything that happens to them in the course of filming, whether they are injured, suffer emotional trauma, or catch a sexually transmitted disease.
Furthermore, the producers of the show can do nearly anything they want to the participants and their reputation, including filming them naked, airing the details of any part of the life they think is relevant, or flat out lying about them and things they have done. Nicole Page, a New York-based entertainment attorney with Reavis Parent, said that the contract means, from the producers' perspective, "I can basically take your image and do whatever I want with it and I own it and you have no recourse." Contracts like these are common in reality TV, she said. They "have been around since reality TV began," she added. Needless to say, should participants wish to pursue civil legal action, they will have to arbitrate.
Why would contestants want to agree to such far-reaching contracts? For their chance at 15 minutes of fame, of course. If a contestant tries to renegotiate the contract, plenty of other people are ready to take their place.
The contracts, however, may be so broad that they are not legally enforceable, according to one CNN/HLN legal analyst. Another commentator says that these contracts are “so one-sided it seems absurd, but this is the price people are willing to pay to be on television for whatever it is.” “It's not a two-sided contract," the CNN/HLN attorney says. "A contract is supposed to be what they call 'at arms length,' which means there is leverage on both sides and it's freely entered into and freely negotiated. But this is clearly a contract that is one-sided.”
With all due respect to the CNN/HLN attorney, the mere argument that the contract is “one-sided” is, of course, not very strong unless the contracting procedure reaches the level of unconscionability. Yes, this might be a “take-it-or-leave-it” type of contract, but those are, as we all know, also widely used in numerous other industries and companies where courts have upheld them. I think it highly unlikely that contestants on a famous TV show will prevail on an argument that their contracts were so one-sided as to reach the level of unconscionability under contract law. After all, the TV contestants really don’t need to be on these shows at all; they choose to do so on their own free volition, typically for a rather vain chance at fame and fortune (I know that that is not a legal argument, but we all know what this would look like in court…).
Much worse are the alleged attempts by the companies to have the participants sign away their rights under criminal law. That they might very well not be able to do. "If the contract requires you to release any claims you have that you were sexually assaulted, which is a crime, then the contract may or may not be enforceable under the public policy of the state of California [where this contract was drafted]," said entertainment litigator Josh Schiller of Boies Schiller Flexner. "Law enforcement could get involved and bring charges ... would we want to enforce a contract that no one would be liable if they were filmed being sexually assaulted? That would create a real problem." No kidding. In other cases, contestants should closely consider what this type of deal really involves.
For the rest of us, we live in times when lines between fact and fiction are blurred significantly. It seems that an increasing amount of people are comfortable dismissing facts as “fake” when the converse is true. I’ve encountered that numerous times after the most recent presidential election myself, both in South Dakota and even “liberal California.” In addition to the usual climate change denial in the Midwest, I encountered a “crazy cat lady” in Los Angeles the other day claiming that highly established Audobon studies and Smithsonian studies demonstrating how feral cats kill numerous birds and other small wildlife is “not true”! Sigh.
We should consider how we best teach our students to account for this new reality in contract and other law. I think we also need to increasingly point out to them that what they see in the media is not necessarily true. Granted, with reality TV shows, that is obvious, but I have had to undertake rather serious discussions with my own students recently about what “news” really is and what it is not! What we have taken as granted as law professors even in recent years may no longer be the case or may be changing.
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Sometimes rights can get passed along like a game of telephone. A recent case out of California, M.U.S.E. Picture Productions Holding Corp. v. Weinbach, B261146 (behind paywall), deals with a mistake that voids the original contract for those rights.
Muse agreed to develop a film based on the book and screenplay "The Killer Inside Me," which Weinbach claimed to own the rights to. After about a decade during which Muse did not produce the film, Muse sold its rights to Windwings, and then Windwings sold its rights to Kim, who eventually produced a movie. In the meantime, Muse sued Weinbach for intentional misrepresentation during the original negotiation for the right, and Weinbach cross-claimed for breach of the agreement stemming from Kim's production of the movie. (Windwings and Kim were also involved in litigation with Weinbach, not relevant to this blog entry, but you can find a ruling from it here.)
Basically, Muse contended that Weinbach did not have the right to produce the film based on the novel at the time that he transferred those rights to Muse. Weinbach contended, however, that this was not a mistake of fact but rather one of judgment because it relied upon a later court interpretation of the extent of Weinbach's rights. The court agreed with Muse, however. Weinbach had repeatedly told Muse that he had the right to produce a movie from the book and never wavered from that, so it wasn't like Muse ever thought it was negotiating for a dubious right; Muse thought Weinbach had the right, because that's what Weinbach asserted. A later court ruling raised doubts, but Muse had had no reason to ever expect a later court ruling on the question. This mistake was material because Muse would not have entered into the contract if it had thought Weinbach didn't possess the right in question. And there was no evidence that Muse assumed the risk that Weinbach didn't have that right. Therefore, this mistake justified rescission of the contract.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Here are the logos together, in happier times, from one of the movies at issue in this case, Henry Poole Is Here
A recent case out of California, Camelot Pictures LLC v. Lakeshore Entertainment Group, LLC, B269430, gives us a nice run-down on statute of limitations in contracts cases, in that state at least. The case involves breaches of "Equity Term Sheets" between two entertainment companies involved in making together the movies Pathology and Henry Poole Is Here. Unfortunately for Camelot in this case, it raised the issue of these breaches by Lakeshore too late.
Camelot sued Lakeshore in November 2013 and eventually won an award in excess of $300,000. The problem, though, was, as Lakeshore argued on appeals, Camelot's claim was outside the four-year statute of limitations governing breaches of contract in California. And the appellate court agreed.
The appellate court provided a summary of how the statute of limitations works for breaches of contract in California. Generally, the cause of action is considered to have accrued at the time of the breach, "regardless of whether any substantial damage is apparent or ascertainable." However, in "certain, limited circumstances," the accrual-on-breach rule can be replaced by the "discovery rule," which provides that breaches that are "committed in secret" and whose harm is not "reasonably discoverable" will be considered to have accrued on the date of the discovery of the breach, not the date the breach occurred.
The trial court found that the discovery rule applied, and that Camelot had not discovered Lakeshore's breaches until the summer of 2011, within the statute of limitations period. That date was the date on which Camelot was advised by a consultant that Lakeshore's alternate accounting methodology was not beneficial to Camelot. However, Camelot had known that Lakeshore was using an alternate accounting methodology--in violation of the Equity Term Sheets--since December 2008. On that date, Camelot explicitly raised the fact that Lakeshore was not complying with the terms of the Equity Term Sheets. Camelot simply failed to pursue this lack of compliance for several years. Lakeshore's breach was therefore not "committed in secret" such that the discovery rule should apply. Indeed, Camelot admitted that it knew about the breach as soon as Lakeshore committed it; Lakeshore made no efforts to conceal it. Camelot did not know the impact of that breach until much later, but it could have discovered the impact much sooner, had it employed a consultant sooner than three years later to look into Lakeshore's conduct. Therefore, the trial court's judgment for Camelot was reversed.
Friday, March 11, 2016
I bet we'd have a lot fewer people fighting arbitration clauses if arbitration = tweeting J.K. Rowling.
As reported around the Internet, a student and her high school science teacher entered into a contract concerning whether Rowling would write another Harry Potter book. The contract called for the loser to declare the victor "Mighty" (a much more charming form of consideration than payment of a sum of money).
The article (from last month) reports that there were two possible Harry Potter pieces of creativity to be contended with. One is the prequel movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling wrote the original textbook (which already existed at the time the contract was entered into and so isn't part of the dispute) and also wrote the screenplay for the movie, which could have been in dispute. However, the article points out that Rowling wrote the screenplay to the movie, and the contract concerns a Harry Potter "novel." Even if you wish to make an argument that screenplays should have been included in the definition of the contractual term "novel," it seems like Fantastic Beasts would fail because it does not "feature the character Harry Potter as part of the main plotline," as required by the contract. (At least, so I assume from what I know about the movie so far.)
The other piece of Harry Potter creativity being debated under the contract, and the one for which Rowling was called in to arbitrate, concerned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play focusing on Harry as an adult and his relationship with his children, especially his son Albus. Cursed Child raised issues: It was a play but it is being billed as "the eighth story," the script will be published in text form, and the website claims it's "based on an original story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany." It does seem as if, considering this is a "play," even its published script would not be considered a "novel" under the contact. However, the student who was a party to the contract sought further clarification from Rowling.
Using the convenient method of Twitter, the student explained her contract to Rowling and asked for a decision on whether Cursed Child would fulfill the terms of the contract. Rowling responded, confirming that Cursed Child is a play and also noting that, while she had contributed to the story, Jack Thorne was the "writer" of the play.
The student was pleased that her clear contractual terms meant that she was still the victor, but also noted that the term of the contract had not yet run. Since the publication of the article and the arbitration of the Cursed Child dispute, J.K. Rowling has announced a new set of stories to be collected under the title History of Magic in North America. So far, these stories also seem not to fulfill the terms of the contract, as they seem more like "extra books" rather than "an entirely new book," and they do not seem to feature Harry Potter at all. However, Rowling seems to be dancing right around the edges of this contract's terms.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
This case out of California, Gilkyson v. Disney Enterprises, Inc., B260103, involves the song "The Bare Necessities," which, as you can see from the above, is readily available on YouTube. The song was written by Terry Gilkyson (this might come up in a trivia competition someday, you never know). His adult children are the plaintiffs in this case.
In the 1960s, Gilkyson wrote several songs for Disney pursuant to a work-for-hire contract under which Disney was deemed the author and owner of the songs and Gilkyson was paid $1,000 per song together with ongoing royalties for certain licensing. The contract specifically excluded royalties for use of the songs in "motion pictures, photoplays, books, merchandising, television, radio and endeavors of the same or similar nature." Disney has paid royalties on the song to Gilkyson and his heirs but Disney has never paid royalties for use of the songs in any audiovisual medium, including DVDs. The Gilkyson heirs disagree with Disney's interpretation of the contract and believe that they are entitled to royalties for use of the songs on VHS tapes and DVDs. Disney argues that the four-year statute of limitations on breach of contract actions bars all of the Gilkysons' claims, because all of the VHS tapes and DVDs complained about were first issued sometime prior to 2007. Therefore, according to Disney, Gilkyson should have brought this claim by 2011, not, as it did, in 2013.
Disney loses this argument, however, based on the continuous accrual doctrine: "[E]ach breach of a recurring obligation is independently actionable." Basically, California law interprets the contract with Disney as being divisible, with each breach of that contract actionable and subject to its own statute of limitation period. Therefore, the court concluded that the Gilkysons could seek recovery of the royalties that were due for a period beginning four years from the filing of their complaint (so, from 2009 onward). According to this court, the California state court jurisprudence on this appears to be clear (although note that, at the trial court level, this case was dismissed without applying the continuous accrual doctrine). Disney pointed to a Central District of California case from 2001 that rejected the plaintiff's continuous accrual doctrine argument, but this California state court noted that it did so without any citation to any California case and that this court disagreed with that case's conclusion.
So it's on to the next step for these parties: fighting over the interpretation of the contract. Or settlement.
Monday, February 22, 2016
Last weekend I watched, for the first time in my adulthood, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." The 1971 version with Gene Wilder. I've never seen the more recent version with Johnny Depp, but, after reacquainting myself with Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, I ask you why you would ever need another Willy Wonka. Wilder is perfect.
~~SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE BELOW~~(IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT, GO WATCH IT NOW, IMMEDIATELY. YOU HAVE SO MUCH TIME AND SO LITTLE TO DO. WAIT. STOP. REVERSE THAT.)
Because it was the first time I'd seen it since going to law school, it was also the first time I'd thought about it from the legal perspective. And, weirdly, contract law actually plays a central role in the movie. As soon as the children enter the factory, Wonka has them sign a contract.
Just the children, not their accompanying guardians, which is interesting to me, as I would have had everyone sign it. You'd think Wonka would be just as worried about the adults handing over Everlasting Gob-Stoppers to the competition, but then again, since the whole thing was just an elaborate set-up, I guess he didn't care. The only clause we can really see in the contract is a gigantic release from liability provision. The adult characters are instantly suspicious of the contract. They raise the argument that they need to read it before they sign it (an act which appears to be actually impossible, given the vanishing print at the bottom). Wonka sort of shrugs and says, "Eh, if you don't sign it, you can't come in." It seems to me like there's a good argument that there's procedural unconscionability showing up, given that Wonka's made it impossible to actually read the contract and is dismissive of their desire to know what they're signing before they enter the factory. Of course, the flipside to that is the flipside that almost always comes up when you talk about unconscionability: No one is forcing these people to tour the factory. They can walk out if they like. They don't have to enter the crazy Willy Wonka contract.
The other issue raised by this scene is that the children are all minors, so this contract is voidable.
(This scene also gives you the timeless assessment that contracts are "for suckers.")
The children all sign the contract, of course. (That would make for an interesting movie: Responsible Legal Decisions in Response to Willy Wonka's Craziness. Everyone turns and walks out instead of entering the factory run by the creepy guy no one's seen in years.) (Wonka really should be so much creepier than he is. I'm telling you, Wilder is genius in this role.)
Having signed the contract, they are let loose in the wonders of the factory, where they immediately proceed to get themselves grievously injured one by one, all taken in casual stride by Wonka, perhaps buoyed by his release from liability provision:
The conclusion of the movie, once again, revolves around contract law. Charlie inquires as to the lifetime supply of chocolate he's supposed to receive, and Wonka points out that he's no longer entitled to it because he breached the contract he signed at the beginning. Wonka quotes the contract, and my main reaction to it is to shake my head and say, "All those Latin words! All those hereinbefores!" It's an excellent example of an incomprehensible contract. I propose we start calling all contracts filled to the brim with Latin and hereinbefores "Wonka contracts." And my second reaction is: That's another movie I'd watch: Willy Wonka in Law School.
(Random fact, but the actor playing Charlie apparently did not know that Wilder was going to yell so furiously in that scene. His startled reaction is genuine.)
Don't worry, if you haven't seen the movie, there's a happy ending.
One closing thought on Willy Wonka and contracts. I figure that there are two choices when it comes to Contracts classes: You're either the room of Pure Imagination...
...or you're the tunnel scene...