On March 12, 2019, U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall of the Central District of California granted Voltage Pictures' motion for summary judgment in a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by a writer-director who had worked extensively on an upcoming film entitled, “The Professor and The Madman,” starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn.
Judge Marshall dismissed the lawsuit after Voltage persuaded her that the writing that plaintiff, Farhad Safinia (“Safinia”), had done on the screenplay was performed on a “work made for hire,” and that Safinia had never claimed to own the rights to the original script of “The Professor and The Madman,” which he was hired to rewrite in 2007.
Safinia, who is also the director of the movie, registered the rewritten version of “The Professor and The Madman” for copyright protection with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2017. However, Voltage argued “All that happened is he condensed the script…It does not give him the right to claim ownership.”
Further, Voltage- the production company behind the movies “The Hurt Locker” and “Dallas Buyers Club”- claimed in its motion that when Safinia was hired he signed a certificate of authorship (“COA”) in which he agreed that all writing and work he did related to the film would be on a “work made for hire” basis and that he would have no ownership interest in any script he prepared for the film.
In response, Safinia asserted that the COA he signed in 2007 applied only to his rewrite of the original 2001 screenplay. When he was asked to do another rewrite in 2016, he was no longer tied to that COA, according to his motion, and he was free to seek copyright protection of his creative contributions.
By the time Safinia directed the film, there were no writing or directing deals with him because both Safinia (and Mel Gibson) walked away from the film after disagreements with Voltage, and Voltage instead decided to finish the film without them.
When a plaintiff has already been compensated for their services (as was the situation in this case) and/or someone is re-writing a pre-existing work, it is difficult to establish copyright infringement. In these scenarios, Courts tend to find that copyright ownership lies with the producers, under multiple theories.
Safinia is represented by Jeffery D. McFarland, Shahin Rezvani and Aaron Perahia of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.
Voltage is represented by Jeremiah R. Reynolds of and Ryan Austin of Eisner APC.
The case is Farhad Safinia v. Voltage Pictures LLC, et al., case number 2:17-cv-06902, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
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