Law School Case Brief
Aalmuhammed v. Lee - 202 F.3d 1227 (9th Cir. 2000)
Several factors suggest themselves as among the criteria for joint authorship, in the absence of contract. First, an author superintends the work by exercising control. This will likely be a person who has actually formed the picture by putting the persons in position, and arranging the place where the people are to be—the man who is the effective cause of that, or the inventive or master mind who creates, or gives effect to the idea. Second, putative coauthors make objective manifestations of a shared intent to be coauthors. Third, the audience appeal of the work turns on both contributions and the share of each in its success cannot be appraised. Control in many cases will be the most important factor.
Plaintiff Jefri Aalmuhammed claimed that the movie Malcolm X was a joint work of which he was an author, thus making him a co-owner of the copyright. He filed an action in federal district court against defendant Spike Lee and others, seeking a declaratory judgment to that effect, and an accounting for profits. As for his copyright claims, Aalmuhammed was not claiming copyright merely in what he wrote or contributed, but rather in the whole work, as a co-author of a joint work. In addition to claims und the Copyright Act, the complaint alleged breach of implied contract, quantum meruit, and unjust enrichment, and federal (Lanham Act) and state unfair competition claims. Defendants filed motions to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment. The district court dismissed some of the claims on defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss; the other claims were dismissed on defendants' motion for summary judgment. Aalmuhammed appealed.
Was Aalmuhammed correct in his assertion that he was a co-author of the copyright because he had creative contributions to the joint work?
The appellate court affirmed the district court's dismissal of Aalmuhammed's copyright claims, vacated the dismissal the dismissal of Aalmuhammed's implied contract, quantum meruit, and unjust enrichment claims and remand those claims for further proceedings. The court ruled, among other things, that the record before the district court established no genuine issue of fact as to Aalmuhammed's co-authorship of the movie as a joint work. The court ruled that creative contributions did not suffice to establish authorship of the movie. Aalmuhammed did not at any time have superintendence of the work and he lacked control over the work, and the absence of control was strong evidence of the absence of co-authorship to the court. As to the non-copyright claims, the district court improperly applied the two-year California statute of limitations on those claims, as opposed to the six-year New York statute of limitations. New York's connection with Aalmuhammed's claim was considerably more substantial, immediate and concrete than California's, and thus, the court concluded, New York would suffer more damage to its interest if California law were applied than would California if New York law were applied.
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