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The Copyright Act of 1976 provides that copyright ownership vests initially in the author or authors of the work. 17 U.S.C.S. § 201(a). Generally speaking, the author of a work is the person who actually creates the work, that is, the person who translates an idea into a fixed, tangible expression entitled to copyright protection. In the context of film footage and photography, it makes intuitive sense that the "author" of a work is the individual or individuals who took the pictures, i.e. the photographer.
The duty to provide an accounting from profits obtained runs only between co-owners of a copyright.
Alex Lindsay was an independent documentary filmmaker engaged in the business of creating, producing, directing, and filming documentaries. RMS Titanic, Inc. (RMST) was awarded exclusive status as salvor-in-possession of the Titanic wreck site and is therefore authorized to carry on salvage operations at the vessel’s wreck site. RMST allegedly agreed to maintain all the artifacts it recovered during the salvage operations for historical verification, scientific education, and public awareness. Lindsay, under a contract with a British TV company, filmed and directed the British documentary film, “Explorers of the Titanic,” a chronicle of RMST’s third salvage expedition of Titanic. Lindsay sailed with RMST and the salvage expedition crew to the wreck site. He alleged that during and after the filming, he conceived a new film project for the Titanic. Lindsay agreed to join RMST to raise money not only for the film project, but for other aspects of the 1996 salvage operation. The contract was to include terms of Lindsay’s compensation. However, no contract was ever executed. Lindsay was never compensated for his work. Plaintiff Lindsay filed a lawsuit that sought damages based upon his share of the revenues generated by the salvage operations conducted. RMST moved for the dismissal of the case. Lindsay amended his complaint to add copyright infringement. The district court granted Lindsay’s motion to amend his complaint to add copyright infringement claims against RMST and to join Discovery Communications.
1. Was plaintiff the author of the claimed footage?
2. Was plaintiff entitled to an accounting of profits of the defendants?
1. The Court held, based on Lindsay's allegations that he exercised such a high degree of control over the film operation and content such that the final product duplicated his conceptions and visions of what the film should have looked like, Lindsay could be found to be an "author" within the meaning of the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C.S. § 102 et seq., and did not intend any defendant to be a co-author. Lindsay was the author of the claimed footage. Lindsay's alleged storyboards and the specific directions he provided to the film crew regarding the use of the lightowers and the angles from which to shoot the wreck all indicated that the final footage would indeed be the product of Lindsay's "original intellectual conceptions."
2. The Court held that Lindsay was not entitled to an accounting of profits as defendants were not co-authors of the copyright. Because DCI was only a licensee of a putative joint owner of the copyright at issue here, Lindsay's claim for an accounting failed as a matter of law.