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Seiler v. Lucasfilm, Ltd. - 808 F.2d 1316 (9th Cir. 1986)


Fed. R. Evid. 1002 states that to prove the content of a writing, recording, or photograph, the original writing, recording, or photograph is required, except as otherwise provided in the Federal Rules of Evidence or by Act of Congress.


Lee Seiler, a graphic artist and creator of science fiction creatures, alleged copyright infringement by George Lucas and others who created and produced the science fiction movie "The Empire Strikes Back." Seiler claimed that creatures known as "Imperial Walkers" which appeared in The Empire Strikes Back infringed Seiler's copyright on his own creatures called "Garthian Striders." Because Seiler wished to show blown-up comparisons of his creatures and Lucas' Imperial Walkers to the jury at opening statement, the district judge held a pre-trial evidentiary hearing. At the hearing, Seiler could produce no originals of his Garthian Striders nor any documentary evidence that they existed before The Empire Strikes Back appeared in 1980. The district judge, applying the best evidence rule, found that Seiler had lost or destroyed the originals in bad faith under Fed. R. Evid. 1004(1) and denied admissibility of any secondary evidence, even the copies that Seiler had deposited with the Copyright Office. With no admissible evidence, Seiler then lost at summary judgment. Seiler appealed, arguing that the best evidence rule did not apply to his works. Moreover, Seiler contended that if the best evidence rule did apply, Fed. R. Evid. Rule 1008 required a jury determination of the existence and authenticity of his originals.


Was the best evidence rule applicable to Seiler’s works?




The Court held that a creative literary work, which is artwork, and a photograph whose contents are sought to be proved, as in copyright, defamation, or invasion of privacy, were both covered by the best evidence rule. Since the contents of Seiler’s works were at issue, there can be no proof of "substantial similarity" and thus of copyright infringement unless Seiler's works were juxtaposed with Lucas' and their contents compared. According to the Court, since the contents were material and must be proved, Seiler must either produce the original or show that it was unavailable through no fault of his own. Since the best evidence rule applied in the present case, Seilers was prohibited from introducing secondary reconstructed evidence.

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