2 November 2017Copyright

ESPN must face copyright case over American football documentary

Sports broadcaster ESPN has been told it cannot be excused from a jury trial following accusations of copyright infringement over a documentary it made on the late college football player Chucky Mullins.

US District Judge Michael Mills rejected ESPN’s request for summary judgment at the US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, Oxford Division on Monday, October 30.

He said there are facts in the copyright claim that could allow a jury to reasonably find infringement, and ruled that a summary judgment would be improper.

The dispute is over a 2014 documentary created by ESPN called “It’s Time: The Story of Brad Gaines and Chucky Mullins”, which looked into the life of Mullins, who died in 1991 as a result of complications from an injury sustained from a tackle with Gaines two years previously.

Production company 38 Films filed a complaint (pdf) in August 2016.

As noted by the court, 38 Films claimed that ESPN would pay $3,000 a minute for footage used from “Undefeated”.

The complaint said that Charles Smith Jr, who owns the production company, had made a documentary called “Undefeated” in 2004 looking into the life of Mullins.

It added that “It’s Time” features interviews from the “exact same” players and tells the “exact same” stories as “Undefeated”, and does not contain a “single attribution”.

In August 2017, ESPN filed (pdf) a motion for summary judgment against the claim, saying the broadcaster is entitled to the motion because “there was no use by ESPN of 38 Films’ copyrighted film ‘Undefeated’, and plaintiffs have no protectable copyright interest in third-party footage that defendants did use”.

This was then dismissed (pdf) on Monday.

“A reasonable jury could find that the selection and order of interviews, stories, and historical footage in ‘Undefeated’ is an original work of authorship,” Mills stated.

He said a jury could also find that 38 Films’ expression of Mullins’ story is protectable under copyright law.

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