12 January 2021CopyrightMuireann Bolger

Singer pronounced co-author of Meryl Streep movie script at English court

An opera singer has secured a victory at the UK Intellectual Property Enterprise Court, which ruled that she was the co-author of the screenplay of the film “ Florence Foster Jenkins” starring Meryl Streep.

The decision handed down yesterday, January 11, will allow singer Julia Kogan to pursue financial compensation.

Kogan said: “It was soul-crushing to have years of my work stolen and to be eradicated from my own project. Before filming began, when it became clear that nobody was planning to credit or pay me for any work I’d done... we notified the film companies, Qwerty and Pathe, who had been working with me directly, that I was a co-author and copyright owner, but they refused to credit me.”

Robert Pocknell, a partner at Keystone Law who represented Kogan, said: “I am delighted that Ms Kogan’s vital contributions to the screenplay have now been formally recognised by the Judge and she will finally get the recognition she richly deserves as a writer.”

In 2019, the English Court of Appeal ordered a retrial of the long-running copyright dispute, holding that an earlier 2017 ruling erred in looking only at the final version of the script, and failing to account for contributions to earlier drafts and the documents that preceded them.

The 2016 film directed by Stephen Frears centres on the character of Florence Foster Jenkins, portrayed by Streep in an oscar-nominated performance. Jenkins was a US socialite and a notoriously bad opera singer, who, nonetheless, sang to large audiences on some occasions and eventually performed in Carnegie Hall.

Nicholas Martin was the credited sole screenplay writer, and he and Kogan were in a romantic relationship for much of the time when the screenplay was created.

In 2015, Martin initiated legal proceedings, seeking a declaration that he was the sole author of the screenplay.

Kogan counterclaimed against Martin for a declaration that she was the joint author and owner of the screenplay, and sought relief for copyright infringement and infringement of her moral rights by Martin.

YouTube clips

The court heard Martin and Kogan met through a dating site in 2011, and a few months later, Martin watched clips of Jenkins on YouTube, played by Kogan, who claimed that she had stated that she couldn’t understand why nobody had made a film about Jenkins.

Martin, however, disputed that it was Kogan who proposed a script about Florence. He said it was his idea.

The court, however, favoured the evidence of Kogan. “Her knowledge of Florence...make[s] it more likely. In addition, she had the “pieces of the puzzle”, by which I mean knowledge of Florence...before Mr Martin did,” the court stated.

In 2014, Kogan moved out of their flat, and in an email asserted: “I brought Florence to you and helped you develop it.” She went on to say that she would not take credit for Martin’s work and expressed the hope that he would do all he could for her and save her career.

The court then heard how the director Frears wrote to Julia saying “my guess is we owe you a lot”.

“One... gets the impression that Mr Frears valued her input, and again the sense is very much that Kogan had and used an ability to exploit musicality as part of the plot and the characterisation,” the court said.

The court subsequently heard how Kogan was disappointed not to be cast as opera singer Lily Pons in the film and in 2015 raised the question of what author credit she might have.

‘Input of central importance to central characters’

It stated that: “Kogan contributed as a collaborator in terms of characterisation, musicality, choice of historical incident and musical terminology, especially earlier on, and Martin was a participant in those respects but took over almost entirely in the actual writing and had the final say.”

It did, however, criticise Kogan’s “complex relationship” with the truth. “Her account of the period when the screenplay was being written by Martin on the final draft is...very unreliable and her contribution was very heavily overstated by her.”

However, the court agreed that Kogan’s input was of great importance to all of the central characters, including that of Jenkins’s partner, played by Hugh Grant.

In a submission, the film companies, Pathe Productions and Qwerty Films argued that a finding in favour of Kogan would create a new situation in which companies would be unable to safely invest in screenplays purportedly written by one individual, for fear of finding out later that they were actually works of joint authorship.

The companies also argued that this finding could lead to any “mere” researcher or sounding board being a joint author, with similar consequences.

But the judge found that Kogan was not a mere researcher or sounding-board, holding that while she performed some functions of those roles, this was done in “a very close and iterative way”. This meant that she was directly and inextricably involved with integrating the information and thoughts that she gave into the finished product, with the resulting development of character and plot.

The court concluded that Kogan was a joint author and that her contribution was 20%, and that Martin had infringed after Kogan withdrew her copyright consent in March 2015.

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