Should a television station be liable for damages for airing a feature film it purchased the broadcast rights to, only to find out that the copy of the movie, purchased from a third-party vendor, was an unauthorized copy?
Miami jurors say no, providing broadcast media with a valuable legal precedent in matters where big potential legal payouts arise.
In July 2013, SBS’s nationally distributed Mega TV aired the film Pablo, which tells the tale of a boy in a dysfunctional family who gets dragged into criminal activities his dad has gotten involved in.
Mega TV acquired a copy of Pablo that turned out to be unauthorized, although the seller said it had the rights to the film.
A copyright violation was determined, but that’s not this issue in this case, heard in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
Filmmaker Yosmani Acosta sued SBS for $8 million, claiming he was robbed of a potential distribution deal that would have resulted in a significant box office take.
The trial took eight days, and featured Stroock & Strook & Lavan attorneys James G. Sammataro and Hans H. Hertell defending SBS.
Even though a prior infringement ruling had been declared, the attorneys opted to take the case to trial.
“We are thankful that our clients entrusted us to do what so few defendants dare: Stare down an oversized damages claim, even with a finding of liability, with the faith that a jury would accurately apply the law.”
In an interview with Law360.com, Sammataro shared the crux of his defense: The poor box office showing of a similar film.
Another 2013 Cuban release, Una Noche, was shown at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival, and received a distribution deal and funding from noted filmmaker Spike Lee.
The film’s total box office receipts: $64,000.
Thus, Sammataro argued to the jury, the man who filmed Pablo had made a wild assumption about the potential riches that could come being ruined by SBS.
The jury agreed, and sided with Mega TV. The jury concluded that Acosta had not been able to prove an injury to the film’s market value.
“Based on our extensive entertainment industry litigation experience, we focused our legal strategy on explaining the grim calculus of the film industry — that, despite big dreams and high hopes, most movies lose money,” Sammataro added.
SBS General Counsel Richard D. Lara commented, “We are pleased with this major victory — a verdict that should send a signal to would-be plaintiffs that finding of liability is not a carte blanche for damages.”
RBR + TVBR OBSERVATION: What does the airing of a movie purchased via a third-party and then unknowingly broadcast tell us about copyright law? All radio and TV stations must be vigilant when it comes to the source of whatever you distribute to your audience. This includes the appearance of copyrighted photos on station websites without authorization. While the laws are very straightforward with respect to copyrighted material, the subject of damages is a more difficult one. This could extend from libelous on-air commentary to sharing a scandalous YouTube video without asking for permission first. Yes, there is Freedom of Speech. But there is also common sense. We have seen far too many articles in the trade press about media owners being sued by one litigious Long Islander. You know what? He has every right to pocket the cash that broadcast companies could have kept in their pockets had they had a written policy on how to deal with copyrighted material. Damages can be defeated, but the damage caused from flagrantly violating copyright laws cannot.