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Seiler v. Lucasfilm

    Brief Fact Summary. Lee Seiler (Plaintiff-Appellant) sued Lucasfilm (Defendant-Appellee), a film company that produced the movie “The Empire Strikes Back,” claiming that certain creatures that appeared in the movie impermissibly infringed on a copyright of Plaintiff-Appellant’s. At trial, the lower court applied the best evidence rule of Federal Rule of Evidence 1004(1), and found that Plaintiff-Appellant had lost or destroyed the originals in bad faith, and denied admissibility of any secondary evidence. As a result, summary judgment was awarded in favor of Defendant-Appellee, and Plaintiff-Appellant appeals that decision here.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When a plaintiff claims copyright infringement of his works but cannot produce original evidence of his works, then the plaintiff must show that the originals were not destroyed in bad faith under the best evidence rule of Federal Rule of Evidence 1004(1); if the plaintiff cannot make such showing, then any secondary evidence of his works is inadmissible.

    Facts. Plaintiff-Appellant claimed that certain creatures depicted in Defendant-Appellee’s file “The Empire Strikes Back,” namely the characters named “Imperial Walkers,” were an infringement on Plaintiff-Appellant’s own copyright.
    Plaintiff-Appellant held a copyright on creatures called “Garthian Striders,” which he obtained from the U.S. Copyright Office in 1981. The film appeared in 1980. Plaintiff-Appellant deposited “reconstructions” of the originals with the U.S. Copyright Office, claiming the reconstructions were of originals that he had created in 1976 and 1977.
    In an evidentiary hearing that lasted seven days, the court found that Plaintiff-Appellant had destroyed the originals in bad faith under the best evidence rule of Federal Rule of Evidence 1004(1). Specifically, the court found that Plaintiff-Appellant “testified falsely, purposefully destroyed or withheld in bad faith the originals, and fabricated and misrepresented the nature of his reconstructions.”
    Following the hearing, the court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant-Appellee.

    Issue. Did the lower court properly exclude the secondary evidence of Plaintiff-Appellant’s works and therefore properly grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant-Appellee?

    Held. Yes; under the best evidence rule of Federal Rule of Evidence 1004(1), the secondary evidence was inadmissible, as Plaintiff-Appellant had not shown that the originals were not lost or destroyed in bad faith; accordingly, the grant of summary judgment was proper.

    Discussion. The court began its analysis by pointing out that, “[t]here can be no proof of ‘substantial similarity’ and thus of copyright infringement unless [Plaintiff-Appellant’s] works are juxtaposed with [Defendant-Appellee’s] and their contents compared. Since the contents are material and must be proved, [Plaintiff-Appellant] must either produce the original or show that it is unavailable through no fault of his own . . . [which] he could not do.” The court went on to explain that:
    The dangers of fraud in this situation are clear. The rule would ensure that proof of the infringement claim consists of the works alleged to be infringed. Otherwise, “reconstructions” which might have no resemblance to the purported original would suffice as proof for infringement of the original. Furthermore, application of the rule here defers to the rule’s special concern for the contents of writings. [Plaintiff-Appellant’s] claim depends on the content of the originals, and the rule would exclude reconstituted proof of the originals’ content. Under the circumstances here, no “reconstruction” can substitute for the original.
    Finally, the court concluded:
    Our holding is also supported by the policy served by the best evidence rule in protecting against faulty memory. [Plaintiff-Appellant]s] reconstructions were made four to seven years after the alleged originals; his memory as to specifications and dimensions may have dimmed significantly. Furthermore, reconstructions made after the release of the Empire Strikes Back may be tainted, even if unintentionally, by exposure to the movie. Our holding guards against these problems . . . In the instant case, the condition of fact which [Plaintiff-Appellant] needed to prove was that the originals were not lost or destroyed in bad faith. Had he been able to prove this, his reconstructions would have been admissible and then their accuracy would have been a question for the jury. In sum, since admissibility of the reconstructions was dependent upon a finding that the originals were not lost or destroyed in bad faith, the trial judge properly held the hearing to determine their admissibility.


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