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Aalmuhammed v. Lee


    Citation. Aalmuhammed v. Lee, 202 F.3d 1227, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 1378, 53 U.S.P.Q.2D (BNA) 1661, Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P28,010, 2000 Cal. Daily Op. Service 940, 2000 Daily Journal DAR 1397 (9th Cir. Cal. Feb. 4, 2000)

    Brief Fact Summary. Aalmuhammed (Plaintiff) sought a declaratory judgment that he was a co-owner of the copyright in a movie and was therefore entitled to an accounting of the profits from the movie.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A person claiming to be a co-owner of a joint work must prove that both parties intended the work to be a joint work.

    Facts. Aalmuhammed (Plaintiff) worked as a consultant on Lee’s (Defendant) film about Malcolm X.  Aalmuammed (Plaintiff) reviewed the script, suggested revisions, and rewrote particular areas.  When the film was released, Plaintiff was listed in the credits as an “Islamic Technical Consultant.”  Plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment that the movie was a “joint work” and that he was a co-owner of the copyright and entitled to an accounting of profits.  Plaintiff did not claim to be a co-author.  The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.

    Issue. Does the contribution of independently copyrightable material to a work intended to be an inseparable whole make the work a joint work?

    Held. (Kleinfeld, J.)  No.  A joint work is one that was intended by both parties to be a joint work.  That determination is fact specific.  The courts will look to, among other things, the apportionment of decision-making authority and the billing accorded the various parties.  Here, none of the parties made any objective manifestations of intent to be co-authors.  Specifically, Plaintiff had no supervisory authority over the film and signed a “work for hire” agreement that prevented him from being a co-author.  Affirmed but remanded for further proceedings on a quantum meruit claim.

    Discussion. A social consideration underlies limitations in the definitions of author and of joint work.  The ability of an author to collaborate or consult with others without the risk of losing ownership in the work encourages the progress of knowledge.


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