Episode 1: Revving the Engine.
The show begins with a close-up shot of a person starting a car, quickly highlighting the engine’s purr propelled by the puff of smoke shooting out of the car’s exhaust pipes. My first question—“What car is it?” Immediately, cradled in generic coffeehouse music, a new shot highlights the iconic Mercedes-Benz emblem. In the background, the driver’s recognizable voice says—“This is a 1970 Mercedes 280 SL in signal read.” “Finally!” I think. After briefly stating the car’s specifications, the driver calls somebody and says, “Hello, Alec? It’s Jerry . . . Do you want to grab coffee?” The driver then pics up Alec Baldwin from his New York apartment and both go get coffee.
The driver, of course, is Jerry Seinfeld (“Seinfeld”) and the show is, of course, “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” (“Comedians”). Comedians combines my love of comedy, cars, and coffee (and also of alliteration) into perhaps one of my favorite talk shows that, much like Seinfeld’s namesake flagship show, is a show about nothing. The Baldwin episode (S1:E4) is my favorite out of the 80+ that have been filmed, not because of the car or the coffee, no. (My favorite showcased cars include the 1969 Lamborghini Miura (S2:E6 feat. Chris Rock) and the 2004 Porsche Carrera GT (S11:E1 feat. Eddie Murphy).) It’s my favorite because Baldwin simply takes over the episode underscoring his vast potential as an entertainer. I was briefly reminded of the late Robin Williams and Martin Short because of Baldwin’s natural ability to entertain with minimal inputs from the host, in this case—Seinfeld. But I digress.
Comedians follows the same general concept and format: Seinfeld, a well-known comedian and car enthusiast/collector, picks out a car, which he briefly explains at the start of the episode, for his comedian guest. He then picks up the comedian in that car and explains why he thought that car was the perfect fit for that comedian. Seinfeld and the comedian then go grab coffee and talk about comedy, their lives, and a whole lot of nothing. At least for me, the concept and format of Comedians just works. And since Comedians premiered, the prevailing notion was that the concept and format of Comedians was Seinfeld’s brainchild.
Episode 2: Quarter Mile at a Time.
In February 2018, that notion was put to test when Christian Charles (“Charles”) sued in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (the "District Court”) Seinfeld and others (namely, Columbus 81 Productions, Inc.; Embassy Row, LLC; Comedians in Cars, LLC; Sony Pictures Television Inc.; and Netflix, Inc.), all of whom are involved in the production or distribution of Comedians.
According to Charles, he—a writer and director—and Seinfeld had worked together on various projects over the past years. During one of their collaborations, Charles allegedly suggested to Seinfeld that he should create a television show based on the concept of two friends talking and driving. Charles then produced a treatment of the show, but Seinfeld ultimately decided not to proceed with the show. Allegedly, years later, in 2011, Seinfeld mentioned to Charles that he was considering making a talk show about “comedians driving in a car to a coffee place and just ‘chatting.’” Apparently, Charles, immediately noting that such a show was his original idea, agreed to work with Seinfeld on the show. Charles then produced a new treatment (the “2011 Treatment”), which he claims captures the “look and feel” of Comedians. He allegedly also created a “synopsis, camera shot list with description and visual camera angles, and [a] script” (collectively, the “2011 Script”) In October 2011, Charles and his production company shot a pilot (the “2011 Pilot”) of the show with Seinfeld, settling on the name—“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
At this point, per Charles, the relationship began to go stale. Charles allegedly had a business understanding with Seinfeld that Charles' production company would provide all production services for Comedians. However, Seinfeld brought in a Sony subsidiary for the same. In early 2012, Charles communicated to Seinfeld his request “for compensation and backend involvement” with Comedians. Seinfeld disagreed, only according to Charles a “work for hire directing role.” In repeated such conversations, apparently, “Seinfeld did not claim authorship or ownership of the Pilot” even though “Charles had often reminded Seinfeld” that the idea for Comedians was Charles's.
Despite the disagreements, Seinfeld allegedly assured Charles that he would “remain involved.” Apparently, in April 2012, Seinfeld agreed to pay Charles’ production company $107,734 for pre-production expenses it had incurred. Also, allegedly, Charles was engaged in discussions with the Sony subsidiary, regarding a potential deal and “backend compensation” as the show's “writer/director.” However, Charles never alleged that Seinfeld agreed to Charles' ownership claim in Comedians. In fact, despite these alleged conversations, Charles had no further involvement in Comedians, which became a successful web series that until recently continued to produce new shows. According to Charles, it was not until September 2016 that he “concluded that Seinfeld never intended to include Charles in the Project.” That month, Charles registered his 2011 Treatment with the U.S. Copyright Office. (The 2011 Script and 2011 Pilot were registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in May 2018.)
In 2017, Netflix inked a lucrative deal for Comedians to join its streaming platform. Through the media, Charles found out that the Netflix deal was for approximately $100 million (USD) with Seinfeld making around $500,000 (USD) per episode. Immediately, Charles contacted Seinfeld to mediate the “outstanding issues of Charles’ involvement with” Comedians. Seinfeld's lawyer responded, stating that Seinfeld was the creator and owner of Comedians. While Seinfeld had previously claimed to be the “creator” of Comedians in the press, Charles alleged that this was the first time that “Seinfeld or a representative of Seinfeld had directly made this claim to Charles.” Thus, the lawsuit followed.
Episode 3: Starting Problems.
In his lawsuit, Charles brought claims, among other things, for copyright infringement of the 2011 Treatment, 2011 Pilot, and the 2011 Script, as well as for joint authorship. In response, Seinfeld and team argued that this lawsuit was Charles’ “opportunistic and frivolous attempt to capitalize on the success of . . . Comedians . . . .” They further argued that Charles “came out of the woodwork” “five-and-a-half years after the Show premiered” “claiming for the first time to be the true creator of” Comedians “and threatening to sue unless he received a share of the profits.” Such a delay, they argued, barred Charles’ copyright claims. The District Court agreed.
To successfully sue for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must show “(1) ownership of a valid copyright [in a work], and (2) copying [by defendant] of constituent elements of the work that are original.” Under the Copyright Act, claims of infringement face a three-year statute of limitations, but that clock resets with each new infringement. On the other hand, claims to ownership simply expire after three-years. In other words, unlike a copyright infringement claim, the ownership claim “accrues only once, when a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have been put on inquiry as to the existence of a right.” Further, diligent monitoring is key because “any number of events can trigger the accrual of an ownership claim, including an express assertion of sole authorship or ownership.” However, if ownership is in dispute, it also bleeds into the very first requirement for copyright infringement. As such, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (the “Second Circuit”) has held that when “ownership is the dispositive issue” in an infringement claim and the “ownership claim is time-barred,” then the infringement claim itself is time-barred, even if there had been infringing activity in the three years preceding the lawsuit.
The District Court stated that Charles’ infringement claim “is squarely rooted in his contested assertion of an ownership interest in the copyright.” It reasoned that the principal issue in the case was “not the nature, extent or scope, of copying[,]” but rather “whether Charles's alleged contributions . . . qualify him as the author and therefore owner” of the copyrights in Comedians . . . .” Thus, the only question for the District Court was whether Charles’ ownership claim was time-barred.
The District Court answered in the affirmative. First, it found that Charles’ complaint itself acknowledges that “in 2011 Seinfeld twice rejected Charles's request for backend compensation and made it clear that Charles's only involvement was to be on a ‘work-for-hire’ basis.” Further, even in future conversations, Seinfeld never acknowledged Charles’ ownership claim. As such, “a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have understood that Seinfeld was repudiating any claim of ownership that Charles may have.” It was not necessary that Seinfeld “expressly claim[ed] ownership.” Second, it found that the fact that Seinfeld and others went on to produce and distribute Comedians without giving any credit to Charles was enough to put Charles on notice that his “ownership claim had been repudiated.” As such, the District Court held that both Charles’ ownership and copyright infringement claims were time-barred.
Unhappy with the District Court's decision, Charles appealed to the Second Circuit.
Episode 4: Out of Gas.
The Second Circuit agreed with the District Court. Its temperature was evident during oral argument when Second Circuit Judge Rosemary S. Pooler asked Charles’ lawyer “[i]sn't that [around July 2012] the point at which your ownership claim was publicly repudiated?" Circuit Judge Gerard E. Lynch further asked, “[o]nce you know that, why don't you have to go to court to vindicate your copyright interests?" Charles’ lawyer replied, “Charles was under the impression ... that there wasn't any money in this thing." However, whether an idea is lucrative is beside the point in a dispute about the ownership of that idea, as confirmed by the Second Circuit’s opinion following the oral argument.
On May 7, 2020, the Second Circuit issued its opinion. Heavily deferring to the District Court’s analysis, the Second Circuit said, “the district court was correct . . . for substantially the same reasons that it set out in its well-reasoned opinion.” It affirmed that “[t]he dispositive issue in this case is whether Charles’s alleged contributions . . . qualify him as the author and therefore owner of the copyrights to the show.” And for the same reasons laid out by the District Court, the Second Circuit also held that Charles’ lawsuit, filed six years later, was brought too late.
* . . . If He Wants. It appears that Seinfeld may be done with Comedians for now. As Variety reported, during a recent press conference to promote his new Netflix special, “Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill,” Seinfeld said, “We haven’t planned anything with that show [Comedians in Cars]. I kind of feel like I did that tour.” “I know they look very casual and easy, but they’re actually kind of a lot of work . . . And I feel like I may have done that exploration, at this point.”