Contract Dispute or Copyright Infringment?

By Tamera H. Bennett with assistance from Stephanie PrinceDecember 10, 2007

Don’t plead a cause of action for breach of copyright or “proprietary rights” if you want to be in state court.

In October 2007, plaintiff D’Juana Streat filed a petition against Carl Jackson, Fred Hammond, Rainforest Films, and Sony Pictures Releasing Corp. in County Court at Law No. 5 of Dallas County, Texas for “Breach of Contract,” “Breach of Copyright Rights,” and stating “defendants’ assumed without consent and without compensation” certain proprietary rights.

On November 9, 2007, Defendants’ motion for removal to The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division (Streat v. Jackson et al. (3:2007cv01882)) was granted based upon the federal courts’ exclusive jurisdiction because the action arises under the U.S. Copyright Act.

D’Juana Streat pled that on or about July, 2000 she was asked by Defendant Carl Jackson to write a script for a religious drama to be made into a motion picture. Streat pled she wrote a script entitled “Human and Divine,” and that Jackson presented “Human and Divine” as his own writing to Defendant Fred Hammond; Hammond then presented the script to Rainforest Films and Sony Pictures, Inc. who produced a moved titled “The Gospel” based on Streat’s script.

“The Gospel” premiered to the general public on October 7, 2005. Streat pled the use of her script in “The Gospel” was unauthorized and she received no compensation for her work. Streat seeks damages for past and future mental anguish, loss of earnings and misuse of property rights, as well as attorneys’ fees, expenses, costs and interest. Streat’s petition states “The Gospel” grossed 28 million dollars.

The petition is light on facts, so there is no information on comparing the scripts for similarity.

Let’s look at jurisdictional issues for a moment. 1. Why file in County Court at Law? The current jurisdictional limit in Texas County Court at law range from $500.00 to $100,000.00. Is the plaintiff valuing her claim at no more than $100,000? 2. There is no cap on jurisdictional limits in Texas District Court, so why not start there, rather than County Court? 3. Could the case be kept in state court if the only cause of action raised was breach of contract? Possibly. If the dispute is over interpretation of a contract, either oral or written, then the dispute does not “arise under” the U.S. Copyright Act for purposes of preemption. In this case, Plaintiff pled breach of copyright and infringement. Those are magic words that will trigger Federal Court. For a detailed discussion on “arising under” and jurisdiction click here to be taken to Professor Patry’s blog.