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Lee Brenner, chair of Venable’s Entertainment and Media Litigation Group, is a trial attorney and business litigator. With numerous published decisions throughout his career, Lee has deep experience in the media and entertainment industry, particularly in the areas of defamation, copyright law, idea theft, credit disputes, privacy, intellectual property, and right of publicity. A recognized leader among his peers, Lee is also co-editor of Communications Lawyer, the American Bar Association’s publication on media and First Amendment law.

Lee’s legal achievements have been recognized by numerous leading industry associations and publications. He was named a Leader in Law nominee by the Los Angeles Business Journal; an Intellectual Property Trailblazer by the National Law Journal; and a Local Litigation Star by Benchmark Litigation. Lee has also been listed in Chambers USA, in The Best Lawyers in America, as a Top Intellectual Property Lawyer in the Daily Journal, and as 2020’s Entertainment Lawyer of the Year by the Century City Bar Association.

This article was also published in The Daily Journal.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed dismissal of a trademark infringement lawsuit against the producers of MTV Floribama Shore in MGFB Properties, Inc. v. Viacom Inc., 54 F.4th 670 (11th Cir. 2022) (the “Order”). The Court’s Order sought to strike a balance between the trademark protections of the Lanham Act and the artistic freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

At the heart of the MGFB dispute were two words, “Flora-Bama” and “Floribama.” They refer to a popular beach area that borders the states of Florida and Alabama. “Flora-Bama” is a federal trademark registered by MGFB Properties, Inc. (MGFB). Order at 673. Together with Flora-Bama Management LLC and Flora-Bama Old S.A.L.T.S. Inc. (collectively, “Trademark Owners”), MGFB owns and operates a relatively well-known lounge on the Florida-Alabama border, the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar (“Lounge”). Id. at 672. “Floribama” is included in the title of a reality series, MTV Floribama Shore, developed and produced by 495 Productions Holdings LLC, 495 Productions Services LLC, and ViacomCBS Inc. (“Viacom”) (collectively, “Producers”) as a spin-off of their reality series, Jersey Shore. Id. In the spin-off, the Producers wanted to feature a subculture of “young [S]outhern folks” who spend time on the Gulf of Mexico, “extending from the Florida panhandle into Alabama and Mississippi.” Id. at 674.”Flora-Bama” Trademark Owners sued Floribama Shore Producers for trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act and Florida statutory and common law. Id. at 676. The trial court granted summary judgment for the Producers on all claims, and Trademark Owners appealed. Id. at 677. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the finding that MTV Floribama Shore passes the Rogers test. Id. at 683–84.Continue Reading Eleventh Circuit Affirms MTV Floribama Shore Does Not Infringe Flora-Bama Trademark

A federal district court judge in the Central District of California recently dismissed a choreographer’s claims against Epic Games Inc. (“Epic Games”) arising out of Epic Games’ alleged use of his dance moves in its Fortnite video game. See Kyle Hanagami v. Epic Games Inc., No. 22-cv-02063-SVW-MRW (C.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 2022) (Dkt. 45) (“the Order”).

As the Order explains, Fortnite features a virtual reality world where players can choose an avatar to represent them as they explore, build, and destroy structures, and battle each other in player-to-player combat. Fortnite players can customize their avatars by utilizing a variety of features, including “emotes,” which are dances that avatars perform while attending concerts or to celebrate a victory in a battle royale game, among other things. Choreographer Kyle Hanagami brought copyright infringement and unfair competition claims against Epic Games based on his allegations that one of Fortnite‘s nearly 500emotes incorporated a handful of dance moves from a five-minute routine he posted to YouTube in 2017 and obtained a copyright for in 2021.Continue Reading California District Court Holds Dance Moves in Fortnite Did Not Infringe Copyright

This client alert was also published in Westlaw Today.

A Michigan State Court recently dismissed claims against Euclid Media Group, the parent company to several media properties, including Deadline Detroit, Inc. (“Deadline”), for publishing articles about a Plaintiff’s conduct at a Birmingham Public School Board of Education meeting. See Paul Marcum vs. Euclid Media Group, Docket No. 2022-191878-CZ (Mich. Cir. Ct. Jan. 4, 2022) (Dkt. 129) (“Order”).

On August 23, 2021, Deadline published an article, “Man Who Gave Nazi Salute at Birmingham Schools Meeting Loses Tennis Job” (the “Article”). The Article asserted that Plaintiff had gestured and uttered a Nazi salute toward two African American women and a Jewish woman who had voiced their support for a classroom mask mandate. The Article not only identified Plaintiff by name, but it also included his picture and stated Plaintiff had been “accused of flashing a Nazi salute and repeatedly chanting ‘Heil Hitler.’”Continue Reading Truth Remains an Absolute Defense Against Defamation Claims

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently upheld the federal cyberstalking statute against a constitutional challenge. See United States v. Ho Ka Yung, 37 F.4th 70 (3d Cir. 2022). The Third Circuit narrowly construed the statute’s intent element to require an intent to make the victim fear death or bodily injury or to cause the victim distress through threats or intimidation.

According to the opinion, the case begins with Yung’s application to Georgetown Law. The admission interview went poorly, and Yung was rejected. In turn, Yung allegedly embarked on a cyber-campaign against the unsuspecting interviewer, including creating fake blog posts as the interviewer bragging about raping women and children, filing false reports accusing the interviewer of sexual assault, and impersonating the interviewer’s wife in online sex ads. After the FBI became involved, Yung was charged with cyberstalking.Continue Reading Third Circuit Upholds Federal Cyberstalking Law

On June 3, 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an Arizona district court erred in dismissing a defamation suit for lack of personal jurisdiction. The suit was brought by an attorney against three Catholic bishops and their respective dioceses located in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio. See Burri L. PA v. Skurla, No. 21-15271, 2022 WL 1815827 (9th Cir. June 3, 2022).

According to the complaint, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants made defamatory statements about him to individuals in Arizona. Plaintiff alleged that these communications were designed to interfere with a contract that Plaintiff had with the Phoenix Eparchy in Arizona. Defendants also allegedly repeated these defamatory statements about Plaintiff at a meeting with multiple representatives from the Phoenix Eparchy, where they urged the Phoenix Eparchy to drop a prior action that Plaintiff had brought on behalf of the Phoenix Eparchy against Defendants in Arizona. Based on Defendants’ conduct and communications, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Defendants in Arizona for defamation and tortious interference.Continue Reading Personal Jurisdiction and the Calder Effects Test: Ninth Circuit Sides with Florida Plaintiff in Defamation Suit Against Bishops

More than two years have passed since the tragic helicopter crash that killed basketball player Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant, and all others on board the January 26, 2020 flight. Since that time, several cases related to the crash have been working their way through the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, including two brought by Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Kobe Bryant and mother of Gianna Bryant. One case, brought by Vanessa Bryant against the owners of the helicopter and the estate of the helicopter’s pilot, was settled by the parties and voluntarily dismissed with prejudice on December 14, 2021.[1] The other case was brought by Vanessa Bryant against the County of Los Angeles and others, alleging severe and continuing emotional distress caused by Los Angeles County employees who allegedly took and disseminated graphic photographs of the crash site using their personal smartphones. That case, Vanessa Bryant v. County of Los Angeles, et al., No. CV 20-9582, is headed for trial following U.S. District Judge John F. Walter’s denial of the County’s motion for summary judgment on January 5, 2022.[2] The trial is scheduled to begin on July 26, 2022.[3]

One of the most contentious issues we can expect at trial is proximate causation. It is not disputed that Vanessa Bryant has suffered significant emotional injury. Nonetheless, the County is poised to argue that Vanessa Bryant’s emotional distress was not proximately caused by the alleged tortious acts of the County.[4] One way the County may attempt to do so is by using Vanessa Bryant’s mental health records to show that it was the effects of the helicopter crash itself, and not the subsequent acts of County employees, that caused her emotional distress.Continue Reading Vanessa Bryant v. County of Los Angeles, et al.

In a case involving Andy Warhol’s works known as the “Prince Series,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reined in the fair-use defense for visual art that is based on copyrighted photos. The works consist of fourteen silkscreen prints and two pencil illustrations based on an unpublished photo of musical artist Prince taken by professional photographer Lynn Goldsmith. In its ruling, the Court clarified that a secondary work must convey a “‘new meaning or message’ entirely separate from its source material” when it does not “comment on or relate back to” the copyrighted material. Using that clarification in its fair-use analysis, the panel found that Warhol’s Prince Series was not fair use. The panel also found that the Prince Series works are substantially similar to Goldsmith’s original photograph.

In 1981, Goldsmith took twenty-three photos of Prince, held a copyright in each of those photos, and licensed one to Vanity Fair as an “artist reference.” Vanity Fair then commissioned Andy Warhol to use that unpublished photo to create an illustration for an article about Prince. But Warhol didn’t stop there. Without Goldsmith’s permission, Warhol used the photo to make fifteen more works, creating the Prince Series.Continue Reading Second Circuit Finds Andy Warhol’s Use of Prince Photograph Not Fair Use

The Supreme Court of New York recently denied a motion to seal the record in the case of Choi v. Solomon, stating that “harsh words are not a basis to seal a case, especially where it appears both sides have no qualms about tearing each other down.”  Decision and Order on Motion at *4, Choi v. Solomon, No. 001-654666 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. November 6, 2020).

The case was brought by Yukyung Choi against Scott Solomon for ten different causes of action, including intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and defamation.  Choi claims that from 2010 to 2019, she lived with Solomon in a platonic relationship, paying for their apartment without contribution from Solomon and supporting his “lavish personal expenses.”  Id. at *1.  The relationship eventually deteriorated and Choi sought to distance herself, and additional plaintiff Eric Reiner, from Solomon.Continue Reading New York Supreme Court Upholds Presumption of Public Access to Judicial Proceedings

A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the Nevada District Court’s ruling that the play Jersey Boys did not infringe plaintiff’s copyright in the autobiography of Tommy DeVito – a member of the Four Seasons – as the play did not copy any protectable aspects of the autobiography. See Corbello v. Valli, 974 F.3d 965 (9th Cir. 2020).

The Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys musical tracks the history of the chart-topping quartet the Four Seasons. The play follows band members Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi, and Tommy DeVito from their meager beginnings singing under streetlights in New Jersey through their meteoric rise to stardom with songs such as “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and of course “Sherry.”Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Panel Adopts “Asserted Truths” Doctrine in Holding Jersey Boys Musical Does Not Infringe Copyright

On October 27, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment ruling that scenes from the Netflix series Narcos did not infringe a Colombian journalist’s copyrighted memoir, agreeing that “no reasonable jury could find that the two works are substantially similar.” See Vallejo v Narcos Productions LLC, No. 19-14894, 2020 WL 6281501, at *9 (11th Cir. Oct. 27, 2020) (per curiam).

Virginia Vallejo, a Colombian journalist, authored the memoir Amando a Pablo, Odiando a Escobar (Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar). In the memoir, Ms. Vallejo recounted her romantic affair with infamous drug trafficker Pablo Escobar and described the rise of Colombian drug cartels. Two chapters of the memoir were considered in the case: “The Caress of a Revolver” and “That Palace in Flames.”Continue Reading Eleventh Circuit Says Netflix Series Does Not Infringe Copyrighted Memoir