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Tjeknavorian v. Acorne Productions Opinion Copyright Armenian Genocide Film

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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK -------------------------------------------------------- )( ZAREH TJEKNAVORIAN and ALINA TJEKNAVORIAN, Plaintiffs, - against - SHANT MARDIROSSIAN and ACORNE PRODUCTIONS LLC, Defendants. -------------------------------------------------------- )( SHIRA A. SCHEINDLIN, U.S.D.J.: I. INTRODUCTION OPINION AND ORDER 14-cv-5723 (SAS) Zareh and Alina Tjeknavorian ( the Tjeknavorians ) are filmmakers. In 2009, they began collabor
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  UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK -------------------------------------------------------- ) ZAREH TJEKNAVORIAN and ALINA TJEKNAVORIAN, Plaintiffs, -against -SHANT MARDIROSSIAN and ACORNE PRODUCTIONS LLC Defendants. -------------------------------------------------------- ) SHIRA A SCHEINDLIN, U.S.D.J.: I. INTRODUCTION OPINION AND ORDER 14-cv-5723 (SAS) Zareh and Alina Tjeknavorian ( the Tjeknavorians ) are filmmakers. In 2009, they began collaborating with Shant Mardirossian, Chairman of the Near East Foundation, on a documentary to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide ( the Film ). Mardirossian agreed to fund the project, giving the Tjeknavorians creative discretion. In return, the Tjeknavorians agreed to finish the film by 2015 -the centennial year. By November 2013, with the film still incomplete, the relationship between Mardirossian and the Tjeknavorians had soured. Frustrated with the slow -1-   progress, Mardirossian sent the filmmakers a formal letter, demanding that theyturn over “all of the materials [] created in connection with [the film], all legalrights in those materials and the Film, as well as any equipment used in thecreation of those materials.” 1  The Tjeknavorians refused, and in March 2014,Mardirossian filed a suit for breach of contract in the Supreme Court of New York,Kings County. In response, the Tjeknavorians counterclaimed, alleging that, infact, it was Mardirossian who had breached the agreement. The case is pending.On July 25, 2014, the Tjeknavorians filed the present suit, 2  whichmoved directly to summary judgment on a narrow question of federal law: whether the parties’ agreement, regardless of its content  , was memorialized in away that satisfies the writing requirement of Section 204(a) of the Copyright Act. 3  The Tjeknavorians maintain that it was not, rendering copyright transfer impossible under federal law. Accordingly, the Tjeknavorians seek a declaration 1 Plaintiffs’ Complaint and Prayer for Relief (“Complaint”), ¶ 66. 2 The case has a convoluted posture. The Tjeknavorians raised the“writing” argument as a counterclaim in the Kings County proceeding, andattempted to have the action removed to the Eastern District of New York. Whenremoval was unsuccessful, they filed an srcinal suit in this Court. See 8/21/14Transcript of Conference. 3 See 17 U.S.C. § 204(a) (“A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a noteor memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rightsconveyed or such owner's duly authorized agent.”). -2-  that they “are the sole owners of the copyrights in all materials they created inconnection with their work on the film.” 4  In its discussion of the facts, as well as its legal conclusions, thisOpinion is limited to the discrete issue of whether the agreement betweenMardirossian and the Tjeknavorians satisfied the writing requirement of Section204. 5  For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that it did not. 4 Complaint ¶ 82. 5 In particular, facts that are germane to the underlying contract dispute, but irrelevant to the “writing” issue, are omitted. This case, unlike the parallel proceeding in Kings County, is not about the substance of what the parties agreedto. Rather, it is about how the parties executed their agreement — and whether thatexecution complied with the formalities of copyright transfer under federal law. See 9/16/14 Transcript of Conference, at 4-5. Mardirossian’s opposition papers arelargely addressed to the contract issue — what promises the parties made to oneanother, and when and how those promises were broken. Indeed, Mardirossiangoes so far as to suggest that the Court should skip past the “writing” issueentirely, and move directly to the “real issue” in the case, which is “what [contract]remedy [] the Court [should] grant.” Defendants’ Memorandum in Opposition toSummary Judgment (“Opp. Mem.”), at 8. Mardirossian may be right: it is possible that the“writing” questionwill have little to no bearing on how the parties’ dispute is ultimately resolved. But that is irrelevant. What matters is that the Tjeknavorians believe that the KingsCounty litigation imperils their rights under federal law — specifically, their entitlement to an exclusive copyright interest in whatever materials they authored. Federal law affords the Tjeknavorians an opportunity to secure those rights, regardless of how much — or how little — it ends up impacting the state contractdispute. At the same time, that I decline to skip past the writing issue does notmean that I disagree with Mardirossian about the importance of the underlyingcontract dispute. Indeed, because time is of the essence — the documentary’svalue will diminish significantly if it is released after 2015, the centennial year — the contract claim should be adjudicated as swiftly as possible. -3-  II. BACKGROUND  The pertinent facts are not in dispute. In 2009, the Tjeknavorians andMardirossian entered into an oral agreement to collaborate on the Film. 6  The project was envisioned as a “feature-length documentary film devoid of  propaganda,” 7  with the purpose of spotlighting “humanitarian efforts in connectionwith the Armenian Genocide.” 8  For the next three years, the Tjeknavorians worked on the Film. In2012, for reasons unknown (and irrelevant to the issue at hand), Mardirossianceased funding the project. 9  In early 2013, Mardirossian “delivered theTjeknavorians a draft of a written Producer Agreement,” 10  seeking to formalizetheir relationship. The Producer Agreement was never signed. 11   III. STANDARD OF REVIEW 6 See Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“Fact Statement”), ¶ 3. It is undisputed that this collaboration did not constitute a “work for hire,” as thatterm is defined in the Copyright Act.  Id.  ¶ 5. 7  Id.  ¶ 2. 8  Id.  ¶ 1. 9 See Complaint ¶ 49.  Accord Defendants’ Answer, AffirmativeDefenses, and Counterclaims, ¶ 49. 10 Fact Statement ¶ 8 (quotation marks omitted). 11 See id.  ¶ 9. -4-

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Jul 23, 2017
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