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Estate of Stanley Kauffmann v. Rochester Institute of Technology

United States District Court, Western District of New York
2018 WL 3731445 (2018)


Facts

Stanley Kauffmann (plaintiff) wrote numerous film reviews for a publication called The New Republic. Initially, the parties had a purely oral agreement about their business relationship. Several years into the relationship, Kauffmann’s editor at The New Republic sent Kauffmann a letter seeking to memorialize some aspects of their relationship in writing. In particular, the letter asked Kauffmann to confirm that Kauffmann’s prior reviews had been “‘works made for hire,’ as that term is defined under the US Copyright laws.” The letter also asked Kauffman to confirm that the same would continue to be true for all future reviews. Kauffman checked a box that he agreed with the letter’s representation of the parties’ agreement and signed the document. Later, the Rochester Institute of Technology (defendant) republished many of Kauffman’s reviews in a book. Kauffmann’s estate sued, claiming that the book infringed on Kauffman’s copyrights in many of the reviews. Although the letter contract stated that the reviews were works made for hire (which would give any copyrights in them to The New Republic, not Kauffmann), Kauffmann’s estate argued that Kauffmann had not actually agreed to relinquish his copyrights. In support of this claim, Kauffmann’s estate wanted to introduce other, extrinsic evidence showing that Kauffmann had not realized that the letter was claiming that Kauffmann had previously agreed and was still agreeing to give up his copyrights in the reviews. For example, a friend of Kauffman’s would testify that Kauffman had said that he still owned the copyrights, there was evidence that Kauffman had licensed some of the copyrights as if he owned them, and there was evidence that Kauffmann would have signed anything presented to him by his editor even if he did not understand its implications.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Siragusa, J.)

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