AMERICAN GANGSTER: logo © 2008 BET, All Rights Reserved. BET Networks is a subsidiary of Viacom, Inc

© 2008 BET, All Rights Reserved.
BET Networks is a subsidiary of Viacom, Inc

Charles “Chaz” Williams, known as the man who  robbed a string of banks in the 1970’s, escaped prison, and went on to manage some of hip-hop music’s biggest acts, is seeking to claim his gangster status from cable networks.

Black Entertainment Television (“BET”) created a documentary series called American Gangster, where it reflected on the life and times of some of American’s most notorious criminals. The series lasted three seasons. A season two episode, called Chaz Williams Armed and Dangerous, was about Williams’ life as a bank robber in Queens, New York.

Williams himself had created a story about his life and registered it with the copyright office. He filed a $20.5 million law suit against BET and others for copyright infringement on his copyrighted story about his own life. He claims BET copied fictional aspects, which he made up, from his protected life story. Williams alleges BET and A&E are liable for airing the American Gangster episode and Netflix, Apple and Amazon are liable for distributing the episode to their customers.  The networks sought dismissal, arguing that the episode was based on historic facts, which are not copyright protected. However, a federal court in New York found that Williams has sufficiently alleged a copyright infringement action because his expression of his historical facts are copyright protected and he has shown, even slightly, that the defendants may have copied such expression. This is enough to overcome a motion to dismiss.

Thus, if Williams can prove in court that BET episode substantially copied his expression, then he may be able to prevail in his infringement suit. That is, if he can prove that his expression was in fact embellishments of his life. The court could have decided the substantial issue at this stage, however, neither party provided the court with their copyrighted works, and so the battle must rage on.