Let’s tee off on whether an email binds: Justice Madeleine Flier of the California Appeals Court has affirmed the finding of Superior Court Judge Richard A. Stone in summary judgment, regarding MVP Productions Inc., a film and television production company, and a copyright transfer of the rights to Mark Frost’s book, The Match. MVP had sent an email to Frost’s attorney, Alan Wertheimer, that proposed certain terms and stated, “Let me know if this is okay and we’ll send paperwork…” Wertheimer responded, “done…thanks! Werth.” So was that a binding agreement?No, said Judge Stone — and Justice Flier concurred.
Both courts’ rulings were predicated on Title 17 Section 204(a)of the Copyright Act which states “A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.” There was no evidence that Wertheimer was Frost’s duly authorized agent, so there was no triable issue of material fact.
MVP argued that Wertheimer had ostensible if not actual authority; under Section 204, however, ostensible authority is insufficient, as only a writing signed by the copyright holder or his duly authorized agent is acceptable. Wertheimer did not have express authorization from Frost, so he was unable to transfer the copyright.
The court distinguished copyright law from agency law in terms of which innocent party must suffer in the event of a wrongful act by one party. Copyright law places the burden on the innocent infringer while agency law, in the circumstance of apparent authority, places the burden on the one whose conduct gave rise to the loss. Frost was also given costs on appeal. The Metropolitan News-Enterprise reported details of this failed film adaptation.