ESPN Faces Copyright Trial Over Ole Miss, Chucky Mullins Documentary

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Chucky Mullins Statue Outside of the Ole Miss Football Tunnel - Image via The Daily Mississippian

Sports giant ESPN will face a trial after a Mississippi judge denied the company’s motion for summary judgment in a copyright infringement case.

The dispute centers around two documentaries about the life of college football player Chucky Mullins. In August 2016, a man by the name of Charles Smith Jr. sued ESPN, claiming the company used his footage without proper payment or accreditation.

According to Smith, ESPN used his footage in their 2014 documentary It’s Time: The Story of Brad Gaines and Chucky Mullins.

For those of you who don’t know, Mullins played football for Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) in 1988 and 1989. In 1989, Mullins was paralyzed in a game against Vanderbilt University while he attempted to tackle Vanderbilt’s, Brad Gaines.

During Mullins’ time in the hospital, he and Gaines, who did not know each other before the accident, became close friends. Unfortunately, Mullins died as a result of complications from his injuries in 1991 but to this day, Gaines visits Mullins gravesite three times a year.

In 2004, Smith set out to make a documentary about Mullins life, legacy, and friendship with Gaines. His film, entitled Undefeated, featured interviews with Mullins’ family, friends, Ole Miss players and of course Gaines.

Furthermore, in 2013, Smith and his production company 38 Films were contacted by ESPN about a documentary they wanted to shoot about Gaines’ life. Smith agreed to send ESPN a copy of Undefeated after the two parties agreed on an oral contract to license footage from his film at a rate of $3,000 per minute.

However, according to Smith, ESPN failed to live up to their end of the deal. Meanwhile, ESPN contends that their film is about Gaines, not Mullins and that they didn’t use any footage actually featured in Undefeated or owned by 38 Films.

But according to U.S. District Judge Michael Mills, that’s not the case. Upon viewing the two works Mills found that the documentaries contain “identical or similar footage and photographs featured in Undefeated are also depicted in It’s Time.”

“The question of whether the digital media existing in It’s Time came directly from Undefeated is important if, as the Plaintiffs argue, the Plaintiffs altered the footage from its original form in the digitization and production process,” writes Mills.

ESPN also argued that Smith and 38 Films don’t own any right to Mullins’ story, however, Mills notes that an author’s expression of facts may be protectable even if the facts themselves are not.

“Plaintiffs assert that copyright laws protect their storytelling in Undefeated, and that the selection of interviewees and their stories, as well as the sequence in which those stories appear, is included in their storytelling,” writes Mills. “A reasonable jury could find that the selection and order of interviews, stories, and historical footage in Undefeated is an original work of authorship, and further, that the Plaintiffs’ expression of Mullins’ story is protected under copyright law.”

Smith is suing ESPN for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation and copyright infringement, among other claims.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement is the act of violating any of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights granted by the federal Copyright Act. According to Perdue University, there are three elements that must be in place in order for an infringement to occur:

1. The copyright holder must have a valid copyright.
2. The person who is allegedly infringing must have access to the copyrighted work.
3. The duplication of the copyrighted work must be outside the exceptions.

The legal penalties for copyright infringement are as follows:

1. Infringer pays the actual dollar amount of damages and profits.
2. The law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed.
3. Infringer pays for all attorneys fees and court costs.
4. The Court can issue an injunction to stop the infringing acts.
5. The Court can impound the illegal works.
6. The infringer can go to jail.

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