Horse whisperer sues city for copyright infringement. HEDGPETH v. CITY OF SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

Horse whisperer sues city for copyright infringement. HEDGPETH v. CITY OF SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO

United States copyright law grants the creator of a new work the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit and prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work.  A creator is granted a copyright when they create a copyrighted work, the copyright can be registered to gain additional rights, but registration is not required for a copyright to be granted.  If someone other than the copyright owner attempts to exercise one of the exclusive rights granted by copyright law, that can be considered copyright infringement.  A copyright owner can file a complaint with a court to stop copyright infringement with an injunction and to get monetary damages for infringement which has already occurred.

In the United States a copyright is one of several legal concepts which shape the outcome of lawsuits.  Another important legal concept is sovereign immunity, which is the idea that a government cannot be sued unless the government consents to be sued.  In the case of copyright infringement, the federal government has specifically waived its immunity from copyright infringement lawsuits under 28 USC 1498(b), but the penalties a copyright plaintiff can recover are extremely limited.  When state governments are involved the answer is not so clear.  The Copyright Remedy Clarification Act, at 17 U.S.C. 511(a) tries to make state governments liable for copyright infringement.  However most courts have held that Congress does not have the authority to waive a states sovereign immunity. This leaves a copyright owner in a difficult position when a state government is infringing on its copyright.

MARCUS HEDGPETH v. CITY OF SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, 19-cv-02275 (C.D.CA 2019) is a case where copyrighted works were used by a munipcality without permission from the copyright holder.  The Plaintiff  is a retired police Captain with over 34 years of service. The Plaintiff served as a mounted police officer and trained other officers in horse safety, proper techniques and methods to load horses onto horse trailers. The Plaintiff created and developed a curriculum as well as provided instruction related to equestrian safety and training for over forty years.

The Defendant in this case is a city in the states of California.  In 2008 representatives of the Defendant requested help developing a training program to rescue horses during natural disasters.  The Plaintiff developed a training curriculum for the Defendant, with the agreement that the copyright to all course materials would remain the property of the Plaintiff and that the materials could not be used without permission of the Plaintiff.  The Plaintiff performed various training sessions for the Defendant using the copyrighted material the Plaintiff developed.

In 2017 there was a major fire and the rescue efforts for horses was deemed a failure.  The Plaintiff prepared a report that placed blame for the failure with employees of the Defendant.  The Defendant quickly severed ties with the Plaintiff but continued to use the training material developed by the Plaintiff.  In 2018 the Plaintiff wrote to the Defendant demanding all copies of the copyrighted training material be returned.  Only some of the training material was returned to the Plaintiff and it is believed that the Defendant continues to use copies the training material.

The Plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement in November 2019.  The Plaintiff seems to have a strong case, he made sure that the training materials were not a work for hire, and despite the training material being for educational purposes it is unlikely the Defendants activity would qualify as a fair use.  The primary challenge the Plaintiff will face is whether sovereign immunity apply to the Defendant.  The Defendant is a city within the state of California but not the state itself.  The Defendant will likely claim immunity and the case will turn on whether municipal subdivisions enjoy the same immunity from copyright infringement as the states themselves.

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