Defamed by Copyright Registration?
No matter how many times your law school professor tells you to read the entire decision by the court, you still never really do it. You might get to the end, but you skim over those last few paragraphs or you decide that you got the gist of it. Well, if you don’t read the entire decision, you miss little gems like the one at the end of Morris v. Atchity. What is at the end of this seemingly innocent denial of a summary judgment motion? A denial of Atchity’s counterclaim for defamation found in Morris’s copyright registration. That’s right- what you put in your copyright registration may be enough to defame someone.
I have done a little bit of digging through the prior court documents and unfortunately I have not yet been able to find what Atchity claims was actually defamatory in the registration. However, the judge’s October 15th decision, as noticed by New York attorney Ray Dowd, says that issues of material fact “still exist as to whether the Plaintiff’s statement in the application for pre-registration…constitutes defamation per se.” Looking at the case, I have some ideas of what might be defamatory.
This is a case regarding copyright infringement of an original work. The Plaintiff wrote the work entitled Jesus Agustus: From Imperial Cult to Christianity, and she claims that a derivative work, The Ashes of Christ/The August God, infringes on her copyright. The Plaintiff has also alleged breach of implied contract and fraud (amongst other things). The Defendant counterclaimed for fraud on the Copyright Office, declaratory judgment for non-infringement, and defamation. The court made its rulings, granting some motions for summary judgment and denying others, ensuring that this case has a chance of going to trial to resolve a few different claims. The most interesting of these claims could be the determination of defamation by a jury.
While it is still unclear as to what might have been defamatory, my guess is that it might revolve around allegations of who copied who or where the original material came from. There is no doubt that every author is proud of their work and an attack on the work’s originality can often be seen as an attack on the author themselves. Is that what happened here? I don’t know. All I do know is that an allegation of an author stealing something from another author has the possibility to ruin a career, whether the allegation is true or not. This defamation claim may be the first step by an alleged infringer to fight for a reputation that may already be damaged. I will be very interested to see what was actually alleged and I will make sure to let all the readers of the brief know.