“Florence Foster Jenkins” Screenwriter Hits a Sour Note When a London Judge Ruled that His Ex-Girlfriend Was a Co-Author
The Oscar-nominated biopic Florence Foster Jenkins about the notoriously awful yet well-intentioned opera singer was released in 2016 to great critical acclaim. Screenwriter Nicholas Martin enjoyed the praise, but his opera singer ex-girlfriend Julia Kogan was less thrilled because she claimed to be Martin’s co-author and deserves credit for the film. Since the movie was a British production, the copyright for the film was registered within the United Kingdom, and so Kogan brought a copyright lawsuit in the British court system in 2015.
After years of litigation, a London judge ruled in January 2021 that Kogan was a co-author, who wrote 20% of the screenplay, which reversed a previous ruling that Martin was the sole writer and owner of the copyright. Kogan came up with the original idea for the movie and helped Martin organize the screenplay, albeit Martin would have final editorial discretion. Kogan’s greatest contribution to the screenplay was her input about opera and how music could play a key role in the characters, dialogue, and themes. The judge held that Kogan told Martin in March 2015 that she would not allow the screenplay to be used for a movie unless she would receive credit or payment for her work. Martin ignored her wishes and proceeded to make the film without Kogan. Thus, Martin infringed upon not only Kogan’s copyright to the screenplay but also her “moral rights” to be credited as an author. Moral rights to a copyrighted work, as defined by the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, include the rights to claim authorship and object to any distortion, mutilation, or modification of the copyrighted work. While moral rights can be waived within the United States, European countries recognize moral rights as an essential and untransferable benefit of being a copyright holder.
Fortunately, for the film companies, who were listed as Defendants in this action, Kogan’s claims against them were waived because she had allowed the screenplay to enter production and did not notify the companies of her objections against the film. Kogan may only claim damages and profits from what Martin made on the film.
Nicholas Martin is represented by Tom Richards of Blackstone Chambers, instructed by Lee & Thompson LLP.
Julia Kogan is represented by Ashton Chantrielle of 8 New Square, instructed by Keystone Law.
Florence Film Ltd., Pathé Productions Ltd., and Qwerty Films Ltd. are represented by Jonathan Hill of 8 New Square, instructed by Wiggin LLP.
The case is Nicholas Martin and Big Hat Stories Ltd. v Julia Kogan, case number IP-2016-000050, in the High Court of Justice of England and Wales, Business and Property Courts, Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (Chancery Division).
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