Roc-A-Fella Co-Founder Loses Case Involving Independent Film
Steven T. Lowe
On April 8, 2022, Judge Robert W. Lehrburger for the Southern District of New York confirmed a jury verdict for $805,000 against Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash. Dash was alleged to have falsely claimed to hold copyright ownership in, Dear Frank, a small independent movie released in 2019. This lawsuit was brought by Muddy Water Pictures and Josh Webber, the two parties who produced and directed the film.
The lawsuit was originally filed on January 22, 2019, alleging claims of copyright infringement and defamation. According to the complaint, Muddy Water Pictures wanted to get Damon Dash involved in the film’s production, hoping that giving him “credit for the direction” and using his celebrity status would help promote the film. There was no written contract between the parties. As it turned out, plaintiffs alleged that the only reason Damon Dash was on set was because they used his house as one of the sets. Additionally, they added that he was often high on marijuana and belligerent while on the set.
Muddy Water Pictures registered the film with the US Copyright Office in their name only. In September 2018, the plaintiffs announced that Damon Dash had been released from his “directorial duties.” Then, after production was completed and while Muddy Water Pictures was attempting to find a distributor, Damon Dash interfered by representing to others that he owned the film in its entirety, even showing the movie to BET in California and New York as his film. Ultimately, Josh Webber had his own company distribute the film, Webber Films.
Damon Dash claimed at trial that he was given a verbal offer for film royalties, that he acted as director on set, that he contributed film equipment, and that he used his status to attach high-profile actors to the film (he cast two actors, but Muddy Pictures cast the principal actors). However, he did admit to trying to get his own distribution agreement. Consequently, on February 25, 2019, Judge Colleen McMahon of the Southern District of New York granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against Damon Dash, which temporarily banned him from promoting, marketing, or advertising the film.
On August 30, 2021, Judge Lehrburger ruled on the plaintiffs’ third motion for summary judgment. The plaintiffs asserted that they should win the case, even before the trial, because they were the sole owners of the copyright as a matter of law. There was insufficient evidence to prove an intention for Damon Dash to be a co-author of the film, and the oral agreement that Damon Dash alleged did not exist and, even if it did, it would violate the copyright “statute of frauds.” The “statute of frauds” requires that certain agreements be in writing to be enforced. Under New York’s statute of frauds, agreements concerning the payment of royalties in perpetuity are required to be in writing, and it was not here. Second, in Damon Dash’s deposition from 2019, he stated that there was no agreement between him and Muddy Water Pictures, which clearly contradicted his later position. The judge granted this motion for summary judgment on the statute of frauds; however, Judge Lehrburger denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment concerning the authorship and ownership of the film since the evidence presented by the parties created a “genuine dispute of material fact” regarding the ownership of the film.
The case went to trial on March 24, 2022. At trial, the jury decided against Damon Dash and awarded the plaintiffs $805,000. The judgment stated that Muddy Water Pictures was the sole owner of the film, and Damon Dash owed the plaintiffs damages for his infringement upon their copyright and defamation (mostly for claiming he owned the movie, despite limited contributions and disparaging the plaintiffs on social media).
Josh Webber and Muddy Water Pictures LLC are represented by Christopher Lloyd Brown of Brown & Rosen LLC.
Damon Dash is represented by Natraj Bhushan of Turturro Law P.C.
This case is Webber et al. v. Dash, case number 1:19-cv-00610, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
* Lowe & Associates (“The Firm”) is a boutique entertainment and business law firm located in Beverly Hills, California. The firm has extensive experience handling cases involving copyright infringement and defamation, having provided top-quality legal services to its clients since 1991. The Firm is recognized for its many achievements, including successfully litigating many high-profile cases.
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