Miramax Survives Copyright Dispute Over 'Pulp Fiction' Poster Initiated By Opportunistic Photographer

from the royale with cheese dept

The iconic film Pulp Fiction appears to be a hot topic of conversation lately. We recently discussed Miramax’s laughable lawsuit against Quentin Tarantino over his plan to offer NFTs for certain unreleased and unused portions of the film’s drafted scripts, alongside the director’s audio commentary revealing his thought processes and “secrets” surrounding the screenplay. While that whole thing is currently making Miramax look very confused as to intellectual property laws, there was recently a lawsuit ruled in Miramax’s favor over the film’s most iconic poster.

You know the image. It’s the one with Uma Thurman laying stomach-down on a bed, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by guns and paperback books. The photo for that poster was taken by Firooz Zahedi at his studio in 1994 and has since become one of the most iconic movie posters ever. In May of 2020, Zahedi sued Miramax for copyright infringement over the extensive use of the photo on merchandise, claiming he never authorized its use for those instances. Miramax claimed the work had been done as a work for hire, which makes all the sense in the world, except, well…

Miramax claimed that he took the picture as part of a work-for-hire agreement for “Pulp Fiction,” but sometime in the last 27 years, the studio misplaced the signed documents that made the agreement official, so it couldn’t dig up anything to prove that.

Now, the whole “Sorry, the dog ate my work for hire paperwork” excuse typically doesn’t fly well in court proceedings, no matter how much logical sense such an arrangement might make. In this case, however, I mentioned that the court found in favor of Miramax. How did that happen?

Well, it came down to the timing of Zahedi’s suit coupled with the delay in filing it despite having documented knowledge of its wide use and distribution. And that documentation came in the form of an Instagram post.

Six years ago, Zahedi’s stepson posted an Instagram photo of him with the action figure. The caption on that post read, “Happy Birthday to my Stepdad @fitzphoto [emojis] Turns out he didn’t get toy royalties for his famous photo of Uma TM… But at least he has the toy now…”

Zahedi replied to the post, “Thanks… Sometimes it’s best to settle for the little things in life.”

In other words, there’s a record in 2015 that shows Zahedi knew Miramax had repudiated his ownership at least that far back. The three-year statue of limitations for that ended in 2018, so as far as the judge was concerned, it was case closed.

And so the court indicated two things. First, the statute of limitations is 3 years from the time that Zahedi discovered the “unauthorized” use of his work, if we stipulate that this was in fact not work for hire. Second, that Instagram post demonstrates publicly that Zahedi had that knowledge in 2015. The suit was filed some 2 years late, therefore.

And so Miramax came out the winner. It may still be kind of crappy to not credit the photographer out of courtesy, but there is no legal liability here. And, frankly, I don’t believe for a second that the studio didn’t contract the movie photo as a work for hire arrangement, though it turns out that is not a factor in this ruling.

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Comments on “Miramax Survives Copyright Dispute Over 'Pulp Fiction' Poster Initiated By Opportunistic Photographer”

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8 Comments
James Burkhardtsays:

This is kind of interesting, this case highlights exactly why the statute of limitations exists, something that often gets complained about and might get complained about by those wishing to punish rights holders for their abuses or Miramax in particular for the NFT lawsuit.

Finding a paper contract from 40 years ago is often not easy for the best recordkeeper. Indeed, more broadly, for lots of cases documentation of innocence is hard to find even months later. Think of the man whose alibi was that he was renting a car elsewhere, but no longer had his paperwork within the statute of limitations. Even more broadly, the reason statutes of limitation exist is because exonerating evidence might easily be destroyed by any manner of normal processes, including the destructive effects of time on memory, particularly when an innocent individual will not know what evidence would need to be retained.

We may not agree with Miramax getting off, that perhaps the photographer was shortchanged (I assume he was), but this is one of those cases that highlights why these laws exist, and with a little thought highlights why those laws exist for good reason.

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