Rachel Dolezal's Copyright Follies: Sues CBS For Copyright Infringement In Case That Won't End Well

from the so-so-so-many-problems dept

A little over a year ago, we wrote about a copyright dispute involving Rachel Dolezal, who now also goes by the name Nkechi Amare Diallo. As you may recall, there was a fair bit of attention paid to her years ago because while calling herself a black woman, it turned out that she was actually white. Whatever you think of that controversy, our focus was on the fact that she was a client of notoriously inept copyright troll Richard Liebowitz, who had filed a lawsuit over the copyright on a photo in Paper Magazine.

That lawsuit was bizarre on multiple levels, beginning with the fact that Liebowitz was initially representing an entity called Polaris Images, who had apparently worked out an exclusive licensing deal with Dolezal regarding her images. When Paper Magazine's attorneys called into question that "exclusive licensing agreement," Liebowitz, in standard Liebowitz fashion, simply dropped Polaris from the complaint and replaced it with Dolezal herself -- which raised a bunch of questions.

Anyway, earlier this week a new lawsuit caught my attention, as it was Dolezal suing over copyright again, this time suing CBS Interactive, claiming that CBS property ET Online infringed Dolezal's copyright in publishing this photo in this article, published on June 12, 2015.

There are a whole bunch of problems with the lawsuit, and we'll probably cover only a few of them. However, I did notice that it wasn't Liebowitz who was representing her -- which makes sense since last we'd heard Liebowitz was suspended from practicing law in the Southern District of NY. However, it does look like Liebowitz and/or his firm is still involved in the case. The lawyer who filed the case, Daniel Roscho (who appears to run his own copyright litigation practice called "Copyright Justice" even though his law firm's website mostly focuses on real estate law...) filed a declaration with the complaint, noting that this was in partnership with Liebowitz.

The Firm Liebowitz Law Firm, PLLC ("LLF"), and Mr. Richard Liebowitz have been retained by Nkechi Diallo a/k/a Rachel Dolezal, the Plaintiff in the above-captioned matter, to file a claim for copyright infringement. The retainer agreement provides that LLF is authorized to contract and associate with co-counsel. Pursuant to that retainer agreement, LLF has associated with my Firm, The Roshco Law Firm, PLLC and myself, Daniel S. Roscho, and has asked me to pursue this action under its retainer

Even if it's not Liebowitz, the fact that this is done in partnership with Liebowitz is almost certainly going to raise some eyebrows in SDNY, where Liebowitz has a reputation. Why any other lawyer would want to tie his own reputation to Liebowitz's is beyond me.

Anyway, Roshco notes that he is filing this declaration because Judge Jesse Furman somewhat famously has some requirements regarding any case involving Liebowitz. For copyright cases, that includes proof of actual registration of the copyright (that has been an issue in some of the Liebowitz cases) as well a copy of the deposit file that was used to register the copyright (another issue in prior Liebowitz cases). Roshco notes that he doesn't yet have the official deposit copy, but is working on getting it. He still filed the case now because of his concern about the statute of limitations.

It is my good-faith belief that waiting for an official deposit copy of the work at issue before filing the complaint in the instant action may cause Plaintiffs claim to become barred by the statute of limitations and I will promptly file the official deposit copy of the work at issue upon receipt. Therefore, in compliance with the Order, on May 7, 2021 I applied for an official deposit copy of the work at issue from the USCO, which was registered as part of copyright registration no. VA 2-094-553 I am awaiting delivery of the official deposit copy from the USCO.

And, uh, yeah, the statute of limitations thing might be an issue, but I don't think filing now, before Roscho has obtained the deposit copy is going to help much. The statute of limitations on a copyright infringement case is three years. As the complaint itself admits, the publication by ET Online happened... in 2015. I may not be a math genius, but even I can subtract 2015 from 2021 and recognize there's an issue there. Dolezal tries to get around this by claiming that she only discovered the article on May 24, 2018 (it's unclear why she then waited three years to sue), which would put her within the statute of limitations if CBS can't show that she actually knew or should have known about the publication earlier.

But... that's still not going to help very much. Under the Sohm decision last year in the 2nd Circuit (which covers the court this case was in), she can only get monetary damages for the 3 years preceding the lawsuit. That is, even if there was infringement, she could only get the "damages" from 2018 through 2021... for an article published in 2015. It's hard to see much in the way of provable damages there.

And... despite the fact that copyright law has (insane) statutory damages, those aren't available here. If you register the image after the alleged infringement, you can only get actual damages. Dolezal is also asking for punitive damages which are almost never awarded in copyright cases (many courts think that you can't even get punitive damages for infringement, and even though SDNY has suggested punitive damages might be available in some cases, there is nothing at all exceptional about this case that would lead to punitive damages. Or attorneys' fees, which is also asked for.

We haven't even gotten to the question of who actually holds the copyright to this image. The registration says that Dolezal is the "author" of the image. Looking at the actual image suggests that is extremely unlikely. It looks very much like it was taken by someone else, who would have the most likely copyright claim on the image. Perhaps there is some way that this is actually a selfie, but I don't see it. Her right arm is mostly out of frame, but in the lower corner, you can see three fingertips on her side, showing that she is not holding the phone. So it does not appear to be a selfie, and thus it seems like she is misrepresenting herself as the author of the image in question. Remember, it's the person who takes the photo who is almost always granted the copyright, not the person in the photo, or the person who owns the camera. There are a few possible exceptions, but it doesn't seem like any would apply here.

And, finally, there's fair use. The image was used in conjunction with a news article and was relevant to the reporting. It's difficult to see how the use of the image was not fair use.

So even if this is not technically a Richard Liebowitz case, it has all the hallmarks of a typical Richard Liebowitz case, and I cannot imagine that it will end well for Dolezal, Roscho... or Liebowitz.

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Filed Under: actual damages, copyright, copyright troll, daniel roschco, fair use, nkechi amare diallo, punitive damages, rachel dolezal, registration, richard liebowitz, statute of limitations
Companies: cbs


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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 21 May 2021 @ 10:58am

    This case has about five different levels of WTF-ery that I don’t even want to try to unravel. 🙃


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