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Tjeknavorian v. Mardirossian

United States District Court, S.D. New York

October 22, 2014

ZAREH TJEKNAVORIAN and ALINA TJEKNAVORIAN, Plaintiffs,
v.
SHANT MARDIROSSIAN and ACORNE PRODUCTIONS LLC, Defendants

Page 562

For Plaintiffs: Alex V. Chachkes, Esq., Phillip Smaylovsky, Esq., Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP (NYC), New York, NY.

For Defendants: Jeffrey C. Morgan, Esq., Barnes & Thornburg LLP, Atlanta, GA; Taline Sahakian, Esq., Constantine Cannon, LLP, New York, NY.

Page 563

OPINION AND ORDER

Shira A. Scheindlin, United States Dictrict Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Zareh and Alina Tjeknavorian (" the Tjeknavorians" ) are filmmakers. In 2009, they began collaborating with Shant Mardirossian, Chairman of the Near East Foundation, on a documentary to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide (" the Film" ). Mardirossian agreed to fund the project, giving the Tjeknavorians creative discretion. In return, the Tjeknavorians agreed to finish the film by 2015 -- the centennial year.

By November 2013, with the film still incomplete, the relationship between Mardirossian and the Tjeknavorians had soured. Frustrated with the slow progress, Mardirossian sent the filmmakers a formal letter, demanding that they turn over " all of the materials [] created in connection with [the film], all legal rights in those materials and the Film, as well as any equipment used in the creation of those materials." [1] The Tjeknavorians refused, and in March 2014, Mardirossian filed a suit for breach of contract in the Supreme Court of New York, Kings County. In response, the Tjeknavorians counterclaimed, alleging that, in fact, it was Mardirossian who had breached the agreement. The case is pending.

On July 25, 2014, the Tjeknavorians filed the present suit,[2] which moved directly to summary judgment on a narrow question of federal law: whether the parties' agreement, regardless of its content, was memorialized in a way that satisfies the writing requirement of Section 204(a) of the Copyright Act.[3] The Tjeknavorians maintain that it was not, rendering copyright transfer impossible under federal law. Accordingly,

Page 564

the Tjeknavorians seek a declaration that they " are the sole owners of the copyrights in all materials they created in connection with their work on the film." [4]

In its discussion of the facts, as well as its legal conclusions, this Opinion is limited to the discrete issue of whether the agreement between Mardirossian and the Tjeknavorians satisfied the writing requirement of Section 204.[5] For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that it did not.

II. BACKGROUND

The pertinent facts are not in dispute. In 2009, the Tjeknavorians and Mardirossian entered into an oral agreement to collaborate on the Film.[6] The project was envisioned as a " feature-length documentary film devoid of propaganda," [7] with the purpose of spotlighting " humanitarian ...


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