Court Issues Novel Copyright Decision Based on Dr. Phil Videos

What is fair use?

A unique copyright infringement lawsuit involving television personality Dr. Phil recently lead to a novel copyright decision. The case started in 2015, when Leah Rothman, a director on Dr. Phil’s show, filed a lawsuit against Dr. Phil, accusing him of inflicting emotional distress and falsely imprisoning her.  Rothman alleges that Dr. Phil locked the door during a meeting and yelled profanities at the staff.  To gather evidence for the lawsuit, Rothman took several short video clips using her phone of archived videos of the Dr. Phil Show.

Dr. Phil and his company responded to the lawsuit by obtaining a copyright on the nine seconds of video and filing a copyright infringement lawsuit against Rothman, claiming she infringed his copyright. A Texas judge took up the matter and issued an interesting decision.  Judge Rodney Gilstrap granted Dr. Phil and his company a summary judgment on the matter, determining that Rothman’s use of the video did not constitute fair use. 

Fair Use Explored 

The fair use defense allows individuals a limited right to use another’s copyrighted work without it constituting infringement.  Several factors must be evaluated to determine whether a use is “fair use,” including:

  • The nature of the copyrighted work; 
  • The character and purpose of your use;
  • How much of the work you used and whether it was substantial; and 
  • The effect of the use on the market.

In assessing these factors in the Dr. Phil case, the judge considered the purpose of Rothman’s use of the videos and found it weighed against fair use.  Rothman obtained the videos in bad faith with the intent to use them in her lawsuit.  Fair use, according to the judge and previous case law, does not excuse theft or deception.  Further, Rothman’s use was not transformative in any manner. She did not use the videos as part of commentary or criticism.  She simply copied them.  These, among other factors, resulted in summary judgment in favor of Dr. Phil.

Copyright cases are notoriously complex.  If you believe someone has infringed your copyright or you stand accused of copyright infringement, contact a copyright attorney for assistance with your case as soon as possible.