Copyright can occasionally delve into some tricky, murky areas that raise questions about ownership and legalities and who has control over what. The cases are always interesting as observers with no skin in the game, as you get to see courts rule on questions you might never have considered and situations few would have imagined. Much of it circles around issues posed by new technology and the challenges it presents to the idea of copyright as we understand it, but occasionally there's a case that is purely analog and strictly offline that can still serve to raise those yet-unsettled questions.
The particular case, in this instance, involves some long-ago interviews with comedian Gilda Radner recorded before her sadly premature death for a book. Radner was interviewed by journalist Hillary Johnson in 1987 on behalf of publisher Simon & Schuster in an effort to aid the writing of Radner's autobiography. The tapes of that interview lay dormant for years, until Radner's brother Michael found the tapes, eventually giving them to a filmmaker for use in a documentary about his sister that was recently released on CNN. That is where the tapes become a point of contention.
According to Techdirt, Johnson claims ownership over the copyright to those tapes, and attempted to take the matter to court. Given that the issue of ownership of interview recordings isn't entirely clear, a ruling on the matter would be interesting, with the conditional being the operative part there: the case was quickly dismissed by the judge in the case because Johnson lacked the grounds to bring it. AS previously stated, the tapes of the interview sat with Michael Radner until such time as he gave them for use in the documentary, meaning that Johnson at no point had possession of the tapes to register them with the U.S. Copyright Office. And as Copyright 101 says that you need to have registered a copyright to pursue legal action, Johnson case was never going to go very far.
Indeed, Johnson's own complaint against Michael Radner acknowledged that she had no standing to pursue the suit against him, even as she sought to get a copy of the tapes from him so that she could then register them and then continue with the court case, which perhaps would have worked if this were an episode of Looney Tunes and Johnson Bugs Bunny, ready to fast talk anyone into anything. As it stands, the case was quickly and easily dismissed, with Johnson required to pay Radner's legal fees to boot.
What remains unanswered is the larger question of who owns an interview, and how that might relate to copyright in the future. As Mike Masnick points out in the Techdirt piece, intellectual property is not property in the traditional sense, something that leads to greater confusion and contention than is helpful or necessary. And the matter of interviews is complicated by their very nature; it's a conversation between two people, each notionally able to claim some share of copyright if it can be said to exist in those cases. It's just another reminder that IP can be complicated at times, and that registration, while tedious and time-consuming, can come in quite handy.