Michael Jackson’s estate is one step closer to trial in a dispute over a documentary called Michael: The Last Photo Shoots. Noval Williams Films in 2014 sued John Branca and John McClain, the executors of Jackson’s estate, seeking a declaration that the documentary doesn’t infringe the copyright in photos and video of the late King of Pop.
U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty denied the executors’ motion for summary judgment, as well as Noval’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment, finding there are numerous factual disputes in the case — including one over who actually owns video footage of Jackson taken during Vogue and Ebony photo shoots. According to Crotty’s decision, Novel claims the footage was initially owned by Hasaun Muhammad but was subsequently transferred to Craig J. Williams and then Bonaventura Films. Bonaventura granted Noval an exclusive license to use it. Meanwhile, Jackson’s estate maintains that it is the owner of the footage because and Muhammad agreed that he wouldn’t exploit it without Jackson’s consent.
“Since Jackson is deceased, the only living person with direct information on the ownership is Muhammad,” writes Crotty. “But Muhammad has proven to be more elusive than a phantom.” The court found that the estate hasn’t sufficiently proved its ownership of the copyrights and Noval hasn’t established definitively that the estate doesn’t own the rights, so the issue should be presented to a jury. Further, Crotty held that Noval failed to prove the estate’s counterclaim for copyright infringement is barred by the statute of limitations and that the documentary’s use of the photos is protected by fair use. (Read the full opinion below.) Crotty also granted a motion to strike affidavits from Muhammad and Michael Williams, finding that the men are elusive and the court is unconvinced either of them will be available to testify.