The United States District Court has dismissed a claim by Plaintiff Firooz Zahedi, a photographer who took several iconic photographs of Uma Thurman in her role in the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. At the time of the photo shoot, Miramax paid Zahedi $10,000, although it is unclear what rights Miramax obtained as neither party was able to produce a signed agreement showing the terms of their deal.
Miramax claimed it created the concept for the shoot including her pose and hired Zahedi to execute its vision and purchased all the rights to the photo. The photographer disagreed, claiming he was working for less than his customary fee and there was no work for hire agreement that would vest complete ownership in Miramax. Zahedi alleged he orally licensed the right to use the photograph for a poster to promote the movie but did not otherwise grant Miramax rights to use the photo. In 1994, the poster won a “Key Art” award from the Hollywood Reporter and Zahedi was credited as the photographer. He used the photo he took for the back cover of his book of photographs and has sold prints of the photo at galleries. A 1994 script for the film published by Miramax Books, identifies the photograph as Copyright Firooz Zahedi. The image has also appeared on T-shirts, socks, and other merchandise.
Miramax moved for summary judgment, arguing that Zahedi’s claims are barred by the statute of limitations or, in the alternative, by the equitable doctrines of estoppel and laches, and that in any event Miramax owns the photograph as a work for hire.
Under the statute of limitations for copyright claims, an action for infringement must be brought “within three years after the claim accrued.” This means that a plaintiff cannot recover for damages that occurred more than three years before suit was filed.
However, there is an exception when a plaintiff reasonably lacks knowledge of the infringement prior to the three-year period. Here, the court found that Zahedi actually knew for some time that Miramax was exploiting a photograph of which he claimed ownership without giving him credit or royalties, and therefore his failure to bring suit to assert his ownership rights was fatal to his case. “Zahedi’s receipt in 2015 of an action figure prominently featuring the iconic photo bearing Miramax’s copyright notice,  and failing to credit Zahedi is uncontroverted evidence of his actual knowledge of Miramax’s plain and express repudiation of his ownership.” Consequently, the plaintiff’s claim was barred by the statute of limitations and dismissed on a motion for summary judgment.

This case illustrates the importance of having written agreements and being diligent in pursuing claims before they are barred by the statute of limitations. Miramax was negligent in not having or preserving a signed work for hire agreement with the photographer. U.S. law recognizes the work-for-hire doctrine under which the “author” of a work can be the employer of an artist, not the artist himself. However, here, even if the photographer owned the photo because no such agreement existed, his failure to prosecute his claim in a timely manner barred his recovery.
Read the decision.