Alumnus denies allegations of copyright infringement

Despite what Paramount Pictures’ lawsuit against him alleges, Chris Moukarbel MFA ’06 says, his master’s thesis project was not trying to undermine Paramount’s $40 million marketing campaign to promote Oliver Stone’s movie “World Trade Center.”

For part of his master’s thesis in sculpture, Moukarbel shot a 12-minute video using an except from Stone’s screenplay. The student film raised the ire of Paramount Pictures, which sued Moukarbel on June 16 in the U.S. District Court in Washington for copyright infringement, alleging that potential moviegoers would confuse Moukarbel’s film with Stone’s full-length blockbuster.

A Paramount spokeswoman said participants in online message boards had been confused by Moukarbel’s work and had been unsure whether it was connected officially to Oliver Stone’s film.

“He stole our material, and he shot a script that we owned,” she said. “People were confused, and that’s not something we want to happen.”

Moukarbel said in a June 26 interview that he has been in touch with Paramount about settling the case in order to avoid the cost of litigation. He said he is currently represented pro bono by two lawyers specializing in copyright law, though they would be unable to see the case through a potentially lengthy trial. Moukarbel said Paramount has seemed amenable to a settlement that would bar him from showing the film.

“I wasn’t really thinking about copyright law when I made this piece, and my knowledge of copyright law is limited,” Moukarbel said, explaining why he is trying to reach an out-of-court settlement with Paramount. “I very well could be found guilty of copyright infringement.”

The Paramount spokeswoman said she was unable to comment on pending litigation.

Moukarbel had posted the video, which stars two Yale School of Drama actors, on his Web site but removed it after the studio took out a restraining order to prohibit Moukarbel from distributing the film. Paramount’s first communication with Moukarbel was an e-mail sent by a lawyer the afternoon of June 15 to inform the artist that Paramount would be in court the next morning to petition a judge for the order.

“The preemptive release of the Moukarbel Film on the Internet before Paramount’s WTC Film means that unquantifiable but, most likely, large numbers of people will see the Mourkarbel Film first for free and determined, based on this poor-quality copy, that they do not want to pay to see the remainder of the WTC Film,” the studio wrote in a court filing.

But Moukarbel said the lawsuit–and its subsequent coverage in the press–misrepresents his intentions in making the 12-minute video. For starters, he said, he does not live in Washington, D.C., where the studio filed its suit; the address the studio used was five years old, and he has since moved to New York City. Moreover, he said he does not identify himself as a filmmaker. Such an identification, he said, would falsely imply that he has a commercial interest in creating films.

“There are a lot of cotemporary artists who use video or film as a medium but aren’t considered and don’t consider themselves filmmakers,” he said, adding that this was the first piece he had ever filmed.

He said his artistic interest is in exploring how and by whom historical events are memorialized and represented. The meaning of his piece came from the use of Stone’s screenplay, he said, and the short film was intended as a comment on Hollywood’s ability to memorialize and interpret historical events, such as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Web site on which he initially posted the film identified the script as Stone’s.

“It’s all about power and who has the authority to represent historical events. Obviously, Hollywood in our time has taken that right because they have the money and they have the access,” he said. “The meaning of the piece exists in the fact that I used their screenplay; that’s something I was clear about.”

Because Moukarbel used the script to create a piece of artistic criticism, some copyright lawyers said, his use of the script could be considered permissible under the “fair-use” aspect of copyright law. Fair use allows the use of copyrighted material in some cases, such as commentary or reviews of the original work, said Eddan Katz ’97, a lecturer at the Law School and the executive director of the Information Society Project, which studies issues of intellectual property and new technologies. Judges determine whether a usage was fair based on the extent of the copying, the effect of the new work on the market for the original, and the intent of the individual in using parts of the copyrighted work, he said.

Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney at EFF, said Moukarbel’s film could stand a good chance of being determined fair use, especially as it was made as part of an academic project.

“His purpose was clearly not commercial and was clearly not intended to compete with the Oliver Stone blockbuster,” von Lohmann said. “It was a matter of scholarship, and all of these factors are ones that favor a finding of fair use.”

For now, though, Moukarbel said he is just amazed at how much attention his film has received. Newspapers as far-flung as Russia and South Africa have run stories on him, and he has received a number of e-mails from people praising his film, as well as many more from those who want to see it. The latter, of course, he has to inform that distributing the movie could be considered contempt of court.

“When you do attempt to prevent people from seeing a piece of artwork, it brings people’s attention to it,” he said. “The reality is, because of the effort on [Paramount’s] part because of the lawsuit and all of the press which they initiated, the movie’s being seen anyway.”

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