Suit claims 'Catfish' isn't a doc -- and that filmmakers should pay up
From the moment "Catfish" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival nearly a year ago, critics have questioned just how much of the movie -- presented as a documentary -- is authentic or unstaged. Now a lawsuit alleges that the film is not a documentary and that the filmmakers are liable for damages.
"Catfish" is centered on 26-year-old Nev Schulman, a New York City-based photographer who enters a romantic online relationship with a young, beautiful woman in Michigan. (Spoilers to follow.) His brother, Ariel, and his friend Henry Joost -- both filmmakers -- are intrigued by the story and begin filming Nev's journey. As the romance intensifies, the boys decide they'd like to take a trip to visit Nev's girlfriend. They discover that Nev has for months been communicating with a middle-aged woman named Angela Wesselman-Pierce, and not a sexy model half her age.
Nev first learns that his online girlfriend may not be who she seems in one scene where she sends him a song she says she is singing called "All Downhill From Here." A quick YouTube search and Nev discovers that it's not his girlfriend who is singing in the MP3, but rather songwriter Amy Kuney.
On Friday, Threshold Media -- which owns Kuney's label, Spin Move Records -- filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles against the film's distributors, Universal and Relativity Media, and the producers and directors of the film. Threshold alleges that Kuney's song is played for 18 seconds in the movie, Nev sings along to it for a few more seconds, and the song's title is displayed on iTunes for less than a minute. At Sundance screenings, according to the lawsuit, the song also played over the film's closing credits.
Threshold is seeking statutory damages, profits and an injunction. The company maintains that "Catfish" is not a documentary, and therefore the fair use doctrine -- which would allow Kuney's song to be used without compensation -- does not come into play.
"I don’t think it’s a legitimate documentary because they’re filming a movie about themselves and there was no public interest in this," explained Neville Johnson, one of Threshold's lawyers.
Reached at his office Friday, Ariel Schulman said Johnson's logic was flawed.
"That's pretty interesting. I didn't realize that was not allowed in the definition of documentary," said Schulman, co-director of the film. "I think a documentary is the account of a true story, which this is."
But Donald Zachary, an intellectual property lawyer who teaches media law at the University of Southern California, said that legally, the question of whether the film is a documentary is pertinent.
The fair use doctrine, Zachary said, looks at the "purpose and character" of the song's use.
“The filmmaker will argue it’s a documentary: It serves an educational purpose. It’s designed to elucidate some aspect of society. It’s more like news than entertainment,” he said. “The other side will argue that this is just people filming themselves. It’s a vanity project. Boy pursues girl, boy loses girl, who turns out to be someone she said she wasn’t.”
Schulman added that he, his brother and Joost are longtime friends of Kuney, who actually apologized to the men in advance of the lawsuit.
"She was like, 'Sorry, guys, it's my label.' It's not her personal decision. She has nothing to gain from them trying to sue us," he said. "I would be shaking in my boots if I had something to hide. It's the craziest thing that's ever happened to my brother and us, and it's 100% true. I'm sorry that they're gonna waste their time and hard-earned money."
Many thought that if the filmmakers were to be sued by anyone, it'd be Wesselman-Pierce. But the shadowy figure, who has refused to grant an interview to anyone other than "20/20," signed a contract and was paid for participating in the film, Schulman said.
“We compensated her family pretty nicely,” the filmmaker revealed. “Plus, we auctioned off some of her paintings and she made thousands of bucks. And she and Nev talked the other day for the first time in months, because Katy Perry had just tweeted that she wanted Angela to paint her portrait. So we do cool things.”
-- Amy Kaufman
Photo: (From left) Henry Joost, Nev Schulman and Ariel Schulman. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times.
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