Homeowner Turns to Copyright to Protect Against Unauthorized Use of Home in Adult Films

What recourse exists when a tenant hands over a rental home to an adult film production company, which proceeds to film fourteen feature-length adult movies onsite, without the owner’s knowledge or permission, over the course of five months? Turns out, copyright law.

This was the crisis facing Martha’s Vineyard homeowner Leah Bassett in 2015, when she discovered that a tenant, in violation of his lease, had handed over her property to adult film producer Monica Jensen and her Canadian distribution company, Mile High Distributions, which proceeded to use the personal residence as the shooting locale and backdrop for an extensive series of pornographic films. Bassett sought redress via 11 legal claims, including a claim for copyright infringement, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in March 2018 (captioned Bassett v. Jensen, 1:18-CV-10576).

Why turn to copyright? Considering that Bassett had leased her home willingly, the court refused to permit a number of Bassett’s original claims, of particular note, trespass. Lacking real property protection, Bassett focused on other avenues of relief, including intellectual property, asserting protectable ownership of the rights to art that she had created that was situated within her home and depicted, by consequence, in the films.

Bassett’s copyright claim surrounded alleged copyright violations from the use of her own artworks in the background of the films, including sketches, hand-stitched pillows, a fireplace, and a hand-painted table. Although Mile High’s attorney argued that he “would bet [his] life savings . . . if you polled every juror in the world, not one would say, ‘I saw this film and focused on the etching or the stitching on the slipcover,’” Bassett nonetheless argued—prior to an official accounting—that the total time for the works on film was not insignificant under copyright law, ringing in at 473 seconds, or a little under eight minutes.

To combat a de minimis use defense, Bassett ultimately provided a detailed accounting of the duration of the works’ onscreen appearances to the court, which had itself declined to watch—or require a jury to watch—the films. Citing the Second Circuit’s seminal Ringgold v. Black Entertainment Television, Inc.,which had also addressed the depiction of a copyrighted work used as set decoration in a filmed program, the court noted that copyright owners could enforce the use of works featured in the background of a shot provided they are clearly visible, such that the medium and style of the work may be discerned by the average lay observer. The court considered the benchmark for quantitative significance to be the point at which an artwork had appeared, clearly visibly, for at least 30 seconds on film, whether at one time or in the aggregate. Upon reviewing Bassett’s accounting, the court determined that at least one work was clearly visible for this timeframe in each of ten films at issue, taking the uses outside of the realm of a de minimis defense. The uses included, for example, “colorful geometric paintings above a couch” that appeared, “prominently and often fully, for over four minutes” onscreen, as well as “green wall hangings above [a] bed appearing throughout [a] nine-minute scene.”

In granting Bassett’s summary judgment motion on infringement, a ruling which occurred in early August, the court also denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on fair use under copyright law, which would have allowed the works’ depiction, even without Bassett’s permission. Undertaking the four-factor fair use analysis and rejecting the defendants’ arguments, the court noted that Bassett’s belongings in the film were artistic works that had not been used in a transformative way, and indeed had sometimes been featured in full.

Although the copyright prong of the lawsuit has been resolved, the court will still permit Bassett’s claims on unfair trade practices, civil conspiracy, business interference, and emotional distress, in an upcoming trial slated for the summer of 2021. The court must also determine damages owing for the copyright infringement, and to this end recently confirmed that Bassett is entitled to profits.

A key takeaway from the intellectual property portion of this dispute is the way in which copyright may serve as an unlikely remedy where unauthorized use of a physical property occurs pursuant to a lease, failing to rise to the level of actionable trespass. Should use of the property include copyright-protected works, a homeowner who owns the copyrights in those works may have recourse to recover damages, including profits, under copyright, particularly, in the context of film productions that, unwittingly or otherwise, misuse copyrighted artworks as mise en scène.