Q:"will a judge even be able to find any of us guilty?"
A: Guilty is in a criminal trial, Liable is in a civil trial. The judge won't find you guilty, but if the Judge's PERCEPTION of the truth is that the plaintiff has proven his case by a preponderance of the evidence then you will be found liable. You have a chance to prove all these defensive statements you make in your question, including your statement that "I was there". Economics will not let you hire a copyright infringement defense attorney for less than $2000 so you are on your own in small claims court. The judge does not know what you know, the judge knows what is presented as admissible evidence.
This is strange, as the claim appears to be a copyright infringement claim and the exclusive jurisdiction for that is in US District Court, not New York small claims court and a registration is required there for jurisdiction. You might start by consulting with a copyright attorney about possibly filing a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which might well be granted since this appears to have been brought in the wrong court and without the requisite registration prior to suit. Read 17 USC 411
Bottom line: If you are referring to a small claims case in NY state court for copyright infringement, the judge should dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction if you make the appropriate motion and properly cite 17 USC 411.
I am not your lawyer and you are not my client. Free advice here is without recourse and any reliance thereupon is at your sole risk. This is done without compensation as a free public service. I am licensed in IL, MO, TX and I am a Reg. Pat. Atty. so advice in any other jurisdiction is strictly general advice and should be confirmed with an attorney licensed in that jurisdiction.
There are always at least two sides to a dispute. The truth, or rather the truth according to what can be shown by evidence, is often a mix of each party's assertions. The dispute you describe could be a claim for breach of an implied-in-fact contract -- that is, a claim that the plaintiff created and turned over the synopsis based on a promise [manifested by oral discussions and/or conduct] that he would be paid. This type of contract claim is controlled by what some call "idea submission" law. Only a New York-licensed intellectual property attorney can analyze the facts to determine if New York's idea submission law would apply to your dispute. Assuming it does, then the small claims court could very well have jurisdiction to hear the case. Which is NOT to say that the plaintiff would be successful, especially against you as a third party, only that the court may conclude that it can hear the case. You need to speak with a New York-licensed intellectual property attorney.
The above is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.
My colleagues offered good insights.
I am not that optimistic that NY courts have opened the gates to allow all manner of suits for "idea" conversion but some recent case law has made that a possibilty under the right conditions.
That said, the small claims court takes great latitude in interpreting complaints from lay people regards to the exact nature and locus of those legal issues. While Mr. Burdick is correct that a true copyright infringement claim should be brought to a federal court, the NY small claims court may very well contrue state contract law claims for example and adjudicate on that, which I believe is what Mr. Ballard noted.
What to do?
Well, based on the little info provided this plaintiff (P) will have a hard time showing any real damages and at a max your exposure is 2K. Hiring an IP litigator in NY will cost considerably more out of the gate, so you may want to take your chances in the small claims court (bring as much evidence as you can) or as Mr. Burdick suggested perhaps see if you can file a motion pro se to dismiss. That is a very good idea, but I am not so sure that would work. And to that point, from a litigation strategy perspective, if this P really wants his day in court should it get dismissed it may compell him to hire a lawyer and sue in federal court so he can be heard. This is unlikley because the dollar amounts do not justify it, but for sure this happens and if it did now you would forced to hire counsel and spend even more money defending this.
You may want to discuss in more detail with a lawyer in private. Most of us here, including myself, offer a free phone consult.
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I have a different take on this matter. New York Courts have recently for the first time recognized an implied contract/unjust enrichment theory that can be used to support claims that a movie or television production company misappropriated an idea that was pitched to it. Further, if there is an e-mail or text message trail that shows that he presented this idea to you and/or the producer, that may be sufficient under current case law to support an implied contract claim.
Frankly, I am surprised that he is only asking for $2,000. My guess is that he does not have enough money for a lawyer and decided to pursue this in small claims court. Assuming that he has an e-mail trial and/or other such proof that he provided the synopsis to people who eventually made the movie, I think he has an excellent case.
Moreover, I do not believe this is a copyright case. He is not saying that he produced a story or play and you copied it---he is saying that he drafted a synopsis and that you used the ideas contained in the synopsis to make a film. Because this is not a copyright case, I do not think a motion to dismiss would work--the state court clearly has jurisdiction over the implied contract theory.
I also think he will be able to easily prove damages. He can require you to reveal the amount of money and time that was invested in making the film, which would be a good indication as to how much the film (and his idea) is worth. Further, he can require you to disclose how you intend to market or distribute the film, and the revenues that could be gained from doing so. The measure of damages here is what the reasonable value would be of his concepts for someone who is engaged in this type of film project, Given the millions of dollars that film-makers can make on a single film, a $2,000 demand does not seem exorbitant. New York is an expensive place to live and do business, and $2000 is not considered a lot of money here. I am confident that there are lawyers who would take this case for the plaintiff, sue in New York Supreme Court (our trial court) and ask for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in damages.
Bottom line----I think you have significant exposure here. Of course, plaintiff must still prove his case. But this cries out for a settlement. If I were in your shoes I would offer a settlement---knowing New York small claims court as I do, if you do not settle you face a significant risk of a $2,000 judgment.