A King of Comedy clobbers an old claim

Steve Harvey, the original king of comedy himself, will get the last laugh in his long dispute with Joe Cooper, a  videographer.

A federal court in Dallas has tossed Cooper’s lawsuit, seeking $50 million, and asserting that Harvey had breached a contract with him for recording 120 or so hours worth of the comedian’s stand-up routines at Harvey’s Dallas club back in 1993.

It turns out that the joke two decades later is on Cooper, as jurors, after just hours of deliberation, found that he and Harvey had not entered into a valid contract. Instead, Harvey’s counterclaim that Cooper invaded his privacy due to misappropriation of the comedian’s name and likeness prevailed. Cooper learned the hard way that posting YouTube videos can have their legal peril.

The race for an injunction

It wasn’t a laughing matter after Cooper released footage from Harvey’s old stand-up routines on YouTube. Harvey had the Internet buzzing about his racially themed jokes, in which, Cooper told an online gossip site, the comedian encouraged his audiences to “spit on white people,” and to “abuse old white women.” So much for Harvey’s long-cultivated “nice guy” persona. Harvey also wasn’t helped by a public flap over his recent comments about Asian men being unattractive to women of any race.

Little wonder that the reputation-conscious comedian was loath to have some old stand-up routines out there online, especially as he contended he was testing material, he asserted he is careful to protect his own intellectually property (his jokes) and he wanted Cooper’s videos deleted from the Internet.

Cooper, in turn, has claimed that Harvey breached their contract—which gave him rights to publish and display the tapes—by contacting YouTube with copyright take-down notices. Harvey has stuck to his story that he never signed a contract, and that his hiring of Cooper was for the limited purpose of promoting his comedy club and studying his performances.

This case may sound like the typical “he says, she says” story, but Harvey’s claim of extortion actually tipped the scale in his favor. Harvey asserted that, once he became a household name because of his comedy, Cooper harassed him about the videos, asking for millions of dollars in exchange. Cooper persisted with contacts with Harvey’s attorneys, agents, business partners, and hundreds of angry phone calls, which Cooper admitted to and apologized for during trial.

Before the trial began, U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle granted summary judgment, striking down Cooper’s claim of Harvey’s “interference in the marketplace” because he lost a distribution deal with Musical Video Distributors Inc.  The court said this claim held no water as Cooper only possessed a prospective deal with the company and had no actual contract. She also denied Harvey’s plea for a court order, yanking the videos off YouTube, and the comedian’s request that she rule out claims he breached any contract with Cooper. The judge said the contract was ambiguous, and sent the issue of its validity to trial by jury.

It took a little over two years, but Harvey, the Family Feud and Miss America host, officially can stick to his “family man” image after the jury decided that he and Cooper had not entered into a valid contract. Instead of paying out millions in damages, Harvey will be receiving all of his tapes from Cooper, who will release any past, present, or future claims on the tapes.