Dr. Phil Sues Gawker Media for Copyright Infringement

Phil McGraw photographed for the cover of Newsweek magazine by Jerry Avenaim.

Dr. Phil McGraw’s company, Peteski Productions (Peteski), recently filed a lawsuit against Gawker Media (Gawker) for copyright infringement. It appears that Deadspin.com (Deadspin), which is owned by Gawker Media, posted portions of the doctor’s exclusive interview with the man behind the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax online before the show actually aired in various parts of the country.

Deadspin originally broke the story, including the hoaxster’s catfishing scheme; however Dr. Phil was given an exclusive interview with hoaxster, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Dr. Phil’s interview with Tuiasosopo was a two-part episode, with a cliff-hanging first episode. But Deadspin took away Dr. Phil’s thunder (and seemingly lowered his ratings) by showing the “answer” to the cliffhanger online prior to Dr. Phil airing in most markets.

Some Background Info on Gawker and Deadspin.com

Gawker is a media company/blog network. According to the complaint, Gawker says that it’s an “influential media group,” and adds that people have referred to it as being “the biggest blog in the world” with millions of readers every month. Gawker owns Deadspin, which is a popular sports blog that appeals to young, wealthy readers. Deadspin claims that as of 2010, it had over 460 million unique visitors.

The Complaint

As briefly discussed above, Peteski brought this action against Deadspin because Deadspin copied the Dr. Phil show that had an exclusive interview with Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo is the brains (and voice) behind the hoax that was played on Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o.  What was the hoax? A fake online girlfriend for the football player. On the first part of Dr. Phil’s two-part show, Tuiasosopo talked about how the hoax worked, and toward the end of the show, Dr. Phil asked Tuiasosopo to demonstrate the telephone voice that he used. Tuiasosopo acted like he didn’t want to do it; so the end of that first episode was “the cliffhanger”–can Dr. Phil get Tuiasosopo to “do the voice” on the next episode?

Deadspin told its readers to watch tomorrow’s episode for the answer to the cliffhanger. Of course, when the next day came, Deadspin had posted the second show revealing the results by 9:30 a.m. ET–long before Dr. Phil even airs across most of the U.S. Peteski claims in the complaint that by Deadspin advising its readers to “tune in tomorrow,” the company was actually telling its readers to watch the results on Deadspin and not on the actual Dr. Phil show.

This was problematic for Peteski because the second episode was expected to exceed the first in ratings; but those ratings were much lower than anticipated because the answer to the cliffhanger had already been revealed by Deadspin. The interview, and especially the cliffhanger, was exclusive to Peteski. That said, Peteski claimed that Deadspin misappropriated the show and had planned all along to steal the copyrighted material. And according to the complaint, this wasn’t Deadspin’s first time infringing someone else’s material with respect to the hoax–it even took and posted part of a CBS This Morning newscast back in January of 2013. Gawker benefited greatly from its infringement; however, Peteski didn’t get a thing–unless the court awards damages in this case.

To be clear, Peteski notes in the complaint that it worked hard to get the exclusive interview with Tuiasosopo. Several media organizations wanted it, but Dr. Phil was able to get it. Peteski owns the exclusive copyrights in both episodes of the recorded interview and has the exclusive right to license those episodes to third parties.

On January 30th, 2013 (the day before the show was to air), Deadspin announced the upcoming Dr. Phil episodes to its readers, encouraging them to watch and to check their area listings for the show time. Sounds okay, right? Then on the 31st, Deadspin posted a recap of the show, making note of the cliffhanger at the end of the first part and simply telling readers to “tune in tomorrow.” So, did they mean tune in on Gawker, or tune in to Dr. Phil? Peteski claims that Gawker’s plan to steal the content was premeditated and without regard for Peteski’s rights. Gawker wanted the edge over the competition to be able to get the scoop out first–but the company scooped Dr. Phil with Dr. Phil’s own content!

The complaint specifically states that, “As a result of Defendant’s disregard of Peteski’s copyright rights, Gawker infringed the CLIFFHANGER on February 1, 2013. Indeed, Gawker’s theft of the core of Episode 2 gave those viewers no reason to “tune in” to watch that episode.” Gawker infringed Peteski’s copyrights in the second episode by putting portions of it online without permission, and the complaint says that Gawker continues to infringe by publishing and distributing it via the Web.

Accordingly, Peteski seeks relief in the form of damages–actual damages, plus it wants all the profits that Gawker may have received, or statutory damages and/or “enhanced” statutory damages for Gawker’s willful conduct. If Gawker loses and has to make a huge payout, will the company change its practices? Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


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