Service Corporation International plc & Anor v Channel Four Television & Anor

Reference: [1999] EMLR 83

Court: Chancery Division

Judge: Lightman J

Date of judgment: 12 May 1998

Summary: Copyright - Confidential information - Trespass - Funeral directors - Undercover filming for broadcast - Employee of plaintiffs - Interim injunction - Serious issue to be tried - Balance of convenience

Appearances: James Price QC - Leading Counsel (Defendant)  Jacob Dean (Defendant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Dibb Lupton, Birmingham for the Plaintiffs; D J Freeman for the Defendants

Facts

S operated funeral homes in the UK. H was a documentary film-maker and C4 a broadcaster. J, working undercover for H, secured employment at one of S’s funeral homes and took footage of events, purportedly showing abusive and disrespectful treatment of corpses and coffins. When H notified S of its intention to broadcast such footage S initially threatened claims in libel and breach of confidence. Some time later, and shortly before the intended broadcast, S sought injunctive relief against H and C4 to restrain use of the film. It based its case on claims in copyright, confidence and trespass.

Issue

Should an interim injunction be granted to restrain broadcast, on any of the 3 grounds advanced by S?

Held

Dismissing the application:

(1) It was hard to see the claims as anything other than attempts to circumvent the rule in Bonnard v Perryman, whereby no injunction will be granted to restrain an alleged libel which the defendant proposes to justify; (2) The confidence claim was not arguable, as it was restricted to the visual images; those were not distinguishable from the information contained in the pictures, use of which S did not seek to restrain;

(3) even if J had obtained access to S’s premises by a trick so as to be a trespasser, that conferred on S no right to restrain use of the film;

(4) S did not arguably acquire equitable copyright in the film, as there was no breach of fiduciary duty and J was not a trustee of the copyright for S’s benefit;

(5) further grounds for refusing the application included that the media should not be silenced on the basis of claims with limited or uncertain prospects, the balance of convenience and delay.

Comment

The case offers several lessons, including these. Claimants need to be clear and consistent about the basis on which they will seek an injunction, and they need to move promptly. Copyright and trespass claims will not avail in cases of undercover filming by bogus employees. Claims in confidence may sometimes be possible. But it will be necessary to consider whether the claim should embrace all the information or only visual forms of it and, if the latter, whether the two can sensibly be distinguished. This time, the court saw no real distinction. More recent decisions such as Douglas v Hello! have seen the matter differently, at least where personal information is concerned.

Mark Warby was was led by Charles Gray QC for the Claimant.