|Nate Thayer, freelance journalist, in Cambodia.
Filed Oct. 30 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the lawsuit, by freelance reporter Nate Thayer, accuses Mr. Koppel and ABC of copyright infringement, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, tortious interference with business relations and fraud.
The suit alleges that Mr. Koppel and ABC misappropriated credit for a major international story and "deprived Thayer of the advertising value of his name."
Jeffrey Schneider, vice president of ABC News, said, "We find it unfortunate that Mr. Thayer and his lawyers have attempted to attack the good name of one of America's most respected news broadcasts as well as a journalist of impeccable reputation. We look forward to the opportunity to prove in court that Thayer's claims have no merit."
At the heart of the lawsuit is the question of who
Finding Pol Pot
In 1997, after a decade-long search, Mr. Thayer finally tracked down Pol Pot deep in the jungles of northern Cambodia. It was the first time Pol Pot had been photographed and interviewed in 20 years. And it was the last. The deposed Cambodian dictator died under mysterious circumstances a year after Mr. Thayer filmed him.
Mr. Thayer's video footage of the interview with Pol Pot aired on Nightline on July 28, 1997.
Mr. Thayer's lawsuit alleges that Mr. Koppel and ABC breached a contract that allowed for limited use of the Pol Pot footage. Mr. Thayer would get credit for the images and be paid $350,000 for the story, the legal action alleges. The agreement was said to have been made verbally in front of witnesses, and Mr. Koppel promised that ABC lawyers would draft a final document.
'Journalist to journalist'
"Don't worry," Mr. Koppel said to Mr. Thayer, according to the complaint. "You must trust me, journalist to journalist."
"Instead of complying with those terms," said Mel Weiss, partner at Milberg Weiss Berhad Hynes & Lerach, New York, which is representing Mr. Thayer, "ABC immediately created a frame grab, used it without giving Thayer credit, fixed ABC's logo on the photo saying 'ABC News exclusive,' forwarded the frame to news services, posted it on the ABC Web site, gave a transcript of the video and a 10 minute portion of it to The New York Times, and broadcast the video on monitors throughout the streets of Cambodia, which basically destroyed Thayer's commercial viability with this product."
According to the complaint, Mr. Thayer never received a written contract. He claims an ABC lawyer told him the reason he couldn't get a contract that day was because the lawyer "did not know how to type" and he had "no secretary." Mr. Thayer also claims he did not receive payment until 10
|ABC newsman Ted Koppel (far right, blue shirt) airing footage on a street in Cambodia.
Along with damages, Mr. Thayer is demanding the defendants be required to pay him "the profits and other economic benefits realized." Profits would include advertising revenue Nightline got the nights it aired the footage, according to a person with knowledge of the lawsuit.
"In 1997 ABC News agreed to pay Nate Thayer the sizable sum of $350,000 for the rights to use his footage of former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot," said ABC News' Mr. Schneider. "Despite the fact that ABC provided prominent and repeated credit and generous remuneration for his work, Mr. Thayer initiated a five-year barrage of complaints coupled with repeated demands for more money that culminate in this filing, in what is essentially a contract dispute."
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Wayne Friedman contributed to this report.