Seeks More Than $30 Million From Ted Koppel and ABC

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NEW YORK ( -- TV Journalist Ted Koppel and his employer ABC have been sued for more than $30 million by a freelance
Nate Thayer, freelance journalist, in Cambodia.
journalist who alleges they stole his exclusive 1997 story about the whereabouts of former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot.

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.

'Advertising value'
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

Pol Pot, in 1998 AP photo.
Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement that seized control of Cambodia in 1975 and ruled the country until 1979. International authorities estimate that during that time, up to 2 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer regime.
Overthrown in 1979, Pol Pot fled into the mountains and disappeared from public view even as documentary news images of piles of human skull became a horrific icon of his era. Eighteen years later, freelance journalist Nate Thayer located and filmed Mr. Pot in Anlong Veng, a remote site along Cambodia's northern border with Thailand.
Mr. Pot died in the same area in April 1998 while under house arrest by his former Khmer Rouge colleagues.
has the right to market a scoop to the rest of the media: the outlet airing the story or the reporter who got it?

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."

Received $350,000
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.
months later, when ABC sent $350,000 to defuse the controversy after Mr. Thayer refused to accept a Peabody Award that he was to share with ABC for the Pol Pot report.

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.

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