Greer v. Electronic Arts, Inc., No. 10-cv-3601 (N.D. Cal. order filed Feb. 1, 2012) [Doc. 96].
In this copyright infringement action, plaintiff contended that defendant improperly used a
sound recording and the lyrics of a song by incorporating them into a widely-distributed videogame. Defendant moved for summary judgment on three independent grounds. Although two of defendant’s three arguments presented close calls, triable issues of fact existed that precluded summary judgment, and the motion was denied.
Facts: Plaintiff was a member of a band that registered a copyright relating to an album the band had recorded, which included the song at issue. Plaintiff subsequently filed a correction to the registration to clarify that he claimed sole copyright to the lyrics of the song. One of Plaintiff's band mates was employed by a video game developer, and was working to create a soundtrack for a video game that was being was developed. The band mate chose to include the song as part of the soundtrack for the game. The band mate and two other band members submitted declarations stating that all of the band members executed a written license agreement giving the developer the right to use the song in the game in exchange for one dollar and acknowledgement in the on-screen credits of the game. No signed copy of such a license agreement was located, and Plaintiff denied ever being asked to sign a license agreement, and alleges that he did not become aware that the song had been incorporated into the game until 2009.
Discussion: First, the court addressed issues with the registration of the album containing the song as a "PA" (performing arts), in contrast to registration on a form "SR" (sound recording). While Form SR may be used to register both the underlying composition and the
sound recording if separate registrations are not necessary or desired, nothing on Form PA permits it to be used to register a sound recording. Thus, defendant was correct that the band’s recorded performance of the song that was used in the game was never registered. That fact, however, wasnot fatal to plaintiff's claims, because plaintiff's complaint specifically identified by registration number the copyrighted work that plaintiff alleged had been unlawfully copied. While the complaint also repeatedly asserted the erroneous legal conclusion that the registration was of the sound recording (as opposed to the underlying musical composition) the facts alleged were sufficient to state a claim for infringement of the musical composition. There was no dispute that the band's performance of the song incorporated in the game was a performance of the underlying composition.
Second, the Court analyzed the competing arguments about the existence of a license. The Court concluded that the record did not permit a conclusion on summary judgment that the license agreement was ever signed, either in the unsigned form of the document defendant hadsubmitted, or in any form. While the recollections on both sides were vague, they were in direct conflict.
Third, the Court analyzed the defense of laches. Defendant made a compelling showing that this was a case in which laches may ultimately apply to bar at least some portion of plaintiff's claims. Among other things, the evidentiary prejudice was manifest in the witnesses’ fading memories and the uncertainty in the documentary record as to whether the license agreement was ever signed. The critical question, however, was when plaintiff knew or should have known that the song had been incorporated into the game. Plaintiff's testimony that he did not learn of the song’s use in the game until 2009 was sufficient to create a triable issue of fact as to his actual knowledge. If the trier of fact accepts the testimony that the possibility of using the song in the game was discussed at length prior to plaintiff's departure from the band, he more likely can be held to a duty of some inquiry, even assuming he never saw or signed the license agreement. Defendant had not shown, however, that undisputed facts compel a finding that plaintiff was on constructive notice as early as 1995, or at any particular time thereafter. Finally, defendant had not established that laches necessarily would bar plaintiff from seeking injunctive relief against any ongoing infringement, even assuming it ultimately bars some or all of his claims for past damages.
Jordan Greenberger, Esq.
J. Greenberger, PLLC. A boutique law practice in Brooklyn, New York, concentrating on copyright, trademark, litigation and related matters.