Copyright Infringement Claim Against Songwriter Dr. Luke Fails Absent Evidence of "Access"; 9th Cir.

Loomis v. Cornish, No. 13-57093 (9th Cir. Sept. 2, 2016).

Plaintiff composer's claim, alleging that high-profile songwriters (including Dr. Luke) stole a two-measure vocal melody and used it as the theme for the verse melody in their hit song “Domino,” failed because the plaintiff did not put forth any potentially admissible evidence to establish that the Domino songwriters had access to plaintiff's song, holds the 9th Circuit in affirming summary judgment for the defendants.

Will Loomis, composer of the song “Bright Red Chords,” alleged that the defendants stole part of his song. The panel held that at summary judgment Loomis failed to put forth any potentially admissible evidence to establish that the Domino songwriters had access to Bright Red Chords, either on a chain-of-events theory or a widespread-dissemination theory. Accordingly, he failed to establish copyright infringement.

Questions Whether LiveNation Willfully Infringed Run-DMC Photos; 9th Cir.

Friedman v. Live Nation Merch., No. 14-55302 (9th Cir. Aug. 18, 2016).

In a copyright dispute over the use of photographs that the plaintiff took of the hip hop group Run-DMC, defendant Live Nation stipulated that it infringed the plaintiff photographer's copyrights when it used his photos without his authorization on t-shirts and a calendar.  Before the 9th Circuit was the question of whether there was sufficient evidence in the record to permit a jury to conclude that Live Nation committed willful copyright infringement, making it liable for additional damages under 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(2); whether a jury could conclude that Live Nation knowingly removed copyright management information (“CMI”) from the photographs in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 1202(b) [the DMCA]; and whether the plaintiff could recover statutory damages awards under section 504 of the Copyright Act measured by the number of retailers who purchased infringing merchandise from Live Nation, even though the plaintiff photographer did not join those retailers as defendants in his suit.

The 9th Circuit held: (1) that there was a triable issue of fact as to whether Live Nation’s infringement was willful, and that the district court therefore erred in granting summary judgment to Live Nation on willfulness; (2) the plaintiff photographer could prevail upon a showing that Live Nation distributed his works with knowledge that copyright management information had been removed, even if Live Nation did not remove it, and accordingly summary judgment should not have been granted because there was a triable issue of fact as to whether Live Nation distributed the photographs with the requisite knowledge; and (3) the district court correctly held that the plaintiff photographer was limited to one award per work infringed by Live Nation because he did not name any of the alleged downstream infringers as defendants in the case ("A plaintiff seeking separate damages awards on the basis of downstream infringement must join the alleged downstream infringers in the action and prove their liability for infringement. ").  Notably, on third question involving downstream infringers, the 9th Circuit rejected a "mass marketing" exception that some lower courts had adopted.

Madonna's De Minimis Use Of Horn Segment In 'Vogue' Not Copyright Infringement

VMG Salsoul, LLC v. Madonna Louise Ciccone, No. 13-57104/14-55837 (9th Cir. June 2, 2016) [decision].

The 9th Circuit Court of appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of Madonna, holding that any copying of the plaintiff's horn segment in the Madonna song "Vogue" was de minimis and not an infringement of either plaintiff's composition or sound recording.  However, the appellate court reversed the award of attorney's fees to Madonna, holding that plaintiff's claim, which was premised on a legal theory adopted by (only) the 6th Circuit that use of an identical copy of a portion of a sound recording is an infringement, was objectively reasonable.

The 9th Circuit had previously held that the de minimis exception applies to claims of infringement of a copyright composition, but it was an open question in the Circuit whether the exception applied to claims of infringement of a copyrighted sound recording.  The Court concluded that, as to both the composition and sound recording, an average audience would not recognize the appropriation.  And then, the Court refused to adopt the bright-line rule adopted by the 6th Circuit that for copyright sound recordings, any unauthorized copying - no matter how trivial - constitutes infringement.  (Bridegeport Music v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 792 (6th Cir. 2005)).  The 9th Circuit recognized that it was taking the unusual step of creating a circuit split, but found that it had an independent duty to determine congressional intent.  Accordingly, it held that the de minimis exception applied to sound recordings.

"Rat Pack" Generic For Live Shows

TRP Entertainment v. Cunningham, No. 13-16754 (9th Cir. Feb. 16, 2016) [non-precedential].

The 9th Circuit held that the term "The Rat Pack" is generic in the context of live shows about or in tribute to members of the Rat Pack, therefore not identifying any particular producer of a Rat Pack tribute show.  Further, the lower court correctly ordered a disclaimer of the term "The Rat Pack" modifying the plaintiff's trademark registration pursuant to 15 USC 1119.

Fair Use Must Be Considered Before Sending DMCA Takedown Notices; 9th Circuit

Lenz v. Universal Music, No. 13-16106 (9th Cir. filed 9/14/2015) [decision].

Copyright owners must consider whether allegedly infringing use is "fair use" before sending takedown notices under the DMCA, holds the 9th Circuit.  In the so-called "dancing baby case," Plaintiff alleged that Universal Music violated 17 USC 512(f) by misrepresenting in a takedown notice that a home video of her son dancing to a Prince song and posted on YouTube constituted an infringing use of a portion of a "Prince" composition.  The Court held that the DMCA requires copyright owners to consider fair use before sending a takedown notice, and that failure to do so raises an issue of fact whether the copyright owner formed a subjective good faith belief that the use was not authorized by law.  Available theories of good faith belief are actual knowledge, and willful blindness.  "Universal faces liability if it knowingly misrepresented in the takedown notification that it had formed a good faith belief the video was not authorized by the law, i.e. did not constitute fair use." A prevailing plaintiff in such a case is entitled to nominal damages.  Ultimately, the 9th Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of the cross-motions for summary judgment, such that the case would proceed to trial on the issue of whether Universal had actual knowledge, and the amount of damages.

Ray Charles' Foundation Can Challenge Notices His Heirs Served To Terminate Copyright Grants To The Foundation

The Ray Charles Foundation v. Robinson, No. 13-55421 (9th Cir. Opinion dated July 31, 2015).

The 9th Circuit holds that that the Ray Charles Foundation, the sole beneficiary of Ray Charles’s estate, had standing to challenge the validity and effectiveness of notices of termination of copyright grants conferred by Charles to the predecessors of Warnter/Chappell Music.  The Court found that the Foundation was a real party in interest because the termination notices affected its right to royalties, and its claims fell within the statutory zone of interests.  Accordingly, it had standing to sue to challenge whether the underlying works were made for hire and thus not subject to the termination provisions of 17 USC 203 and 304(c).

Judgment Creditor Can Have Receiver Appointed To Sell Copyrights In Master Recordings To Satisfy Debt

Hendricks & Lewis PLLC v. Clinton, No. 13-35010 (9th Cir. June 23, 2014; amended Aug. 27, 2014 [decision]).

The 9th Circuit affirmed an order appointing a receiver and authorizing the sale of copyrights in four master sound recording owned by the musician George Clinton to satisfy judgment obtained by his former lawyers for past-due attorneys' fees.  The 9th Circuit held that under Washington law, the copyrights were subject to execution to satisfy judgments against Clinton.  Further, section 201(e) of the Copyright Act did not protect Clinton from the involuntary transfer of his copyrighted works.  "Section 201(e) is of no help to Clinton because he is not the 'author' of the Masters within the meaning of the Copyright Act. Thang specifically agreed in its 1975 contract with Warner Bros. that Warner Bros. would be the sole owner of the master recordings resulting from the parties’ contract. Thang and Clinton were 'deemed [Warner Bros.’s]
employees for hire' in the same contract.  As noted, the parties signed a substantially similar agreement in 1979, and it is uncontested that all four Masters were created under these agreements. *** [E]ven if the Masters were not originally 'works for hire,'  § 201(e) protection does not apply where a copyright was
previously 'transferred voluntarily by that individual author.' There is no question that Clinton transferred any interest that he had in the Masters to Warner Bros., and, as part of a settlement arising from unrelated litigation, Warner Bros. subsequently agreed to transfer ownership back to Clinton. These voluntary transfers provide yet another basis for rejecting Clinton’s argument that he enjoys § 201(e) protection as the original author of the master sound recordings."  Accordingly, it was not an abuse of discretion to appoint a receiver to manage or sell ownership of the copyrights.  Clinton's defenses raise on appeal -- judicial estoppel and fraud on the court -- lacked merit.  Other defenses were waived for failure to raise them below, and in any event lacked merit.

Blacked Eyed Peas Not Liable For Infringement In Absence Of Access And Lack Of Similarity

Pringle v. Adams, No. 12-55998 (9th Cir. Feb. 21, 2014).

The 9th Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants -- the Black Eyed Peas and related parties -- in a copyright infringement case.  The Court found: "The evidence in support of Plaintiff, however, raises only the barest possibility that Defendants had access to [the song], and Plaintiff does not argue that there is a 'striking similarity' between [the song] and Defendants’ allegedly infringing work."  The 9th Circuit also affirmed sanctions against plaintiff for violating a court order regarding service of process on one of the defendants.

9th Circuit Reverses "Platters" Injunction Because No Presumption Of Irreparable Harm In Trademark Cases

Herb Reed Enterprises v. Florida Entertainment, No. 12-16868 (9th Cir. Dec. 2, 2013) [Decision].

The 9th Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of a preliminary injunction against defendants’ use of the mark “The Platters” in connection with a vocal group, holding that the likelihood of irreparable harm must be established, rather than presumed, by a plaintiff seeking injunctive relief in the trademark context, and that the record did not support a determination of the likelihood of irreparable harm.  Likelihood of success can not be collapsed into irreparable harm.  The 9th Circuit also found (affirming the district court) that: (i) earlier New York actions did not have res judicata effect -- there was no claim or issue preclusion; (ii) the claim was not barred by laches; (iii) Plaintiff had not abandoned the trademark.

9th Cir. Orders Trial Over Bob Marley Licensing Rights

Rock River Commc'n v. Universal Music Group, No. 11-57168 (9th Cir. filed 9/18/13) [Decision]

This case concerns licensing rights for early Bob Marley recordings.  The absence of legal documentation has led to confusion as to who owns licensing rights for the recordings.

The 9th Circuit found that the chain of title to the recordings, by both sides claiming rights, was "spotty."  Therefore, the case was remanded for trial.

Green Day's Use Of Illustration During Concert Was Fair Use, But Attorney's Fees Denied

Seltzer v. Green Day, Inc. et al., No. 11-56573 [D.C. No. 2:10-cv-02103] (9th Cir. Aug. 7, 2013).

The 9th Circuits affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants, but vacated the attorney's fees award, in an artist's action alleging violations of the Copyright Act and the Lanham Act relating to the rock band Green Day's unauthorized use of an illustration ("Scream Icon") in the video backdrop of its stage show.

The Court found that use of the illustration in the video backdrop was a fair use under the Copyright Act: it was transformative, the illustration was a widely disseminated work of street art, the illustration was not meaningfully divisible, and the video backdrop did not affect the value of the illustration.  As to the trademark claims, the artist failed to establish any trademark rights.  In vacating the attorney's fees award under the Copyright Act, the Court found that even though defendant was successful on their fair use defense, the plaintiff did not act objectively unreasonably ("there is simply no reason to believe that Seltzer should have known from the outset that his chances of success in this case were slim to none.").

9th Cir. Affirms Public Performance Liability Against Restaurant

Range Road Music, Inc. v. East Coast Foods, Inc., No. 10-55691 (9th Cir. filed Jan. 12, 2012).

The 9th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment and legal fees in favor of plaintiffs (ASCAP) against defendant (restaurant/lounge). Defendant was vicariously liable for copyright infringement related to the public performance, both by a live band and by a CD, of copyrighted songs. Plaintiff's proof was an investigative report by a visitor to the premises. The report did not need to be by a certified expert because "identifying popular songs does not require 'scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge'.” The Court rejected defendant's argument that a showing of substantial similarity was required for a public performance case. The Court properly awarded attorney's fees to Plaintiff.

Veoh Protected By Safe Harbor; 9th Cir.

UMG Recordings Inc. et al. v. Veoh Networks Inc. et al., No. 09-56777 (9th Cir. filed 12/20/2011) [Doc. 39]

Veoh Networks (Veoh) operates a publicly accessible website that enables users to share videos with other users. Universal Music Group (UMG) is one of the world’s largest recorded music and music publishing companies, and includes record labels such as Motown, Def Jam and Geffen. In addition to producing and distributing recorded music, UMG produces music videos. Although Veoh has implemented various
procedures to prevent copyright infringement through its system, users of Veoh’s service have in the past been able, without UMG’s authorization, to download videos containing songs for which UMG owns the copyright. UMG responded by filing suit against Veoh for direct and secondary copyrightinfringement. The district court granted summary judgment to Veoh after determining that it was protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) “safe harbor” limiting service providers’ liability for “infringement of copyright by reason of the storage at the direction of a user of material that resides on a system or network controlled or operated by or for the service provider.” 17 U.S.C. § 512(c). The 9th Circuit agreed, and accordingly affirmed.

"We ... hold that merely hosting a category of copyrightable content, such as music videos, with the general knowledge that one’s services could be used to share infringing material, is insufficient to meet the actual knowledge requirement under [the statute]".

Safe Harbor No More?

CMJ: Perfect 10 on remand. A challenge to DMCA safe harbor by requiring affirmative steps to protect against infringement? I think big-media (e.g., Viacom v. YouTube) will say "It's about time!"

But, smarter minds offer brighter opinions (the following is a polling of great copyright minds):

(1) The more accepted view is that 512 safe harbor provisions trump the common law doctrines of secondary liability. Thus, assuming that Google has complied with all the Section 512 preconditions (ie notice and takedown, repeat offender policy, etc.) there really ought not to be liability for the Google Image search.

(2) The Court is focusing on Google AdSense. It is not at all clear that Adsense "activity" is protected under the "search engine" prong of 512(d). So you are back to "traditional" contributory/vicarious liability analysis for the AdSense program.

...of course, Google is in the land of the 9th Circuit, home to Silicon Valley.