NWA Infringement Claims Trimmed To Composition Only, But Court Does Not Adopt 3-Year Damages Limitation

Mitchel v. Capitol Records, 3:15-CV-00174-JHM (W.D. Ky. Dec. 18, 2017).

Plaintiff alleges infringement of his 1977 song in the 1989 NWA rap song "Striaght Outta Compton."  Defendants made two motions for partial summary judgment.  First, the defendants argued that plaintiff is precluded from recovering any damages for infringements that occurred more than three years prior to his filing of the law suit, as barred by the statute of limitations.  Second, defendants argued that plaintiff did not own the sound recording for his song (only the musical composition) and thus could not recover for any infringement of the sound recording.  The former motion was denied, and the latter was granted.

As to the statute of limitations defense, the Court held that notwithstanding the Supreme Court's Petrella decision, Sixth Circuit precedent "defines accrual of a copyright claim as occurring when the plaintiff “knew of the potential violation or is chargeable with such knowledge.”  Continuing, "When the [Petrella] opinion is read in conjunction with footnote 4, which acknowledges that most circuits will modify this rule so as to focus on the date of 'discovery' as opposed to the date of 'occurrence,' then Petrella reiterates what the Sixth Circuit already requires: that damages be limited to those claims for infringement that accrued within three years of the initiation of the suit, with accrual being determined by the rules of the 8 circuit (until the Supreme Court “passe[s] on the question')."  Because Plaintiff had presented evidence that his claim did not accrue until 2014 (when it was allegedly discovered), his claim was not time-barred.

As to the sound recording, the Court held that defendant had provided proof that plaintiff did not own the sound recording.  The plaintiff's evidence (e.g., a mechanical license agreement) at best established his ownership of the musical work/composition.

Copyright Case Dismissed As Time Barred

Brand v. RMM, Universal Music Group, NYLJ 1202491912221, at *1 (SDNY, Decided April 18, 2011).

Plaintiff sued alleging that defendants infringed the copyright to his rap vocals by adding them to a song by recording artist Tito Nieves. The Court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment -- the claim was time-barred.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant infringed his copyright when it "used, sold and manufactured without his permission his rap vocals." Although styled as an infringement claim, the gravamen of Plaintiff's complaint is that he is the owner of the rap lyrics on Nieves' song.

The Court cited cases that a claim involving a dispute over copyright ownership accrues when a plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury upon which the claim is premised. A defendant's express assertion of adverse ownership or a plain and express repudiation of plaintiff's ownership such as registering the copyright in defendant's own name, distributing the work with copyright notice identifying defendant as the owner, or exploiting the work for years without paying royalties to plaintiff will trigger the accrual of the statute of limitations. If a plaintiff does not sue within three years from the date his copyright claim accrues, his complaint is time-barred. 17 U.S.C. §507(b).

In this case, the song was first released in 1991. The back of the CD cover listed defendant as the copyright owner. The song was released again in 1997 on another CD, which also listed defendant as the copyright owner on the back cover. Plaintiff never received royalties from either CD. The Court held that given this history, Plaintiff reasonably should have know of the injury upon which his claim was premised by 1991 or at the latest by 1997, thirteen years before he filed the complaint. Because Plaintiff's ownership claim was time-barred, his infringement claim also failed as a matter of law.