"We Shall Overcome" Verse Not Subject To Copyright Protection

We Shall Overcome Foundation v. The Richmond Org., No. 16-cv-2725 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 2017) (Cote, J.).

In a putative class action challenging the validity of the defendants' copyright in the folk-song "We Shall Overcome," the Court granted plaintiffs partial summary judgment finding that the lyrics and melody of the first verse (repeated as the 5th verse) of the song are not sufficiently original to qualify for copyright registration as a derivative work.  After going through the history of various publications and registrations of the song, the Court held that the defendants could not rely upon their copyright registration's presumption of validity because the defendants had submitted sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption: "They have shown that the Defendants’ 1960 and 1963 applications for a copyright in the Song were significantly flawed."

The next questions was whether the changes to the most well-known verse of the Song, Verse 1/5, embody the originality required for protection by the Copyright Act.  A version of the song was in the public domain, so the issue was whether the changes claimed by the defendants were sufficient to qualify as a a protectable derivative work.  The Court held that "the Plaintiffs have shown that the melody and lyrics of Verse 1/5 of the Song are not sufficiently original to qualify as a derivative work entitled to a copyright.  As a matter of law, the alterations from the PSI Version are too trivial. A person listening to Verse 1/5 of the Song would be hearing the same old song reflected in the published PSI Version with only minor, trivial changes of the kind that any skilled musician would feel free to make. ... More specifically, the changes of “will” to “shall” and “down” to “deep” and the melodic differences in the opening measures and the seventh measure, do not create a distinguishable variation. These differences represent “variations of the piece that are standard fare in the music trade by any competent musician.”  In other words, changing "will" to "shall" was not sufficiently original to warrant copyright protection.

The Court did, however, deny the motion for summary judgment on the issues of the authorship and divestment (by publication), and fraud on the copyright office; and partially granted a Daubert motion precluding expert testimony.

Six-year Digital Music Antitrust Litigation Refused Class Action Certification

In re Digital Music Antitrust Litig., 2017 US Dist LEXIS 111403 [SDNY July 18, 2017, No. 06-md-1780 (LAP)].

Judge Preska refused to certify as a class action a case alleging price fixing in the digital music industry.  Several individual plaintiffs sought to represent a nationwide class of Digital Music purchasers against defendants Sony BMG Music Entertainment, UMG Recordings, Inc., Warner Music Group Capitol Records, Inc., Capitol-EMI Music, Inc., EMI Group North America, Inc., and Virgin Records America, Inc. The Court found that the Plaintiffs failed to satisfy the typicality requirement and that widespread pirating would raise “unclean hand” defenses that could not be determined on a class-wide basis.

The decision arises out of an ongoing litigation where defendants allegedly control eighty percent of the market for Digital Music in the United States through production, licensing, and distribution of music online and on CDs. The plaintiffs allege that defendants have conspired to restrain trade in and fix prices of Digital Music in order to sell CDs at supra-competitive prices.

Spotify Settles Songwriter Royalty Class Action

Ferrick v. Spotify USA Inc. et al., No. 1:16-cv-08412 (S.D.N.Y. May 30, 2017).

Spotify has agreed to pay $43 million to settle two class actions brought by Camper VanBeethoven lead singer David Lowery, and singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick. The actions claimed that Spotify chose “systemic and willful copyright infringement” by failing to pay proper royalties to thousands of songwriters and their music publishers.

Attorney's Fees Granted To Class Counsel In 'Happy Birthday' Action

Good Morning To You Prods. v. Warner/Chappell, No. 13-4460 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 16, 2016) [Doc. 360].

In the "Happy Birthday" class action case, the Court awarded class counsel attorney's fees of over $4.6 million under the Copyright Act.  Plaintiffs requested that the Court apply the percentage method, which courts often use to calculate fees in common-fund cases.  Applying the percentage method, courts typically calculate 25% of the fund as the "benchmark" for a reasonable fee award, providing adequate explanation in the record of any "special circumstances" justifying a departure..  Then, Courts use a rough calculation of the lodestar as a cross-check to assess the reasonableness of the percentage award.  Plaintiffs requested an upward departure from the 25% benchmark.  In considering this request, the Court considered all relevant circumstances, including: (1) the results obtained for the class, (2) effort expended by counsel, (3) counsel’s experience, (4) counsel’s skill, (5) the complexity of the issues, (6) the risks of non-payment assumed by counsel, and (7) the comparison of the benchmark with counsel’s lodestar.

"Happy Birthday" Is In The Public Domain, Declares Court

Good Morning To You v. Warner/Chappell Music, 13-cv-4460 (C.D. Cal. filed June 30, 2016).

In the "Happy Birthday" case, the Court entered a final order and judgment declaring that the song is in the public domain and otherwise approving the parties' class-action settlement. Per the parties' agreement, class counsel was awarded fees, and the named plaintiffs also received incentive fees.

Class Certification Granted In Turtles' Pre-'72 Copyright Case Against Sirius

Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., No. 13-5693 (C.D. Cal. 5/27/2015).

In the copyright infringement action against Sirius satellite radio alleging copyright infringement of pre-1972 sound recordings, the the District Court granted plaintiff's motion for class certification.  Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, the plaintiff must establish certain requirements that are often referred t as numerosity, commonality,
typicality, adequacy, predominance, and superiority.

As a threshold matter, the Court found Defendants' argument unpersuasive that class certification was improper because there had already been a finding of liability at summary judgment as to the named plaintiffs. Sirius argued that class certification would violate "the one-way intervention rule", which is the intervention
of a plaintiff in a class action after an adjudication favoring the class has taken place.  Such intervention is termed ‘one way’ because the plaintiff would not otherwise be bound by an adjudication in favor of the defendant occurring at that point in the litigation.  The Court found that Sirius had waived the protection of this rule because Sirius XM requested early summary judgment briefing, failed to raise a firm pre-judgment objection to Plaintiff's motion, and actually decided to adopt Plaintiff's motion as its own early liability decision vehicle.

The Court then turned to the Rule 23 class certification requirements.  First, it found that class members -- owners of pre-72 sound recordings -- were ascertainable by turning to a number of sources who license such sound recordings, and Sirius has a list of all of the songs it had played.  Next, the Court found that the proposed class of hundreds, if not thousands, of owners in sound recordings satisfied the numerosity requirement.  Typicality was also satisfied because the members of the proposed class will each claim injury based on Sirius performing their pre-1972 recordings without authorization. Sirius XM’s unauthorized
performance of plaintiff's recordings, the wrongful conduct at issue in this litigation, is not unique to these plaintiffs; rather, it is consistent with Sirius XM’s general practice as to pre-1972 recordings.  Next, the Court found commonality and adequacy of the named plaintiff's representation of the class.  The Court then considered the remainder of the Rule 23 requirements, and found them satisfied.  In short, the Court concluded that a class action is superior to individual litigation to the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.

Sirius To Be Liable To Turtles On Pre-1972 Sound Recording Claims

Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio Inc., 1:13-cv-05784 (S.D.N.Y. filed Jan. 15, 2015) [Doc. 114].

The Court found that Sirius will be found liable to the Turtles' successor in interest for common law copyright infringement of pre-1972 sound recordings, but deferred entering judgment as to liability until the plaintiff decided whether to proceed individually or as a class action representative.

First, the Court rejected Sirius' argument that the plaintiff's had not yet established ownership of the recordings.  The Court found that documentary evidence of the transfer of rights from the Turtles to the plaintiff was not required because an assignment of common law copyrights need not be in writing to be valid under New York law; that a court may infer that a transfer has taken place from subsequent conduct.

Second, the Court rejected Sirius' argument that it had an implied license.  There was no evidence that the recordings were created at Sirius' request (indeed, Sirius did not even exist when the recordings were made), nor any evidence that plaintiff "handed over" the recordings to Sirius (let alone with intent for Sirius to copy and distribute the recordings).  Mere acquiescence was insufficient.

Third, the Court rejected Sirius' waiver and estoppel defenses.  The Court found that plaintiff's failure to pursue infringement actions for many years while the recordings were played on the air did not constitute a waiver.  Inaction was insufficient.  The estoppel defense failed because there was no proof that Plaintiff made any false representations to Sirius or concealed any material fact with intent to deceive.  Even if Sirius relied on general industry practice as to pre-1972 recordings, and the lack of any lawsuits over the years challenging that practice, the Court found that was distinguishable from relying on affirmative conduct by the plaintiff.

Fourth, the Court found that there is a three year statute of limitations under New York law, and that while plaintiff's claim was not time-barred, it could only recover damages for infringement going back three years.  The Court distinguished the case from those in which ownership of the copyright is in dispute between the parties; here, infringement is the primary issue (there is no claim by Sirius that it owns the copyrights).

Lastly, the Court found that it would defer on ruling on the merits until the issue of class certification was decided.  The Court directed plaintiff to notify it if it intends to proceed individually or as a class action representative.

SESAC Antitrust Settlement Submitted For Approval In Class Action

Meredith Corp. et al. v. SESAC, 1:09-cv-09177-PAE (S.D.N.Y. filed 10/15/14) [Doc. 174].

Plaintiffs filed an unopposed motion for approval of the parties' settlement of the class action antitrust claims.  In their motion, Plaintiffs summarize the first prong of the settlement as: "under the contemplated settlement, SESAC will be bound through 2035 by some of the same core conduct restrictions that constrain the anti-competitive potential, at least as it relates to their dealings with local stations, of the other two U.S. performance rights organizations ('PROs'), ASCAP and BMI, in their consent decrees with the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice."  Notably, rather than a "rate court", the settlement provides that disputes should be submitted for binding arbitration.

Plaintiffs further summarize the second prong of the settlement as follows: "the proposed settlement will provide significant monetary relief to local stations.  SESAC has agreed to pay $58.5 million into a settlement fund. Those monies will be used to reimburse local stations for the claimed inflated license fees they have paid since 2008 as a result of the alleged anti-competitive conduct that was the subject of this lawsuit."  In addition, the monies will be used to reimburse for legal fees and costs.

Transfer Denied In Sirius Class Action Over Pre-72 Recordings

Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio Inc., No. CV 13-5693 PSG (C.D. Cal. Dec. 3, 2013).

Plaintiff filed this putative class action in state court alleging that defendant Sirius XM had unlawfully exploited certain audio recordings made before February 15, 1972 by duplicating and broadcasting those audio recordings through its satellite and internet radio service.  Sirius XM removed this case to federal court.  Before the Court was Sirius XM's motion to transfer venue to the Southern District of New York, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a).  The Court denied the motion.

In analyzing the motion, the court considered multiple factors -- some neutral, some favoring transfer, and some against transfer.  The factors were: Jurisdiction and Venue in the Southern District of New York; Convenience of the Parties and Party Witnesses; Convenience of Third Party Witnesses and the Availability of Compulsory Process; Relevant Agreements; Familiarity with the Governing Law; Plaintiff’s Choice of Forum; The Parties’ Contacts with the Chosen Forum; Contacts Relating to Plaintiff’s Causes of Action in the Chosen Forum; Differences in the Cost of Litigation; Access to Sources of Proof; Relevant Policy of the Forum State; Relative Court Congestion; Local Interest in Having Localized Controversies Decided at Home; Unfairness of Burdening Citizens in an Unrelated Forum; and The Interest of Justice. After considering these factors, the Court concluded that transfer was not warranted.  "Many of the transfer factors are neutral. As to the factors that carry weight one way or the other, several factors related to efficiency and convenience weigh toward transfer.  However, California’s interest in having a novel question of state law decided at home, as well as the slight weight given to Plaintiff’s choice of forum, weighs against transfer."

Happy Birthday Class Action

Good Morning To You Productions Corp. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., No. 1:13-cv-4040 (S.D.N.Y. filed June 13, 2013).

Plaintiff brings a class action on behalf of licensees of the song "Happy Birthday to You" (from June 13, 2009-present), seeking a declaratory judgment that defendant does not have the right to collect licensing fees for use of the song, "Happy Birthday To You."  Plaintiff claims that the song is in the public domain and dedicated to public use.

Class Action Brought Against eMusic

Dabaghian v. eMusic.com, No. 651794/2013 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co. filed 5/20/2013).

Plaintiff brought a class action for breach of contract, breach of warranty and violations of N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law.  Plaintiff alleges that eMusic sells music download cards that represent that a specific number of songs can be purchased for a fixed price.  Plaintiff allegedly purchased such a card that advertised 30 songs for $15.  However, plaintiff allegedly was only able to download 16 songs before the card was depleted.  Plaintiff alelges that eMusic failed to disclose it had switched to a monetary based credit system where each song is individually priced.  Under this system, a song may cost 89 cents, and allegedly only rarely costs 50 cents.  Accordingly, Plaintiff alleges it is impossible to purchase 30 songs for $15.

Capitol's Motion To Dismiss Class Action Denied

Davis v. Capitol Records, LLC, No. 4:12-cv-01602-YGR  (N.D. Cal. filed 04/18/13) [Doc. 73].


Plaintiff brought the action as a member of the music group, “The Motels,” and a shareholder, beneficiary, and/or successor-in-interest of the now-dissolved The Motels Music Corporation, Inc.  She brought the complaint alleging a nationwide class action for breach of standard recording contracts and for statutory violations of California law against Defendant Capitol Records, LLC (“Capitol”).  Plaintiff alleged that Capitol failed to account properly for royalties stemming from the licensing of musical performances or recordings produced by Plaintiff and putative class members under contract with Capitol, which were then were utilized by digital content providers, such as music download providers, music streaming providers, and ringtone providers, for digital download, streaming and distribution.  Capitol moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).

First, Capitol argued that the claims were time-barred under the parties' agreement relating to objecting to royalty statements.  However, the Court found that Plaintiff's allegations "arguably support a basis for tolling of the contractual limitations period."  (Emphasis added).  Accordingly, the motion to dismiss on limitations grounds was denied.

Second, Capitol moved to dismiss Plaintiff's claim for declaratory relief as duplicative of her claim for
breach of contract.  The Court held that it could not determine, as a matter of law, that declaratory relief would be duplicative or otherwise inappropriate such that it should be dismissed at the pleading stage.

Third, Capitol moved to dismiss Plaintiff;s claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing on the grounds that it is duplicative of her breach of contract claim. The Court disagreed.

Fourth, Plaintiff alleged a claim for violation of California Business & Professions Code section 17200, California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), based upon all three prongs of the statute – that is, unfair, unlawful, and fraudulent conduct. Capitol sought to dismiss the claim to the extent it is based upon either unlawful or fraudulent conduct.  As to the fraud prong, the Court found that Plaintiff's pleadings contained sufficient particularity to survive.  As to the unlawful prong, the Court found that, "Where, as here, the complaint alleges systemic conduct meant to breach the terms of, or deny the benefits of, agreements between the defendant and a group of similarly situated parties, it is sufficient state a claim for an unfair business practice in violation of the UCL."

Fifth, the Court struck Plaintiff's demand for punitive damages.


Settlement Reached In Class Action Over Digital Royalties

Shropshire v. Sony Music, 1:07-cv-02394 (S.D.N.Y. filed 03/07/12) [Doc. 120].

Record label Sony Music agreed to pay nearly $8 million to settle a proposed class action brought by Elmo & Patsy and members of The Youngbloods in which Plaintiffs alleged that the label failed to pay artists proper royalties on sales of digital recordings.

UMG's Venue And Transfer Motions Denied In Digital Class Action

Rick James v. UMG Recordings, No. 11-1613 (related case No. 11-2431) (N.D. Cal. filed Nov. 1, 2011) (Doc. 34).

Plaintiffs in two related cases filed putative nationwide class actions against UMG Recordings, Inc. Plaintiffs seek to represent a class of recording artists, music producers, and other royalty participants. The complaints allege that UMG has failed to properly account for and pay its recording artists and music producers for income it has received, and continues to receive, from the licensees of its recorded music catalog for the sale of digital downloads and ringtones.

Defendants moved to dismiss for improper venue. The Court concluded that under the circumstances, it would be unreasonable to transfer the action based on the forum selection clause contained in a 1977 contract. "Assuming arguendo that the forum selection clause is valid and enforceable, that clause only governs the claims brought under the 1977 agreement. In analogous circumstances, courts have found it unreasonable to enforce a forum selection clause that applied to some but not all of the plaintiff’s claims."

Alternatively, defendant moved to transfer venue pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), contending
that the Central District of California is a more convenient venue. The primary dispute was whether transfer will serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses. The Court concluded that defendant had not met its burden that the case should be transferred.

Defendant also moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims under California Business & Professions Code
§ 17200. In both cases, plaintiffs allege that UMG knowingly breached its contracts with recording artists and music producers, and that “UMG either knew, recklessly disregarded, or should have known that its collection of income from Music Download Services and Mastertone Providers was in connection with a license agreement and the royalties payable to Plaintiff and the Class should have been accounted for and paid on that basis.” The Court concluded that plaintiffs stated a claim under § 17200, and that the questions raised by defendants’ motions are better suited for determination on a full factual record (i.e., at summary judgment).

Lastly, a third-party ("The Tubes") sought to intervene. The Court denied the motion because the proposed intervenors assert claims “parallel” to those already pending before the Court, and thus their interest are already represented. "If plaintiffs in these cases, who the Court notes are represented by the same counsel as The Tubes, believe that The Tubes should be added
as a class representative, plaintiffs may seek to amend the complaints."

Antitrust Claims Against Majors Dismissed

In re Digital Music Antitrust Litigation, No. 06 MDL 1780, 10/17/08 N.Y.L.J. "Decision of Interest" (S.D.N.Y. decided Oct. 9, 2008) (Preska, J.)

Plaintiffs sought to represent a nation-wide class of buyers of "digital music" on claims that defendant recording companies conspired to artificially fix prices on digital music (both CDs and Internet music). Defendants, the major record labels (EMI, SonyBMG, UMG, anmd Warner) allegedly fixed a high price for, and restrained availability of Internet music - by imposing the same price and use restrictions (i.e., DRM) on their sale thereof - which "buoyed" the price of CDs.

Plaintiffs' second consolidated amended complaint dismissed under the pleading standards of Bell Atlantic v. Twombly. Plaintiffs' first claim was for violation of section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The court concluded it was unreasonable to infer that defendants' adoption of DRM and parallel price arose from their membership in joint ventures that were created to distribute Internet Music. Other circumstantial evidence also did not justify an inference that defendants' parallel conduct resulted from an illegal agreement under the Sherman Act. For example, the court found there was no "antitrust record" based on investigation by government agencies, including the NY Attorney General. Nor would"mere participation in an industry trade association" yield an inference of improper inter-firm communication.

Similarly dismissed as predicated on the same allegations were state antitrust claims, consumer protection claims, and the unjust enrichment count.