3rd Cir. Affirms Judgment For Usher In "Bad Girl" Copyright Dispute

Marino v. Usher, No. 15-2270 (3rd Cir. Dec. 8, 2016).

Songwriter-plaintiff appealed the lower court's grant of summary judgment to Usher (and the other defendants) in a copyright action involving the song "Bad Girl."  The 3rd Circuit affirmed the finding that the claim must fail because the song was jointly written by plaintiff and certain of the defendants (Guice and Barton).  "The district court correctly held that co-authors of a joint work are each entitled to undivided ownership and that the joint owner of a copyright cannot sue his co-owner for infringement.  The court reasoned that, without direct infringement, there can be no vicarious infringement, hence the derivative song, Bad Girl, did not infringe on Marino’s
rights. The district court also concluded that Guice and Barton conveyed a valid nonexclusive
license for the song to the other defendants."

Additionally, the Court held that the state-law claims were pre-empted, that the plaintiff had granted an implied license, that his sound recording claims failed because there was no copyright registration for the sound recording, and that defendant's were properly granted costs/fees (in a 90% reduced amount based upon plaintiff's financial circumstances).  Lastly, the Court affirmed the financial sanction entered against Plaintiff's lawyer for improperly communicating with an unrepresented defendant in violation of the Pennsylvania rules of professional conduct.

Co-Ownership Claims In Jay-Z Songs Time Barred; 2nd Cir.

Mahan v. Roc Nation, No. 15-1238cv (2d Cir. Feb. 24, 2016).

A former Roc-a-fella Records sound engineer's copyright co-ownership claims in certain Jay-Z recordings, brought 14 years after the recordings were made and released, are time-barred, holds the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in affirming the lower court's dismissal of the claim.  The Court found that defendants had expressly repudiated the plaintiff's ownership claim years prior, when the multi-million copy selling albums were released without attribution to him or the payment of any royalties.  Accordingly, the clock started ticking then.  The Court further found that the defendants were properly awarded their attorney's fees under the Copyright Act, and remanded solely for a determination of the amount of fees available on the appeal.

11th Cir. Finds Summary Judgment Properly Granted In Favor of BMI And Against Tavern; Adopts 2nd Cir. Davis v. Blige

BMI v. Evie's Tavern Ellenton, Inc., No. 13-15871, 2014 BL 329074 (11th Cir. Nov. 21, 2014).

The 11th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the performing rights society BMI, rejecting the defendant-tavern's argument that there were questions of material fact as to the copyright ownership of the musical compositions at issue and as to whether defendants were innocent infringers.  With respect to the chain-of-title for the five songs at issue, the court examined each chain of title, and further found that the district court properly found that BMI could be awarded judgment on each song in addition to the copyright holder (generally, the music publisher who owned the copyright).  As BMI agreed to be responsible for all costs and expenses pursuing infringement actions based on the titles that BMI licenses from copyright owners, the number of them to whom summary judgment is granted made no difference in the award of damages, attorneys' fees and costs.  Thus, there was no error in granting summary judgment to the other plaintiffs (the copyright owners) under Fed. R. Civ. P. 61.

As to innocent infringement, the Court affirmed that is not a defense to summary judgment liability, and instead is only a consideration as to the amount of statutory damages to award.  The court also found that an award of attorney's fees was appropriate.  Notably, the 11th Circuit joined the rule adopted by the Second Circuit in Davis v. Blige, 505 F.3d 90, 99 (2d Cir. 2007) that a copyright co-owner may maintain and recover in a copyright infringement action without joining other co-owners.  See fn. 2.

Royalties Dispute Between Co-Authors Of Song Not Preempted

McCants v. Tolliver, 2014-Ohio-3478 (Ohio. Ct. App., 9th Dist. Aug. 13, 2014).

An Ohio appellate court held that the trial court erred in dismissing the plaintiff's breach of contract claim as pre-empted by the Copyright Act.  The dispute concerned a royalty-split between co-authors of a song, later licensed to the Blacked Eyed Peas, pursuant to an alleged oral agreement.  Although the dispute did concern a song and recording, there was no "extra element" because "Th[e] alleged promise to split the proceeds is 'qualitatively different' than that of a copyright infringement claim."

McCants does not argue that Tolliver could not reproduce, perform, or distribute the song. See 17 U.S.C. § 106. Instead, McCants argues that he should be compensated according to the alleged agreement between the parties. Because McCants’ claim for breach of contract is qualitatively different than that of a copyright infringement claim, his claim is not preempted by the Copyright Act and the court erred in finding that it was preempted.

EU Initiatives

The European Commission adopted two initiatives in the area of copyright (July 16, 2008). First, the Commission proposes to align the copyright term for performers with that applicable to authors, in this way bridging the income gap that performers face toward the end of their lives. Secondly, the Commission proposes to fully harmonise the copyright term that applies to co-written musical compositions.

Co-Author's Face Now A Whiter Shade of Pale?

The founder of Procol Harum won his court battle over royalty rights to the band's most famous hit, the 1967 song "A Whiter Shade of Pale."

A British appellate court ruled [decision] that although former keyboard player Matthew Fisher could be credited as co-author of the work (for writing the organ part), the fact that it took him 38 years to take the case to court meant he should not benefit financially. "Matthew Fisher is guilty of excessive and inexcusable delay in his claim to assert joint title to a joint interest in the work," Judge Mummery said in his judgment. "He silently stood by and acquiesced in the defendant's commercial exploitation of the work for 38 years."

Laches? Estoppel?

[Billboard article.]

4/7/08 UPDATE

The New York Times reports:

Mr. Fisher can still appeal the “Whiter Shade of Pale” decision to the House of Lords, which serves as Britain’s supreme court ... Even without a further appeal, though, the case isn’t over yet: Still to be settled is who must pay whose legal bills, which are reported to have mounted well into the millions of pounds on each side

Co-Authorship Dispute Over Composition Performed by System of a Down

In Maxwood Music Limited v. Malakian et al., case no. 1:08-cv-01730-RWS (S.D.N.Y. complaint filed Feb. 21, 2008), the assignee of copyright interests in various compositions by Casey Chmielinksi p/k/a/ Casey Chaos seeks a declaratory judgment against System of a Down members and related publishing companies.

The dispute arises out of the hit song "B.Y.O.B", the first single on the System of a Down album entitled Mezmerize, and winner of the 2005 GRAMMY Award for "Best Hard Rock Performance". (Notably, Chaos recieved a certificate from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognizing his participation as a songwriter of the GRAMMY Award-winning song.)

The complaint alleges that Chaos and Daron Malakian, lead guitarist of the System of a Down, collaborated on an independent project entiled "Scars on Broadway", during which the two wrote approximately 14 songs. "At all times, Malakian and Chaos considered themselves the sole co-authors of 'Scars on Broadway' and each of the individual compositions written for it, including the Composition [B.Y.O.B.], and intended that they be joint authors of those musical works." (Compl. para. 14). However, the project was "put...on hold while they each returned to their own music for their respective bands." (Id. at 17.)

Unbeknownst to Chaos, B.Y.O.B. was later recorded by System of a Down and released as a single to promote Mezmerize, an album that has sold millions worldwide.

Chaos was not listed in the credits for the Single or the Album as a co-author of the Composition. Upon the release of the Album, however, Malakian's publishing company [Sony] filed a registration with the Copyright Office for the Composition that explicitly listed Chaos as an author together with Malakian.

Sony also registered Chaos as a co-author with the relevant public performance societies in the United States and United Kingdom that collect royalties for songwriters generated from public performances of their compositions.

(Id. at 21-22.)

Based on the above, Plaintiff (as assignee of Chaos' copyright interests) seeks a declaratory judgment that B.Y.O.B. was co-authored by Chaos and Malakian, without the participation of any other party; further, plaintiff seeks a declaration that Chaos owned (and Plaintiff now owns by virtue of an assignment) an equal and undivided 50% share of B.Y.O.B. Lastly, plaintiff seeks an accounting.

The theme from plaintiff's complaint is clear: if Chaos was not an equal-share co-author, why was he listed with both the Copyright Office and the public performance societies as a co-author?

An interesting aside - why did defendants consent to personal jurisdiction in the Southern District of New York?

Mary J., Pay to Play

New York Law Journal reports (10/9) that Ms. Blige is not above the law. Blige and others were sued for copyright infringement by song-writer -- who happened to be co-author of the work with Blige's step-father. On the eve of the step-father's deposition, he transferred his rights to another defendant in the case, taking the position that one co-author cannot sue another co-author for infringement. ("Retroactive" transfer to infringer.) Sneaky...

...but no. The Second Circuit shot down the scheme.

If the Court had gone the other way, a giant loop-hole would have existed for successful artists/infringers to buy-out non-party co-authors, and in my humble opinion, defeating justice.

[Davis v. Blige, 05-6844-cv]