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.

Village People Claims Dismissed On Res Judicata Grounds

Willis v. Scorpio Music, No. 15-cv-1078 (S.D. Cal. order dated Jan. 19, 2016).

In a second lawsuit concerning ownership of various "Village People" compositions, the district court dismissed a 50% owner's claims based on defendant's false claim of authorship, breach of fiduciary duty, and vicarious copyright infringement.  As to the false ownership claims, the Court held that plaintiff was barred by the doctrine of res judicata from brining claims that he could have brought in the earlier action.  As to the vicarous copyright infringement claim, the court held that the defendant had the right to license the composition and thus there was no infringement.  Lastly, the court held that co-owners of a copyright -- though they have a duty to account -- do not have fiduciary duties to one another.

Plaintiffs In Sampling Case Fail To Sufficiently Plead Their Standing



Kelley v. The Universal Music Group, No. 14-cv-2968 (S.D.N.Y. filed 10/19/15).

In a case alleging that a song by the artist "Fabulous" infringed plaintiffs' 1974 song by including an unauthorized sample, the Court dismissed the pro se plaintiffs' copyright claim without prejudice to amend based on their lack of standing. The Court found that a copyright registration listing the plaintiffs as authors but not claimants rebutted their claim; but, that plaintiffs could replead to allege that they have standing as "beneficial owners" (i.e. a right to collect royalties), which was not sufficiently pleaded. The other state-law claims for violation of "poetic license " and "fraudulent deceit" were held to be preempted by the copyright act, and the mental anguish claim was not a remedy authorized by the statute.

Attorney's Fees Awarded To Village People Member

Scorpio Music v. Willis, No. 11-cv-1557 (S.D. Cal. filed 9/15/15) [Doc. 280].

In a dispute over the percentage of copyright ownership over the Village People's hit songs (including "YMCA") that went to a jury trial, the Court held that an original member of the group and author (invidivually and jointly) of various songs was entitled to attorney's fees as the prevailing party.  17 USC 505.  The court found that Mr. Willis was the prevailing party and that he achieved a high degree of success: he defeated Plaintiff's claim that he could not unilaterally terminate his grants of copyright under 17 USC 203, prevailed on a number of summary judgment motions brought on the grounds of statute of limitations and laches, and prevailed on 13 of the 24 compositions at trial (including YMCA, the most lucrative).  Specifically, the Court found that granting fees would advance the purposes of the Copyright Act inasmcuh as Mr. Willis was "trying to get back what he transferred to Plaintiffs, parties with superior bargaining power, decades ago.  An award of attorney's fees is justified to encourage authors like Willis to assert their rights to regain their copyright interests and to deter production companies and other transferees of copyright from attempting to interfere with those rights."  Willis sought an award of approximately $527,000, and the Court did not find that an upward or downward adjustment was warranted.  Costs of approximately $3,000 were also taxed.

Jackson 5 Tribute Band Trademark Cancelled

Wonderbread 5 v. Gilles, TTAB No. 92052150 (TTAB 6/30/2015).

This case involves a dispute about who owns the band’s name in the wake of the departure of one of the band’s five members.  The band, a Jackson 5 tribute band, filed a petition to cancel a trademark registration obtained by a former member who filed the application for the registration only 3 days after he was fired from the band.  The court found by a preponderance of the evidence that the mark WONDERBREAD 5 was not “personal” to the applicant/departing-band-member (Gilles), or for that matter, any of the band members as individual musicians.  Rather, the mark signified the collective “style and quality” of the group, and the partnership, not the departing band member, controlled those qualities. That is to say, the mark WONDERBREAD 5 identified a Jackson 5 tribute band, not a “particular performer combination.”  Thus, because the consuming public did not associate the mark with a particular member (but rather, a style of tribute band), the applicant did not "own" the mark when he applied for it.  The application was therefore void ab initio, and the registration was cancelled.

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.

"Whomp! (There It Is)" $2 Million Jury Award Affirmed

In re: Isbell Records, Inc. (Isbell v. DM Records), No. 13-40878 (5th Cir. Dec. 18, 2014).

The Fifth Circuit affirmed a finding that plaintiff owned the copyright in the composition of the song "Whomp! (There It Is)", that defendant was liable for infringement based on its exploitation of the song for year, and the jury's award of over $2 million in damages.  The primary issue was whether a 50% interest in the song had originally been assigned to the plaintiff or the defendant's predecessor-in-interest (the other 50% remained with the writers/producers of the song).  The 5th Circuit held that California contract interpretation law applied, and that the lower court correctly found that the contract granted the 50% interest in the song to the plaintiff.

On appeal of defendant's trial motion under Fed. R. Civ. P. 50 for judgment as a matter of law, the defendant raised two issues regarding the district court's interpretation of the recording agreement as assigning a single 50% interest to plaintiff.  First, the Court rejected defendant's argument that the lower court erred in interpreting the agreement without asking the jury to make any findings on extrinsic evidence.  Second, the Court rejected defendant's argument that the agreement also assigned a second 50% interest in the composition copyright because the argument had not previously pursued that theory and had disclaimed the theory at an earlier hearing.  In short, the defendant could not raise its "two assignments theory" after not previously asserting it at trial or in its earlier Rule 50 motion.

On appeal of defendant's motion under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) for relief from judgment based on fraud and lack of standing, the Court rejected defendant's argument that it was prevented from presenting the defense of plaintiff's lack of standing.  Even if the plaintiff had improperly withheld a certain document, it would not have affected plaintiff's standing and thus would not have affected defendant's defense.

With respect to the jury's damage award of over $2 million, the Court rejected defendant's argument that plaintiff should have only been awarded 1/2 of that amount as 50% owner of the copyright.  First, defendant did not object to the jury charge during trial.  And under the plain-error standard of review, the district court did not err.  Notably, the 5th Circuit found that Edward B. Marks Music Corp. v. Jerry Vogel Music Co., 140 F.2d 268 (2d Cir. 1944), was inapplicable to the issue of first impression whether a partial owner of a copyright can ever be awarded infringement damages for his co-owner's share.  Specifically, the jury could have found that plaintiff was entitled to 100% of the royalties in the first instance as administrator/publisher of the song.  In other words, because plaintiff was obligated to account to the other 50% owners (the producers/writers), plaintiff could recover 100% damages and any issue as to distributions would be a separate case between the co-owners not involving the defendant.

Lastly, in affirming denial of defendant's Fed. R. Civ. P. 59 motion for a new trial, the Court found that plaintiff's closing statement -- referring to defendant as a "thief -- was not abusive and improper.  Defendant did not object to the closing statement at trial and thus the standard of review was plain error.  Evidence was presented at trial form which the jury could find that defendant's conduct was willful and that defendant stole the copyrights from plaintiff.  Further, any prejudice was minimized by the judge's instructions and the statements concerned damages rather than liability.  Further, plaintiff ultimateley elected actual damages which were higher than statutory damages, and willfulness is not an element of actual damages calculation.

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.