"We Shall Overcome" Putative Class Action Survives Dismissal

We Shall Overcome Foundation v. Richmond Org., No. 16-2725 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 21, 2016).

In a putative class action challenging the Defendants' copyright in the song "We Shall Overcome" on the basis that the lyrics of the first verse is virtually indistinguishable from a song in the public domain, the Court denied the defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the copyright claims, but did dismiss the state-law claims as pre-empted.  The Court found that the plaintiffs had plausibly alleged: (1) that the first verse in the copyrighted work “We Shall Overcome” lacks originality (thereby rebutting the certificate of registration); (2) fraud on the copyright office by deliberately omitting from their application for a copyright in a derivative work all reference to the public domain spiritual or the publications of “I Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Overcome” as antecedents to the Song; and (3) divestment of copyright protection, under the 1909 Act, by publishing the work without including notice of copyright.  However, the state-law claims were dismissed as pre-empted (Those claims are for money had and received, violation of New York General Business Law § 349, breach of contract, and rescission for failure of consideration).

"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.

Happy Birthday Lyrics Not Owned By Warner

Marya v Warner/Chappell, No. 13-cv-4460 (C.D. Cal. filed 9/22/14) [Doc. 244].

After collecting royalties for years, a Court found that Warner/Chappell lacked copyright ownership in the lyrics to the world's most famous song, "Happy Birthday."  The Court found that because the current publisher's alleged predecessor "never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics."

The melody of the song is the same as one called "Good Morning," which was published in a songbook and subject to copyright protection under the 1909 Act until 1949.  Both parties agree the melody entered the public domain years ago.  The origins of the "Happy Birthday" lyrics is less clear, as those lyrics did not appear in the same songbook as "Good Morning."  Subsequent publications of the lyrics noted that the tuen for "Happy Birthday" was the same as "Good Morning," but did not credit an author of the lyrics.  The decision then explains the alleged chain of title to the lyrics of "Happy Birthday."

Plaintiffs, bringing a declaratory judgment action, alleged that Defendants do not own the copyright in the lyrics to Happy Birthday, and thus should not have been collecting royalties for licensing the song (and should be compelled to return collected royalties).  The Court was facing cross-motions for summary judgment.

First, the Court found that a 1935 registration was not subject to a presumption of validity.  There was a facial and material defect in the registration, nameley that it did not state that the lyrics were being copyrighted.  Thus, there was no presumption that the lyrics were registered.

Next, the Court examined: who wrote the lyrics to Happy Birthday?  The Court found there was conflicting evidence, and therefore a material question of fact for trial.

Then, the Court examined whether, whoever wrote the lyrics, any copyright in the work was divested by publication before the 1935 registration?  Under the 1909 Act, general publication without notice of copyright divested the author of common law and federal copyright protection.  Again, the Court found a question of material fact whether the alleged authors granted their publisher the right to generally publish the song.

Next, the Court examined whether the alleged author abandoned her interest.  Although the plaintiffs had found an article where the alleged author said that she had resigned herserlf to the fact that the song was the publics, the Court found questions of fact on this issue again a ground to deny summary judgment.

Then, the Court examined the alleged transfers in interest of the song lyrics, and three old agreements between the alleged authors and their publisher.  The court found that Defendants had no evidence a transfer occurred, whether by oral statement, by writing, or by conduct. "Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record. The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to th e lyrics. Defendants’ speculation that the pleadings in the Hill-Summy lawsuit somehow show that the Second Agreement involved a transfer of rights in the lyrics is implau sible and unreasonable. Defendants’ suggestion that the Third Agreement effected such a transfer is circular and fares no better. As far as the record is concerned, even if the Hill sisters still held common law rights by the time of the Second or Third Agreement, they di d not give those rights to Summy Co."

3d Cir. Affirms Dismissal of Author's Suit Against 50 Cent

Winstead v. Jackson, No. 11-3771 (3d Cir. opinion filed Jan. 11, 2013).

The Third Circuit affirmed an order of the District Court dismissing the amended complaint as to all defendants.  In this copyright case, the parties respective works at issue include Plaintiff's book, The Preacher’s Son – But the Streets Turned Me into a Gangster, and defendant Curtis Jackson's (50 Cent's) Before I Self-Destruct album/CD, featuring songs and lyrics written by Jackson; and his companion film of the same name, which Jackson wrote, starred in, and directed.  Jackson and the record companies moved to dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(6), arguing that the copyright infringement claim failed because Plaintiff's book and Jackson's album/CD and film are not substantially similar as a matter of law, and that Plaintiff's state law claims are preempted by the Copyright Act because they are premised on the same underlying facts.  The Circuit Court affirmed dismissal, finding inter alia:

We agree with the District Court that a lay observer would not believe that Jackson's album/CD and film copied protectable aspects of [Plaintiff]'s book.
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There was a failure to state an actionable claim for copyright infringement here because, although [Plaintiff]'s book and Jackson's works share similar themes and setting, the story of an angry and wronged protagonist who turns to a life of violence and crime has long been a part of the public domain.

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In addition, [Plaintiff]'s book and Jackson's works are different with respect to character, plot, mood, and sequence of events.

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[Plaintiff] contends that direct phrases from his book appear in Jackson's film. ... The average person reading or listening to these phrases in the context of an overall story or song would not regard them as unique and protectable. ... Moreover, words and short phrases do not enjoy copyright protection.