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.

No Case Or Controversy In ISP's Declaratory Judgment Suit of NonInfringement

Windstream Services v. BMG Rights Management, 16-cv-5015 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 17, 2017).

Plaintiff, an internet service provider (ISP), brought an action seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement based upon the DMCA's safe-harbor provisions.  Defendant is a music publisher.  The Court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding that plaintiff sought an unauthorized advisory opinion (and even if the Court had subject matter jurisdiction, it would exercise its discretion and decline to hear the action).  "[Plaintiff] seeks a blanket approval of its business model, without reference to any specific copyright held by BMG or any specific act of direct infringement by any [plaintiff] subscriber."  The Court observed that the Southern District of California had rejected a nearly identical lawsuit in Veoh v. UMG, 522 F. Supp. 2d 1265 (S.D. Cal. 2007).  The complaint was hypothetical in nature.  Having dismissed the declaratory judgment clai, the Court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's state law claim.

No Rehearing By Second Circuit For "Santa Claus" Copyright Termination Case

Baldwin v. EMI Feist, No. 14-182 (2d Cir. Jan. 29, 2016).

In the copyright termination case concerning "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," the Second Circuit denied defendant-EMI's application for a rehearing (by the panel or en banc).

Happy Birthday Case Settles Shortly After Plaintiffs Granted Leave To Expand Class Period Back To 1949

Good Morning To You Productions v. Warner/Chappel, No. 13-4460 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 7 & 8, 2015).

In the "Happy Birthday To You" case, the Court granted Plaintiffs' motion to amend the complaint to expand the proposed class period back to 1949.  Shortly thereafter, an announcement was made that a settlement had been reached.

Santa Clause Is Comin To Town Reverts To Author's Heirs In 2016

Baldwin v. EMI Feist Catalog, 14-182-cv (2d Cir. Oct. 8, 2015).

The Second Circuit held that EMI publishing owned rights to the song "Santa Clause Is Comin' To Town" under a 1981 grant, not a 1951 grant, and accordingly that a 2007 termination notice terminates EMI's interest in 2016, reversing the lower court's entry of summary judgment for EMI.  The case details the complex statutory scheme under the 1976 Copyright Act which gave authors and their statutory heirs the right to terminate previously made grants of copyright under certain circumstances, and thereby to recapture some of the value associated with the works.  17 USC 203 and 304(c)-(d).  Plaintiff sought a declaration that either a notice of termination served on the publisher in 2007 or another served in 2012, will, upon becoming effective, terminate EMI's rights to the song.  The Second Circuit concluded that EMI owned rights to the song not under a 1951 agreement but instead under a subsequent 1981 contract, and that that the 2007 termination notice will terminate the 1981 agreement in 2016.  Accordingly, plaintiff (the author's heirs) were entitled to a declaratory judgment.

The Court detailed the various rights of reversion under the Copyright Act, which permits the author of certain earlier works to terminate a grant of copyright (e.g., to a publisher, like EMI's predecessor).  It then found that a 1981 Agreement not only granted EMI the future interest scheduled to revert to the author upon termination, it also replaced an earlier 1951 agreement as to the source of EMI's existing rights to the song.  Applying New York common law, the Court held that the parties intended for the new contract to substitute for the old one.  "Section 1 of the contract shows that they chose not only to have EMI receive the future interest that vested in [the author] upon service of the termination notice, but also to replace the 1951 Agreement as the source of EMI's existing rights in the Song."  Thus, the failure to record a 1981 termination notice under the 1951 agreement was irrelevant to the question whether EMI presently owned the copyright in the Song under either agreement.  Its rights to the renewal term were traceable to the 1981 agreement.  Thus, that was all that matters for decided plaintiffs' termination notices pursuant to section 203.

The Court concluded that Plaintiff could terminate the 1981 agreement under section 203 (section 304 did not control), and that the 2007 termination notice terminated the 1981 agreement.  Publication is a one time event that occurred in the 1930s.  Because the 1981 grant was executed by the author and does not cover the right of publication, it was terminable under section 203 starting on December 15, 2016, which is the effective date of termination stated in the 2007 notice.

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."

Ray Charles' Foundation Can Challenge Notices His Heirs Served To Terminate Copyright Grants To The Foundation

The Ray Charles Foundation v. Robinson, No. 13-55421 (9th Cir. Opinion dated July 31, 2015).

The 9th Circuit holds that that the Ray Charles Foundation, the sole beneficiary of Ray Charles’s estate, had standing to challenge the validity and effectiveness of notices of termination of copyright grants conferred by Charles to the predecessors of Warnter/Chappell Music.  The Court found that the Foundation was a real party in interest because the termination notices affected its right to royalties, and its claims fell within the statutory zone of interests.  Accordingly, it had standing to sue to challenge whether the underlying works were made for hire and thus not subject to the termination provisions of 17 USC 203 and 304(c).

Second Circuit Affirms ASCAP Rate Court In Pandora Dispute Over Partial Withdrawals And License Rate

Pandora Media, Inc. v. ASCAP, 14-1158-cv(L) (2d Cir. May 6, 2015).

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ASCAP "rate court's" decision: (1) granting Pandora summary judgment that the ASCAP consent decree unambiguously precludes partial withdrawals of public performance licensing rights; and (2) setting the rate for the Pandora‐ASCAP license for the period of January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2015 at 1.85% of revenue.

ASCAP contended that publishers may withdraw from ASCAP its right to license their works to certain new media music users (including Pandora) while continuing to license the same works to ASCAP for licensing to other users.  The appellate court agreed with the district court’s determination that the plain language of the consent decree unambiguously precludes ASCAP from accepting such partial withdrawals. Also, the Court found that under the circumstances, it was not clearly erroneous for the district court to conclude, given the 6evidence before it, that a rate of 1.85% was reasonable for the years  in question.

Breach Of Contract Claim Survives In "Daydream Believer" Royalty Suit Concerning Foreign Publishing

Stewart v. Screen Gems-EMI Music, Inc., No. 3:14-cv-04805 (N.D. Cal. filed Mar. 2, 2015) [Doc. 45].

Plaintiff alleges that defendants -- various EMI defendants -- wrongfully withheld publishing royalties to the song "Daydream Believer" written by Plaintiff's late-husband.  The claims arise out of a 1967 songwriter's agreement, which has a "net receipts" (not "at source") arrangement, meaning that the publisher is only obligated to remit to the songwriter a certain percentage of revenue the publisher actually receives after deducting applicable fees and costs.  Plaintiff contended that Defendants were improperly deducting from the song's foreign receipts fees that defendant paid to affiliated foreign sub-publishers that are alter egos of defendant and operate as part of a single enterprise (i.e., defendant was effectively paying itself and then deducting those payments from the receipts to reduce the "net receipts").  Defendants moved to dismissed.  The Court granted the motion to dismiss of defendants EMI and EMI North America for lack of personal jurisdiction; but, found that Plaintiff had stated a claim against defendant Screen Gems-EMI for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and for an accounting.

"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.

Transmittal Of Publisher's Lawyer's Analysis To ASCAP Did Not Waive Attorney-Client Privlege

Good Morning You Prod. v. Warner/Chappell Music, No. 2:13-cv-04460 (C.D. Cal. filed 07/25/14) (Doc. 132).

The Court concluded that the 1979 transmittal by a music publisher to ASCAP, of letters prepared by the publisher's attorneys, did not waive the attorney-client privilege applicable to those materials.  The letters "speak directly to the validity of the copyrights" in the song Happy Birthday To You.  "The [transmittal] letter is silent as to the specific reason why [the publisher] provided materials from its outside lawyer to the association’s lawyer regarding the validity. However, the only sensible conclusion that the Court can draw – that is, based on the evidence presented, it is more likely than not – is that ASCAP needed or requested this information to properly represent [the publisher] in exploiting its song rights. ASCAP would only have been able to sue an infringer if it could demonstrate that its principal [the publisher] owned a valid copyright"

Publisher Not Liable For Contributory Liability In Sampling Case Because Lacked Knowledge

Prior v. Warner/Chappel, No. 13-4344 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 20, 2014).

The court dismissed plaintiff's contributory copyright infringement claim against defendant music publisher because the complaint failed to allege the defendant "knew or had reason to know that [the song] included an unauthorized, infringing sample...".  Moreover, the complaint failed to plausibly allege how the defendant knew that the directly infringing defendants would infringe as a result of the publisher's licensing of the song.

11th Circuit Clarifies Author's Standing When Publisher Registers Copyright As Author's Assignee

Smith v. Casey, No. 13-12351 (11th Cir. Jan. 22, 2014) (decision here).

At issue in this appeal is whether the author of a musical composition who assigned his rights in exchange for royalties may rely for purposes of standing to sue for infringement under the Copyright Act on a registration his publisher filed.  The 11th Circuit found that the lower court erred in concluding that the estate lacked statutory standing to sue for copyright infringement.

The basic facts are this.  Around the same time a song called "Spank" was recorded, Harrick Music, Inc. (Harrick Music), a publishing company affiliated with the record label Sunshine Sound, registered a copyright for the musical composition “Spank,” identifying Smith as composer and itself as claimant.  Harrick Music checked a box on the registration indicating the song was not a composition made for hire.  In the ensuing years, Smith acquiesced in Harrick Music’s administration of the “Spank” composition copyright, but, he alleged, the company never remitted a cent to him. According to the complaint, neither did Sunshine Sound. Under Smith's Recording Agreement with Sunshine and the form songwriter’s agreement attached to it,
however, Smith was owed percentage royalties for the song’s exploitation in exchange for assigning his rights to it. So on November 28, 2011, shortly before his death, Smith through counsel sent a cease-and-desist letter revoking Harrick Music’s authority to administer “Spank.” And Smith also filed with the Copyright
Office four Notices of Termination, seeking to formally record his revocation. Despite this, the defendants continued to commercially exploit the composition, and thereafter Smith's estate sued for infringement of the composition (not the sound recording).

Two defendants (not Sunshine or Harrick) moved to dismiss, and the district court concluded Smith lacked statutory standing to pursue his copyright claim and sua sponte dismissed that count with prejudice as to all of the defendants.  Harrick Music, not Smith or his estate, had registered the copyright, the district court noted, and registration was a necessary precondition to filing suit for infringement.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit first examined sections 411 and 501 of the Copyright Act: "The 1976 Copyright Act’s legislative history explains that Congress intended 'beneficial owner,' as the term is used in § 501(b), to 'include . . . an author who had parted with legal title to the copyright in exchange for percentage
royalties based on sales or license fees.'"  Continuing,
Under this definition, the estate has a sufficient ownership interest for standing under § 501(b). According to Smith’s allegations, he never signed any agreement giving Harrick Music the right to exploit the “Spank” copyright. But even were we to treat Smith’s agreement to permit Sunshine Sound to execute the form songwriter’s contract appended to his Recording Agreement as acquiescence to its terms for the “Spank” composition, Smith still would only have assigned his rights to the musical composition in exchange for royalties. Thus, he has at least a beneficial interest that satisfies § 501(b) of the Copyright Act.
The twist was that Harrick, not Smith, had filed the registration.  Nonetheless, the 11th Circuit found that "The district court’s construction of § 411(a) was too narrow. Harrick Music registered a claim to copyright in the 'Spank' composition, specifically identifying Smith as the composer and informing the Copyright Office the work was not made for hire. Nothing in § 411(a) indicates that a composer who has agreed to assign his legal interest in a composition, along with the right to register it, in exchange for royalties, may not rely on the registration his assignee files. Where a publisher has registered a claim to copyright in a work not made for hire, we conclude the beneficial owner has statutory standing to sue for infringement."  (Emphasis added).

Although the 11th Circuit reversed on the standing issue, it found that the District Court properly dismissed plaintiff's declaratory judgment claim.


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.
Gershwin et al. v. WB Music Corp., No. 650117/2013 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co. filed Jan. 11, 2013).

Plaintiffs, successors-in-interest to the rights/copyrights of George Gershwin -- composer of iconic 20th Century music such as "Porgy and Bess" and "Rhapsody in Blue" - brought a contract action seeking to redress the Defendants' failure to pay music publishing royalties and other amounts ($5 million alleged damages).  The claims at issue are related to, inter alia, foreign rentals, ballet licensing, concert grand rights licensing, and performance rights organizations registrations.  Complaint here.

Sugarhill Sues Over "Uptown Anthem"

Sugarhill Music Publishing v. Warner/Chappel Music, Inc., No. 1:12-cv-09225-PAC (S.D.N.Y. complaint filed Dec. 19, 2012).

According to the complaint, plaintiff owns the copyright in the musical composition "That's The Joint" (1981), and defendants co-own the copyright in the musical composition "Uptown Anthem" (1991).  Plaintiffs allege in paragraph 7 of the complaint that defendants' song incorporates plaintiff's song by "using the three-syllable vocal phrase 'We gonna' and rhythmic pattern a total of 41 times, as a strong hook in the song."

Copyright Suit Over Ringtones

WB Music Corp. v. Infospace, Inc., No. 09-cv-0682-ODW (C.D. Cal. complaint filed Jan. 28, 2009).

As alleged in the Complaint (paragraphs 14 and 17):

Defendants...are related companies that, collectively, are (or at all relevant times were) in the business of creating, selling, and distributing cell phone ringtones, including ringtones embodying Plaintiffs' copyrighted musical compositions. Defendants have represented themselves as agents of one another in their dealings with Plaintiffs...

Defendants have unlawfully, and without authority from Plaintiffs, reproduced, distributed, prepared, and sold cell phone ringtones embodying the Musical Compositions.

Sugar Hill Gang Suit

Dispute concerning certain artist, copyright and trademark agreements regarding plaintiff's names, likenesses and musical compositions

Michael Wright pka Wonder Mike; Guy O'Brien pka Master G, collectively pka The Sugarhill Gang v. Joseph Robinson, Jr.; Sugar Hill Music Publishing Ltd.; Gambi Music Inc.; Diamond Head Music Inc. dba Twenty Nine Black Music; Sylvia Robinson; Sylvia Inc., No. 08 CV-9830 (S.D.N.Y. complaint filed 11/13/2008 ).