Rick Ross "Hustlin'" Case Revived After 11th Cir. Holds Copyright Registrations Should Not Have Been Invalidated Absent Proof Of Scienter

Roberts v. Gordy, No. 16-12284 (11th Cir. Dec. 15, 2017).

The 11th Circuit held that, in a case brought by hip-hop artists over the use of their song "Hustlin'" in the dance song "Party Rock Anthem," the lower Court erred in invalidating the plaintiffs' copyright registrations.  The District Court had sua sponte raised the issue of invalid copyright registrations and failure to demonstrate ownership in dismissing the case at summary judgment.

First, the Appellate Court held that invalidity was not raised as an affirmative defense, and therefore should not have been the basis for dismissal, as it was waived by the defendants.  Second, the Appellate Court held that the lower court applied the wrong standard -- specifically on the element of scienter -- in finding that there had been a fraud on the copyright office in obtaining the registrations.  

Rappers are skilled in poetry and rhythm—not necessarily in proper copyright registration procedures. While error is not generally a strong legal argument, it is a sufficient counter to a claim of Fraud on the Copyright Office. This is not a case where Rapper A attended a Rapper B concert, heard a delightful song, stole the composition, and fraudulently registered it with the Copyright Office—far from it. There is no dispute by any party that Appellants authored and created Hustlin’, and there is no dispute that they continue to receive the writers’ share of royalties from their musical composition. Furthermore, Appellees never proffered any argument or theory as to why Appellants would attempt to deceive the Copyright Office, when they are, in fact, the undisputed authors. As indicated by the absence of any sort of motive for deception, the errors made in each of the registrations were done in good faith. As portions of the ownership interest were acquired by record companies, those companies— incorrectly, but in good faith—filed for a new registration to protect their newly acquired interests presumably under the assumption that no previous registration had been filed.

Accordingly, the case was remanded.  "The Appellants were erroneously 'hustled' out of court, and now deserve to be heard on the merits."

Claims Over 'Steve Harvey Show' Theme Song Trimmed

We 3 Kings v. The Steve Harvey Show, No. 2:14-cv-08816-DSF-AS Document 213 (C.D. Cal. Filed 06/23/17).

California District Judge, Dale Fischer granted partial summary judgment in favor of “The Steve
Harvey Show” , in regard to all copyrights except those filed prior to We 3 Kings Inc.’s
first amended complaint. In 2014, We 3 Kings Inc., brought suit against the Steve Harvey Show, its production company, and 27 satellite broadcasting and cable companies for using its music for its second season after their license for the first season had expired. We 3 Kings Inc. is seeking $700 for each time the music was used in the show’s second season, multiplied by each of the television stations that distributed it. The damages amount to $42.3 million.

Judge Fischer stated that a copyright suit cannot be maintained if a copyright application had not been submitted to the Copyright Office prior to the filing of the complaint. Only one of the copyrights at issue were submitted prior to the filing of the first amended complaint.

The Steve Harvey Show argued that the company had an express license from We 3 Kings, Inc.
for season one of the show, and an implied license for any episodes thereafter. We 3 Kings, Inc.
refuted The Steve Harvey Show’s argument, stating that the contract was approved by We 3
Kings Inc.’s ousted president and is unenforceable. Judge Fischer stated that there are still
significant questions of material fact remaining in regards to both parties’ arguments. However,
Judge Fischer did agree with The Steve Harvey Show’s argument that the broadcasting
companies are protected from copyright liability by a statute that grants them a blanket license to air the episodes at issue because they had no input in the content of the work.

High School Music Teacher Has Qualified Immunity In "Glee" Copyright Case

Tresona Multimedia v. Burbank High School, 16-cv-04781 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 22, 2016).

In a case involving high school choir performances of four songs, the Court finds that the music director was protected by "qualified immunity" from the plaintiff's copyright infringement claims.  Additionally, the Court found that the plaintiff lacked standing to sue for copyright infringement with respect to three songs; and as to the fourth song at issue, summary judgment was denied due to questions of fact concerning the statute of limitations defense.

As to standing, the plaintiff's rights derived from less than 100% owners of the songs and under 9th Circuit law the plaintiff did not have exclusive rights in the songs and therefore lacked standing.  As to the three year statute of limitations, the Court found a question of fact whether the plaintiff should have known of the infringing activity.

Lastly, as to qualified immunity the Court recognized there was no binding 9th Circuit law on the matter (though some other district courts had considered the issue).  Deciding that the doctrine applied, the Court found that as a matter of law the music teacher was protected.

Rick Ross "Mastermind" Album Not Trademark Infringement Upon Cancelling Plaintiff's Registered Mark

Caiz v. Roberts, No. 15-9044 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 15, 2016).

Plaintiff rapper's trademark infringement claim against Rick Ross (and others) over Ross's album title "Mastermind" was dismissed at summary judgment because the Court found that Plaintiff's registered mark "Mastermind" was merely descriptive and had not acquired secondary meaning and therefore should be cancelled.  The Court also dismissed plaintiff's trademark dilution claim because the "Mastermind" mark was not famous, as required under the Lanham Act.  However, summary judgment was denied as to Defendant's trademark fair use defense.  Plaintiff's remaining claims were also dismissed.

Beats, Dre & Iovine May Owe Royalties For More Than First Model Headphone; Question for Jury

Jibe Audio v. Beats Elec., No, B267633 (Cal. App. - 2nd Dist. Sep. 19, 2016).

A California appellate court holds that the headphone company Beats, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine may owe the plaintiff royalties for more than the first headphone model, the Studio model, because the contract at issue (a settlement agreement) was ambiguous and disputes of material fact existed.  Accordingly, summary judgment in favor of the defendants was reversed so that a jury could decide the case.

The case was a question of contract interpretation under California law, and the Court considered extrinsic evidence outside of the 4 corners of the contract.  "The Beats parties and Brunner contend that the Royalty Agreement was only intended to cover one product: the Studio headphone. They argue that the agreement was not intended to cover sales of the entire line of Beats headphones. Lamar, on the other hand, argues that the Royalty Agreement requires Beats to pay a royalty on the sale of every headphone whose design embodies or is a minor or cosmetic modification to the original headphones design."

We find that the contract is ambiguous as to whether it contemplated royalties only for the Studio headphone model or for other headphones that embody the headphones design depicted in Schedule I to the Royalty Agreement. The extrinsic evidence thus must be admitted to assist in the second step of contract interpretation. The factual conflict in the evidence regarding the meaning of the contract must be resolved by a jury. 

Copyright Infringement Claim Against Songwriter Dr. Luke Fails Absent Evidence of "Access"; 9th Cir.

Loomis v. Cornish, No. 13-57093 (9th Cir. Sept. 2, 2016).

Plaintiff composer's claim, alleging that high-profile songwriters (including Dr. Luke) stole a two-measure vocal melody and used it as the theme for the verse melody in their hit song “Domino,” failed because the plaintiff did not put forth any potentially admissible evidence to establish that the Domino songwriters had access to plaintiff's song, holds the 9th Circuit in affirming summary judgment for the defendants.

Will Loomis, composer of the song “Bright Red Chords,” alleged that the defendants stole part of his song. The panel held that at summary judgment Loomis failed to put forth any potentially admissible evidence to establish that the Domino songwriters had access to Bright Red Chords, either on a chain-of-events theory or a widespread-dissemination theory. Accordingly, he failed to establish copyright infringement.

Country Stars Beat Copyright Infringement Case Over "Remind Me" Hook

Bowen v. Paisley, No, 13-414 (M.D. Tenn. Aug. 25 2016).

Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood did not infringe plaintiff's song, holds the Court in granting Defendants summary judgment in a case brought by a country music songwriter.  The two songs at issue were called "Remind Me," and specifically their allegedly similar "hooks."  The Court held that the plaintiff had sufficiently established originality and access, but that she has not presented sufficient evidence of substantial similarity between the two works to survive summary judgment.  As to substantial similarity, in sum, plaintiff's expert identified the use of some similar techniques and musical devices, but she did not show that the two Works employ these techniques and devices in the same manner.  Further, these technical similarities were overwhelmed by the broader dissimilarities in context, structure, mood, melody, and harmony—the very features a lay listener would be likely to identify. 

In this case, however, the plaintiff does not allege literal copying of anything except the lyric phrases “remind me” and “baby, remind me,” and she has not shown that the defendants’ use of some of the same musical techniques and melodic features was similar enough to her use of the same techniques and features to render the expressions of the hook phrases in the two Works substantially similar. In short, the court finds that no reasonable juror could conclude, based on the undisputed evidence, that the songs overall, or the “hook” phrases specifically, are substantially similar. 

Questions Whether LiveNation Willfully Infringed Run-DMC Photos; 9th Cir.

Friedman v. Live Nation Merch., No. 14-55302 (9th Cir. Aug. 18, 2016).

In a copyright dispute over the use of photographs that the plaintiff took of the hip hop group Run-DMC, defendant Live Nation stipulated that it infringed the plaintiff photographer's copyrights when it used his photos without his authorization on t-shirts and a calendar.  Before the 9th Circuit was the question of whether there was sufficient evidence in the record to permit a jury to conclude that Live Nation committed willful copyright infringement, making it liable for additional damages under 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(2); whether a jury could conclude that Live Nation knowingly removed copyright management information (“CMI”) from the photographs in violation of 17 U.S.C. § 1202(b) [the DMCA]; and whether the plaintiff could recover statutory damages awards under section 504 of the Copyright Act measured by the number of retailers who purchased infringing merchandise from Live Nation, even though the plaintiff photographer did not join those retailers as defendants in his suit.

The 9th Circuit held: (1) that there was a triable issue of fact as to whether Live Nation’s infringement was willful, and that the district court therefore erred in granting summary judgment to Live Nation on willfulness; (2) the plaintiff photographer could prevail upon a showing that Live Nation distributed his works with knowledge that copyright management information had been removed, even if Live Nation did not remove it, and accordingly summary judgment should not have been granted because there was a triable issue of fact as to whether Live Nation distributed the photographs with the requisite knowledge; and (3) the district court correctly held that the plaintiff photographer was limited to one award per work infringed by Live Nation because he did not name any of the alleged downstream infringers as defendants in the case ("A plaintiff seeking separate damages awards on the basis of downstream infringement must join the alleged downstream infringers in the action and prove their liability for infringement. ").  Notably, on third question involving downstream infringers, the 9th Circuit rejected a "mass marketing" exception that some lower courts had adopted.

Remastering Defeats Claims of Pre-72 Sound Recording Infringement

ABS Entertainment, Inc. v. CBS Corp., No. 15-cv-6257 (C.D. Cal. May 30, 2016) [Doc. 104].

In a putative class-action alleging that CBS was publicly performing pre-1972 sound recordings in violation of California state law, the Court granted defendants summary judgment because defendants had only publicly performed post-1972 remastered versions of Plaintiffs' works which are governed by federal copyright law.  The Court concluded that a sound engineer's remastering of pre-1972 sound recordings -- through subjectively and artistically altering the work's timbre, spatial imagery, sound balance, and loudness range, but otherwise leaving the work unedited -- is entitled to federal copyright protection.  Focusing on whether the works were derivative, the Court considered the parties' evidence of originality (or lack thereof).  Further, the Court focused on the fact that the remastered sound recordings which CBS actually performed were created pursuant to authorization from either Plaintiffs or their predecessors.

Cox Communications Not Protected By DMCA Safe Harbor In Bit-Torrent Case

BMG Rights Management v. Cox Communications, no. 14-1611 (E.D. Va. Dec. 1, 2015).

In an action by the putative owners of 1,400 musical compositions against an internet service provider (Cox) for contributory and vicarious liability based on its users Bit Torrent infringement, the Court held inter alia that the ISP was not protected by the DMCA safe-harbor because it did not terminate access of repeat infringers under appropriate circumstances.  The Court found that defendant did not implement a repeat infringer policy before 2012, and after 2012 it did not reasonably implement its policy.  Thus, if Plaintiff is successful at trial, it will not be limited in the remedies it seeks.

Other issues the Court addressed was whether Plaintiff had standing (the copyright registrations listed Plaintiff, its predecessor, someone else, or the works were purchased).  The Court further found questions of material fact, 1) whether there is evidence of direct infringement by third parties; (2) whether there is evidence of Cox’s contributory infringement; (3) whether there is evidence of Cox’s vicarious liability; and (4) whether BMG failed to mitigate its damages.  Lastly, the Court found that the "unclean hands" defense failed as a matter of law.

Stratotone Mark For Guitars Was Abandoned, Permitting Junior Use

Agler v. Westheimer Corp., No. 14-099 (N.D. Indiana 10/28/15).

In a trademark infringement action concerning the mark STRATOTONE for guitars, the Court held that an abandonment of the mark permitted a junior user's use of the mark.  A period of non-use by one of the parties triggered a presumption of abandonment, which was not rebutted.

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.

Party Rock Anthem Not A Parody Of Hustlin'; Material Questions Remain Regarding Fair Use Defense

Roberts v. Gordy et al, No. 13-cv-24700 (S.D. Fla. dated Sep. 17, 2015).

The Court found that defendants are precluded at trial from arguing that Party Rock Anthem parodies the song Hustlin', but that summary judgment was inappropriate because questions of fact remain regarding whether Defendants' use, outside the parody context, was a fair use.  Specifically, material questions existed regarding the purpose and transformativeness of Defendant's use and the market impact of their use.

"Everyday I'm Hustlin'" Phrase Not Copyrightable

Roberts v. Gordy, No. 13-cv-24700 (S.D. Fla. dated Sep. 15, 2015).

In a dispute between the alleged owners of the song "Hustlin'," whose chorus repeats the phrase "everday I'm hustlin'," and members of the group LFMAO who sell merchandise bearing the phrase "everday I'm shufflin'," a phrase from their hit song "Party Rock Anthem," the Court held that the isolated phrase "everyday I'm hustlin'" is not copyrightable.  The Court noted that "copyright protection does not automatically extend to every component of a copyrighted work," and that "the overwhelming authority is that short phrases or common or ordinary words are not copryightable."  It was indisputable that the plaintiff's "Hustlin'" composition and lyrics was an original creative work subject to copyright protection -- but, the question was whether the use of a three-word phrase appearing int he musical composition, divorced from the accompanying music, modified, and subsequently printed on merchandise, constituted an infringement of the composition.  "The answer, quite simply, is that it does not."  Moreover, the defendants set forth various evidence that the terms "hustling" or "hustlin'" have been used in numerous songs prior to Plaintiff's creation of "Hustlin'" and that at least one song pre-dating "Hustlin'" has the exact lyric "everday I'm hustlin'" in it.  Lastly, the Court was unable to find any basis or precedent supporting the conclusion that a short, modified, set of words printed on merchandise can infringe on the copyright for a musical composition.  Plaintiff's rights do not extend that far, the Court concluded.

Florida Court Rejects Pre-72 Sound Recording Rights in Turtles/Sirius Case; Contrary To NY and CA Decisions

Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. SiriusXM, No. 13-23182-CIV-GAYLES/TURNOFF (S.D. Fla. dated June 22, 2015).

A Florida federal court granted defendant Sirius summary judgment as to liability on plaintiff Flo & Eddie's (the Turtle's) common-law copyright infringement claims, although New York and California courts have found differently.  The Florida federal court observed that Florida is different from New York and California, inasmuch as as there is no Florida legislation covering sound recordings nor is there a bevy of case law interpreting common law copyright related to the arts.  "The Court finds that the issue of whether copyright protection for pre- 1972 rec ordings should include the exclusive right to public performance is for the Florida legislature."  Accordingly, the Court found that Florida common law did not provie plaintiff with the exclusive right of public performance in the Turtles' sound recordings.  Further, the Court found that back-up and buffer copies made by Sirius were not unlawful reproductions.  Because the Court found that Sirius had not infringed any of Plaintiff's copyrights, the Court also dismissed plaintiff's related claims for unfair competition, conversion and civil theft (all of which were based on alleged copyright infiringement).

Big Pimpin Suit Continues With Triable Issues Of Fact

Fahmy v. Jay-Z et al., No. 2:07-cv-05715 (C.D. Cal. May 27, 2015).

In the copyright infringement action concerning Jay-Z's song Big Pimpin', the Court denied plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment seeking to dismiss defendant's "license" affirmative defense.  The Court concluded that there were triable issues of fact as to whether plaintiff conveyed any performance rights he owned in the infringed song.  The Court also concluded that there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether defendants received a license to publicly perform the song as part of Big Pimpin' through their asserted chain of title or as a result of BMI blanket licenses.

Ghostface Killa Case, Involving "Iron Man Theme" Sample, Dismissed

Urbont v. Sony Music Entertainment et al., No, 11-cv-94516 (S.D.N.Y. April 20, 2015) [Doc. 78].

The Court granted Sony Music summary judgment dismissing the claims of plaintiff, who alleged infringement of his rights to the musical composition and sound recording of the "Iron Man Theme" in a Ghostface Killa song.  Sony successfully challenged plaintiff's ownership of a copyright interest in the song by establishing that the composition was a "work for hire" and was therefore owned by Marvel Comics, for whom plaintiff created the composition.  Notably, the Court found that Sony -- a third-party to that transaction -- had standing to challenge plaintiff's ownership under the work for hire doctrine pursuant to the 1909 Act's "instance and expense" test.

The Court also dismissed Plaintiff's state law claims for common law copyright infringement, unfair competition, and misappropriation, finding that the claims were preempted by the Copyright Act.  Plaintiff argued that the recording fell within the exception to pre-emption as a sound recording fixed before February 15, 1972.  17 U.S.C. 301.  The Court disagreed, finding that the recording was an "audiovisual work" and not a "sound recording" because it was created purely to accompany the television show Iron Man and did not exist apart from the accompanying televisuals.  Under the 1976 Act, the claims were preempted because they involve an audiovisual work.

Covenant Not To Sue Upheld In Run-DMC Co-Author's Case Against Publisher Assignee For Royalties

Reach Music Publishing, Inc. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., No. 09-cv-5580, 2014 BL 317978 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 2014).

A Run-D.M.C. co-author's claim for breach of contract failed because that co-author "long ago sold all rights to the subject songs -- including his entire copyright interest -- in exchange for royalty payments," and in that agreement, he plainly acknowledged that the songs could be transferred to another publisher (Protoons) and that "he would only ever seek royalty payments from" the original publisher (Rush Grooves).  The Court found that the covenant not to sue Protoons was enforceable and was not unconscionable under New York law.  Therefore, the co-author breached the contract when he filed suit in 2008, and the defendant's damages were their resulting attorney's fees pursuant to the express attorney's fees provision in the contract.  Defendant also counterclaimed that the plaintiff (another publisher, Reach, to whom the co-author had purportedly transferred his interest), tortiously induced the co-author to breach the covenant not to sue.  The Court found that there was a question of material fact whether Reach had knowledge of the covenant not to sue, preventing either party from winning summary judgment on the tortious interference claim.  "Even though knowledge of the contract need not be perfect, Reach must have knowledge of the covenant not to sue in order to be liable for helping Reeves violate that particular contractual provision."

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.