Why the RIAA Indirectly Sued Aurous For Willful Copyright Infringement

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) wasted no time in going after the new streaming site, Aurous. A mere three days after its “alpha” launch, RIAA’s constituent major labels, Atlantic, Warner Bros., UMG Recordings, Sony Music and Capitol Records (the entities that have standing to sue) filed their copyright infringement action against the company and its founder and principal designer, Andrew Sampson. The 20-page complaint, filed October 13, seeks temporary and permanent injunctive relief, statutory damages for “willful” infringement in the amount $150,000 (or, alternatively actual damages to be proven at trial), as well as costs and attorney’s fees, pursuant to Copyright Act §§501-502 and §§504-505.

So what is Aurous and why is the RIAA so miffed? In an interview in Billboard the day before the suit was filed, Sampson explained that the service is a mere music player, or an aggregator of other players:

At the most fundamental level, it’s a music player like any other. What stands out is that it can take advantage of other existing platforms and piggyback off those, and integrated those into platform…..You have YouTube, Spotify playlists, Apple Music playlists — the end goal, once we’re out of alpha, is to put those playlists into our app, and it’ll do the rest of the work. So you can listen from anywhere that you have a playlist.

Obviously, the RIAA sees a more sinister operation, one that offers access to pirated music files through the BitTorrent network, but with an interface that makes it much easier for ordinary non-geeks to use. As touted on the Aurous site: “Aurous is BitTorrent Music for Your Dad.“ The complaint makes a less flattering comparison: “Like Grokster, Limewire or Grooveshark, it is neither licensed nor legal.” RIAA alleges that Aurous is set up to receive music exclusively from overseas pirate sites. The complaint further alleges that Aurous unfairly and unlawfully competes with legitimate, licensed sites such as Apple Music, iTunes, Google Play, Rhapsody and Spotify.

The complaint contains three counts of infringement: 1) inducement of copyright infringement, 2) contributory copyright infringement, and 3) vicarious copyright infringement. Notice that neither defendant is sued for actual, direct copyright infringement.

Why is this? Since the heady, ‘ster crazy days of Napster, Grokster, Aimster and other first generation pirate sites, newer avatars of unlicensed free services are careful not to upload any content on its own servers. Instead, they act as convenient portals for users to search and access allegedly infringing files stored elsewhere. Aurus, the so-called “Popcorn Time for music,” apparently does not store files on its systems. That’s why defendants aren’t alleged to be committing any actual infringement themselves. So what are these three distinct, but related claims of indirect infringement?

Inducement of copyright infringement, as described by the Supreme Court in the Grokster decision, is where “one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.” That is precisely what RIAA alleges:

Defendants have designed and launch and are operating Aurous with the object of promoting its use to infringe Plaintiff’s copyrights. Defendants knowingly and intentionally induce, entice, persuade and cause users of Aurous to infringe Plaintiff’s copyrights in their sound recordings….

Contributory infringement is where a party has knowledge of another person’s direct infringement and engages in “substantial” participation in the infringement. Here, RIAA alleges: “Defendants have specific, actual, and constructive knowledge of both the infringing activity at the sources of unauthorized copies of Plaintiff’s works that Aurous locates and to which it links, and of the infringing activity of Aurous’s users.” Together, the first two counts amount to Aurous touting that they’ve got lots of infringing files for you to find (inducement) and then they provide the tools to make it easy for you to access these files they know or should know aren’t legit (contribution).

So what’s vicarious copyright infringement? That’s where a defendant has the right to supervise or control the conduct of the actual infringers and also receives a “direct financial interest” in the infringing activity. While this theory of liability is an outgrowth of the doctrine of respondeat superior, there need not be an employer-employee relationship, as is the case with Aurous and its users. Vicarious copyright infringement is the theory upon which performing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI are able to hold the owners of nightclubs that perform music without a license liable even though the club may be owned by a corporate entity. This basis of copyright infringement allows RIAA to sue Sampson individually without having to “pierce the corporate veil.”

Here’s how RIAA alleges the elements of a vicarious liability claim:

By providing and operating their service, Defendants are receiving a direct financial benefit from copyright infringement in the form of a growing base of users that Defendants can monetize now or later with advertising and other methods of generating revenue. Defendants have stated their intention to display advertising on Aurous. Defendants have the right and ability to stop or limit the infringing activity occurring via their service but they take no steps to do so. Defendants are able to supervise or control the infringing activity of their users in many different ways, including by deciding the sources from which Aurous can and cannot retrieve music files, and through the ability to remotely alter the behavior of the Aurous service by issuing automatic updates to software installed on users’ computers.

Aurous promptly tweeted its view of RIAA’s “direct financial benefit” claim: “@RIAA principle [sic] complaint is that we’re ‘profiting’, anyone see any ads? We sure don’t.” The complaint doesn’t allege any specific activity by Sampson other than to state that “he describes himself as the lead software developer for the Aurous service and the individual responsible for decisions regarding the service” and that he’s the company’s President.

So now you know why RIAA doesn’t allege any direct infringement by defendants but instead bases its claim on three related and often overlapping theories of indirect copyright infringement. The word “aurous” means something that’s made of or contains gold. Whether Aurous might be a gold mine for RIAA or the defendants depends upon whether the court buys the RIAA’s assertion that Aurous is “illegally profiting from piracy by free riding on the creative efforts and investments of others” or takes the EFF‘s view that “[o]nce again, @RIAA asks a court to order the entire world to block & filter an app they don’t like.” Apparently, the Florida federal district court seems inclined towards the former, having issued a temporary restraining order effectively shuttering the site until a hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction scheduled for October 28.

Update: On December 10, 2015, it was announced that RIAA and Aurous reached a settlement whereby Aurous would pay $3 million and shut down permanently. Considering that the site barely launched before RIAA sued, this is a tremendous victory for RIAA against a site that blatantly used copyrighted songs without authorization.

The Director’s Cut Out of the Copyright by the Second Circuit

In its June 29 opinion in 16 Casa Duse, LLC v. Merkin, the Second Circuit, citing the Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision in Garcia v. Google, held that a director does not have an independent copyrightable interest in a motion picture. In addition to affirming the District Court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff producer, the Court’s 40-page decision also affirmed the plaintiff’s award of costs and attorney’s fees.

Plaintiff’s principal, Robert Krakovski, is the producer of a short film called Head’s Up. Krakovski purchased the film rights from the author of the underlying work and asked defendant, Alex Merkin, to direct the film for a fee of $1500.

Krakovski then proceeded to do what producers do: he assembled the film’s crew of about 30 people, including additional producers, cameramen, technicians and actors. He made all final hiring decisions. All personnel except Merkin entered into written work-for-hire agreements which stated that plaintiff would own and control all of the results of their collective efforts, including the worldwide copyrights to the film.

Krakovski clearly intended that Merkin sign a similar work-for-hire agreement while Merkin balked at this by refusing to respond to Krakovski’s emails. Meanwhile, Krakovski moved forward with the production, including scheduling, and scouting locations. Krakovski was still trying to get Merkin to sign an agreement a week before shooting was to commence. Despite the lack of a written agreement, Merkin directed the three days of shooting for the film.

Thereafter, with the main work-for-hire agreement still not signed, Krakovski asked Merkin to edit the film and the parties, sometimes directly and sometimes through Merkin’s lawyer, Reichman, attempted to negotiate a “media agreement,” which would have included the work-for-hire language. Krakovski provided Merkin with a hard drive of a rough cut of the film for Merkin to edit — despite their being no finalized agreement.

Notwithstanding his concession that Krakovski owned the rights to the screenplay, Merkin asserted that he owned the rights to the “rough cut” of the film and that Krakovski could not use Merkin’s work in the final film without his permission. While the dispute continued, Merkin registered a copyright in the “raw footage for the film Head’s Up” without informing Krakovski and listing himself as the sole author.

Krakovski submitted the film to various festivals and scheduled a private screening in New York City, which was to be followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant which he reserved with a non-refundable deposit. However, Merkin  crashed the party with a purported “cease and desist” notice to the screening venue, which made the venue cancel the screening, which, in turn made Krakovski lose his deposit with the restaurant. The lawsuit followed.

Plaintiff sought a judgment declaring: a) that plaintiff did not infringe defendants’ copyright; b) that defendants owned no copyright interest in the film; and (c) that Merkin’s copyright registration was invalid. Plaintiff also asserted state-law claims for tortious interference as well as attorney’s fees under both Section 505 of the Copyright Act and 28 U.S.C. § 1927. Defendants asserted various claims, including a judgment that a director of a film is an “author” for purposes of copyright.

The District Court granted summary judgment to plaintiff on all claims and assessed attorney’s fees against Merkin and sanctions against his attorney, Reichman. After some additional motions and submissions, the District Court entered a final order assessing damages from the canceled screening event in the amount of $1,956.58 and costs and attorney’s fees of $185,579.65, $175,634 of which Merkin and Reichman would have joint and several liability, with the remaining $9,945.65 assessed solely against Reichman. Merkin and Reichman appealed.

The Second Circuit framed this issue as follows:

This case requires us to answer a question of first impression in this Circuit: May a contributor to a creative work whose contributions are inseparable from, and integrated into, the work maintain a copyright interest in his or her contributions alone? We conclude that, at least on the facts of the present case, he or she may not.

Turning to the copyright claims, the Court first stated that the parties agree that they are not “joint authors” under §101 of the Copyright Act as joint authorship requires the intent of the parties to create a merged, unitary whole and such intent was clearly lacking. A finding of joint authorship (which would include one of joint ownership since the copyright would vest in the film’s authors) would preclude any claims of either infringement or tortious interference since you can’t infringe (or interfere with) your own work against your co-owner. The parties also agreed that Merkin’s efforts cannot be deemed a work-for-hire as he never signed a written agreement to that effect as required by statute.

Having disposed of the copyright preliminaries, the Court then turned to the key issue as to whether Merkin’s contributions to the film could be separately copyrightable:

We have never decided whether an individualʹs non‐de minimis creative contributions to a work in which copyright protection subsists, such as a film, fall within the subject matter of copyright, when the contributions are inseparable from the work and the individual is neither the sole nor a joint author of the work and is not a party to a work‐for‐ hire arrangement. We answer that question in the negative on the facts of the present case, finding that the Copyright Actʹs terms, structure, and history support the conclusion that Merkinʹs contributions to the film do not themselves constitute a ʺwork of authorshipʺ amenable to copyright protection. (citation omitted).

The Court bolstered its conclusion by endorsing the Ninth Circuit’s recent en banc decision Garcia v. Google which reversed Judge Kosinski’s opinion holding that an actor may have a separately copyrightable interest in her performance:

We agree. Filmmaking is a collaborative process typically involving artistic contributions from large numbers of people, including—in addition to producers, directors, and screenwriters—actors, designers, cinematographers, camera operators, and a host of skilled technical contributors. If copyright subsisted separately in each of their contributions to the completed film, the copyright in the film itself, which is recognized by statute as a work of authorship, could be undermined by any number of individual claims.

The Court  therefore concluded these contributions are not independent “works of authorship” under the Copyright Act, unlike free-standing, independent original works such as dances or songs that may be incorporated into a film.

Having disposed of Merkin’s claim to copyright in his contribution to the film, the Court then turned to his claim to own the copyright in the raw footage from which the final film was to be fashioned. Since the parties are not “joint authors,” the analysis then turned to which party was the “dominant author” of the film.

The Second Circuit agreed with the District Court that notwithstanding Merkin’s significant contributions (e.g., camera work, lighting, blocking, actor’s delivery of lines, wardrobe, etc.), Casa Duse “exercised far more decision making authority” particularly with respect to its “agreements with outsiders” noting that plaintiff executed all relevant third-party agreements for the production. As dominant author, the Court concluded that plaintiff owns the copyright in the finished film  — as well as the underlying raw footage.

The Court did throw Merkin a bone, finding that he did not engage in tortious interference with business relations under New York law. Finally, the Court upheld the joint and several liability for costs and attorney’s fees against Merkin and Reichman. First the Court noted that even though plaintiff did not file the copyright registration in issue and sought a declaration of non-infringement (as opposed to seeking damages for copyright infringement), attorney’s fees were nonetheless available under §505 of the Copyright Act. And the joint and several liability was appropriate under 28 U.S.C. §1927.

The holdings of both this case and the Ninth Circuit’s Garcia decision that inseparable, integrated contributions to a motion picture are not independently copyrightable will probably have somewhat limited application as actors, directors and other contributors routinely sign work-for-hire agreements.  And the Second Circuit took pains to limit its holding to the particular facts presented. It will be interesting to see how these holdings may be applied to other collaborative efforts, such as creating and recording popular songs, although work-for-hire agreements are commonplace there as well. As for disputes between “collaborators” who are clearly not joint authors, the Second Circuit’s guidance (even absent a specific test) as to who is a “dominant author” and therefore the owner of the copyright in the work, should be helpful.

The Broad Comedy and Broader Parody of Three’s Company

What’s worse than sitting through seven episodes of Three’s Company? Reading a federal district judge’s summaries of them. And yet that CliffsNotes analysis, including delving into the cultural significance of the fluffy sitcom, takes up much of the 56-page opinion recently issued by Loretta Preska, Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York. In Adjmi v. DLT Entertainment, Ltd., the court held that plaintiff’s Off-Broadway play, 3C, is a fair use parody of the entire TV series.

Although styled as a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, the voluminous exhibits to those pleadings included DVDs of all 9 seasons of the series (owned by DLT) as well as Adjmi’s script to 3C, curiously referred to as the “screenplay” throughout the opinion. Judge Preska is no stranger to parody cases, having written the opinion that was affirmed by the Second Circuit in Liebovitz v. Paramount Pictures, which held that a photo of a seemingly pregnant Leslie Nielson of The Naked Gun fame was a fair use parody of the famous Vanity Fair cover of a nude and pregnant Demi Moore.

For you younger readers, Three’s Company, which aired from 1977-1984, focused on Jack Tripper (John Ritter), who pretends to be gay so he can share an apartment with sensible brunette, Janet Wood (Joyce DeWitt) and ditzy blonde, Chrissy Snow (Suzanne Somers, the current TV twirler and former Mistress of the Thighmaster). Rounding out the cast were the nosy neighbor landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Roper.

The Court began its discussion, stating: “[t]he parties agree that 3C copies the plot, premise, characters, sets and certain scenes from Three’s Company.” The parties also agreed that, as in the TV series, the male lead in 3C is an aspiring chef, the blonde is the daughter of a minister and the brunette is a florist. At least the characters’ names are different in plaintiff’s play, although the Court sometimes mistakenly refers to the names of Three’s Company characters in its discussion of 3C. So, there’s undoubtedly access and an awful lot of substantial similarity, the basic elements of a copyright infringement action.

In ruling on the Rule 12(c) motions (plaintiff’s for declaratory judgment and DLT’s on its counterclaim for infringement), the Court stated that discovery, which had been stayed, would not be necessary. Indeed, the decision reads like one for summary judgment as Judge Preska took pains to point out that her opinion is based not so much on the pleadings themselves but on the “raw materials” of the Three’s Company DVDs and the 3C script.

As with any parody case, the Court’s analysis started with the seminal 1994 Supreme Court case, Campbell v. Acuff Rose, which held that 2 Live Crew’s use of a portion of the Roy Orbison hit, Oh, Pretty Woman in the band’s similarly titled song, Pretty Woman, constituted a fair use parody of the work as it only used so much of the original work as was necessary to comment on it. Following Campbell, the Court here went through a fairly rote review of the four fair use factors of Section 107:

1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

And as in Campbell, the Court focused most on the first factor and whether or not Adjmi’s use of the sitcom’s material was “transformative,” citing Judge Leval’s influential 1990 Harvard Law Review Article. As the Supreme Court stated, a use is transformative when “it adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message.”

However, as I’ve written, the Seventh Circuit recently rejected the “transformative” analysis in fair use cases. In that case, Judge Easterbrook noted that any transformative use would constitute a derivative work, the authorization of which is the right of the copyright owner under Section 106(2) and that it’s best to stick with the four statutory factors.

So, how, exactly is 3C a transformative protected parody of Three’s Company? The main distinction is that in 3C, Brad, the male roommate, is really gay. He’s a gay man pretending to be a straight man who’s pretending to be gay. Got that? Moreover, the Court distinguishes 3C from Three’s Company by focusing on the play’s “heavy” tone, which features drug abuse and Mamet-like use of expletives, including gay-bashing slurs:

There is ample evidence to discern the tone of Three’s Company. It can be described as a happy, light-hearted, run-of-the-mill, sometimes almost slapstick situation comedy…. As demonstrated by select quotations…, 3C proceeds in a frenetic, disjointed and sometimes philosophical tone. It is often difficult to follow and unrelentingly vulgar. The same cannot be said of any episode of Three’s Company.

In other words, 3C is as dreary as Three’s Company is cheery. The Court concludes that “[t]he play is a highly transformative parody of the television series that, although it appropriates a substantial amount of Three’s Company, is a drastic departure from the original that poses little risk to the market for the original.” Fair enough. And having recently failed to sit through a single episode of Three’s Company, even one featuring Loni Anderson, it’s clear to me the show deserves to be parodied.

However, in reaching its conclusion, the Court seems to allow 3C to incorporate far more of Three’s Company than is needed to conjure up the original. In particular, the Court’s view of unprotectable elements like “stock characters” such as a ditzy blonde to include the character’s specific biography — as well as entire scenes lifted from several episodes of the series —  seems unnecessarily broad. The Court also closed with some seemingly “copy-leftist” dicta: “The law is agnostic between creators and infringers, favoring only creativity and the harvest of knowledge.” Say what? The Copyright Act imposes pretty stiff penalties against infringers.

Under this analysis, anything short of pure plagiaristic pilfering of prose would appear to be protected parody so long as the new work somehow “commented” on the prior one. This could have broad implications for other valuable series and their characters, from feature films to fan fiction. Think about applying this standard to the Star Wars franchise, although The Phantom Menace is its own parody.

Blurred Lines in the Difference between Copyright in a Song and in a Recording

There’s been a blizzard of articles regarding the jury decision finding that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ 2013 megahit, “Blurred Lines,” infringed upon Marvin Gaye’s song, “Got to Give It Up.” I’ll leave it to you, gentle reader, to judge how similar the recordings of two songs are to each other. While most of my musician friends were pleased with the decision and the jury’s $7.3 million award, my copyright law colleagues and I are somewhat skeptical that it will be upheld on appeal. Here’s why.

As I’ve recently written, when one is dealing with recorded music, there are two distinct copyrights involved. One is the copyright in the musical composition or song and the other is the copyright in the particular recording of the song. This is best illustrated in connection with “cover” recordings. Some of us are old enough to remember that The Bangles had a hit around 1987 with a cover of Paul Simon’s song, “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which was originally recorded by Simon & Garfunkel in 1968. The copyright in the song is owned either by the songwriter(s) or their music publisher(s). The particular recording of the song is usually owned by the artist’s record label.

In the “Blurred lines” case, Marvin Gaye’s heirs sued on the basis of copyright in the song, only, not in his original recording of “Got to Give It Up” as they presumably had no copyright ownership in the recording. This leads to the question as to what the song is, separate from the recording of it. Although it’s no longer required for copyright protection, in order to obtain a copyright registration in any work, the copyright owner has to file an application with the Copyright Office. This consists of the application form, which includes the title and writers of the work as well as a “deposit copy” of what the work is. Back when Gaye wrote “Got to Give It Up” in 1977, copyright registration was mandatory to obtain copyright protection for the song.

And back when “Got to Give It Up” was registered for copyright, the only music that was often filed as a deposit copy was a “lead sheet” for the song. As anyone who’s ever played out of a fake book knows, a lead sheet consists only of the song’s melody line, lyrics and the chord symbols that represent the song’s harmonies. I’ve posted a handwritten lead sheet here. Sometimes the deposit copy consists of slightly more elaborate sheet music: the melody line and chord symbols with piano accompaniment. Deposit copies still need to be filed with a copyright registration but these days you can upload a MP3 recording of the song with your online registration, which, of course, provides a richer, more fully realized rendition of a song than can be conveyed in simple lead sheet or even a full score.

So, for copyright purposes, the song, “Got to Give It Up,” is likely at best, a piece of piano/vocal sheet music and at worst a lowly lead sheet. That’s why the judge instructed the jury to only consider the sheet music, not Marvin Gaye’s recording, a copyright that Gaye’s family doesn’t own. It would be very difficult to convey the “groove” of the “Got to Give It Up,” including the beat and other elements in the sheet music to the song as opposed to the recording of it. It’s far more likely that the deposit copy of the song, “Blurred Lines,” is in fact, the recording (which is now permitted) or at least some demo version of it.

Moreover, not every element in a song (whether in the form of sheet music or in a recording), is copyrightable. You can’t copyright “ideas” but only “expression” of ideas. For example, chord progressions such as a “falling thirds” (think of the C, Am, F, G chords of hundreds of 1950s songs) are not copyrightable. So, ultimately, for purposes of this lawsuit, the issue on appeal will be whether the song or the recording of “Blurred Lines” infringed original, copyrightable expression in the song “Got to Give It Up,” as represented by the sheet music. And that’s hard to prove.

And that’s why the jury verdict may be overturned on appeal. In other words, one can’t blur the line between the copyright in the song and the copyright in the recording. In terms of content (as opposed to ownership) it’s less of a distinction now since deposit copies of songs can be recordings of them – but that’s not what the practice was when “Got to Give It Up” was registered for copyright protection.

Raging Bulls, the Supreme Court and Running the Clock on Copyright Infringement

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This case is a copyright infringement action regarding the iconic MGM film, Raging Bull, which garnered Robert De Niro a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta (but failed to win one for its director, Martin Scorsese). The key issue here in this case is whether the doctrine of “laches” bars a plaintiff from being able to bring a copyright infringement lawsuit. Spoiler alert: by a 6-3 decision, reversing the 9th Circuit, the high court decided that the doctrine did not bar the lawsuit, primarily because such actions are already subject to the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations.

As a subplot, a lot of ink has already been spilled over how the Justices sided with respect to this decision. Justice Ginsburg, a member of the Court’s so-called Liberal wing, wrote the majority opinion and was joined by her Liberal colleagues, Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, as well as Conservatives Scalia, Thomas, Alito. Justice Breyer, who generally sides with the Liberals, wrote the dissent and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, a Conservative, and Justice Kennedy, who is frequently the swing vote in 5-4 decisions. Unlike cases with particular social implications, such as those involving the free exercise of speech or religion under the First Amendment, decisions involving statutory construction are often decided 9-0, or with splits that don’t adhere to particular ideologies or political party lines.

Getting back to the main story, I’ll spare you the lengthy exposition which features the vesting of renewal rights in pre-1978 copyrights, the distinction between “legal” and equitable” remedies and the merger of law and equity in federal cases with the 1938 adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. You can read the 39-page opinion for that.

Here’s what creators, assignees and licensees of copyrighted works, such as screenplays, films and music, need to know. First, for those who may not know, “laches” is the doctrine by which a court will, in extraordinary circumstances, deny plaintiff the right to proceed with a lawsuit where he unreasonably delays in bringing that lawsuit. Second, the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations in section 507(b) might be described as applying on a “rolling basis.”

Generally, the clock begins to run on filing a copyright infringement action from the time the claim, “accrues,” which is usually when the first infringement takes place. For example, if a you’re a songwriter and someone steals your song and puts out a record in June, 2014, you would have three years from that time to file a copyright infringement action or forever hold your peace. Or would you? Let’s assume that the infringing record is a hit and remains in for print for more than 20 years, including re-releases in various new formats. Despite being aware of the infringements all along, you don’t file a lawsuit until 2034, twenty years after the initial release of the infringing recording and after the label has expended a lot of money in producing, distributing, marketing and re-issuing the record.

One might think that the statute of limitations would totally bar such a lawsuit. One would be wrong. You, as plaintiff songwriter, can still sue, but you can only base your claim on infringements that occurred during the prior three years, i.e., 2031-2034. Anything that happened between 2014 and 2031 would be time-barred. With that in mind, let’s look at the relevant facts in the Raging Bull case.

After retiring from the ring, Jake LaMotta collaborated with his friend, Frank Petrella, to tell his story. They wrote several versions, one of which was a 1963 screenplay which was registered with the Copyright Office with Mr. Petrella as sole author. Frank Petrella subsequently died, prior to the commencement of the “renewal” term for you copyright geeks, and the screenplay became the sole property of his daughter, plaintiff, Paula Petrella. Although Paula first had her lawyer contact MGM in 1998 regarding alleged infringement of the screenplay, she didn’t file suit until January, 2009, nearly thirty years after the release of Raging Bull, along with re-releases in VHS, DVD and licenses to cable and satellite TV companies.

Although Ms. Petrella only sought relief for infringements for the prior three years (and therefore anything that happened prior to 2006 was not involved), MGM viewed the lawsuit as the waste product of a raging bull and that laches should bar her complaint. MGM felt it unfair to have to defend a lawsuit that plaintiff could have brought decades earlier when memories fade, witnesses die and documents are lost. The District Court, Court of Appeals and the dissenting Supreme Court Justices agreed.

The majority of the Supreme Court, however, felt that laches was not a bar a lawsuit in light of their being an applicable statute of limitations. A plaintiff has a right to decide whether to pursue and infringement action, and subject to the statute of limitations, when to do so. Moreover, the same evidentiary concerns that MGM raised, also affect plaintiff, who bears the burden of proof. The Supreme Court did point out that the doctrine of “estoppel” could bar a copyright infringement action where the plaintiff engaged in deceptive or misleading conduct regarding the defendants.

So, just because the statute of limitations may have passed regarding first infringements, it doesn’t mean the clock’s run out on later ones. As always, if you think you have an infringement claim that you might want to pursue, you should consult your local copyright lawyer.

The Good Wife and the Parody Defense

Imagine my surprise when I tuned in to yesterday’s episode of The Good Wife, expecting the usual sexual and political intrigue and found myself in the middle of a copyright infringement case that seemed to have elements of the Supreme Court’s  decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (the case where the high court held that 2 Live Crew’s use of the Roy Orbison hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman” was a parody of that 1960s classic), Glee and the recent furor over the Goldiblox ad using The Beastie Boys’ song, Girls. What fun!

Although the technicalities of these types of cases were somewhat glossed over for dramatic effect, things like “parody”, “transformative use”, “derivative copyright” and “compulsory license” were bandied about in the middle of the battle between Alicia Florrick’s client and that of her nemesis, former lover and head of her former firm, Will Gardner.

The fictional case involved a duo that had done a “cover” of sorts of a rap tune where they kept the original rap lyrics but wrote a new melody for the song, “transforming” it into a bouncy pop tune. This version was, in turn, “covered” by yet another artist and was broadcast on a fictional Glee-like show.

Now, those of you who’ve read my previous blog posts both on here and on ScoreStreet, are already familiar with these concepts. But, for you fans of The Good Wife who want to know what all the fuss was about as these legal terms went whizzing by, here’s a brief explanation of some of what was going on in the case where one party was portrayed by F. Murray Abraham (who won an Oscar for his role as the composer, Salieri, in the film, Amadeus), and where the judge was Dominic Chianese, Uncle Junior of The Sopranos  fame and someone who released a recording of Italian songs. Kudos to the casting department for the inside jokes!

The manager for the budding pop duo spoke about getting a “compulsory” license. This, is in fact,  known in the music biz as a “mechanical” license. Typically, a record label (on behalf of its recording artist) obtains this license from the copyright owner of the song to be “covered,” which is usually a music publisher. It is a compulsory license under Section 115 of the Copyright Act in that once a song has been commercially recorded and released, any artist can “cover” that song and the copyright owner  must grant permission (hence, the “compulsory” license), provided that the artist (or more likely, their label) pays the “statutory” rate, which is currently 9.1 cents unit distributed for a song that is 5 minutes or less in duration. So, if an artist sells 100,000 downloads of a song that’s less than 5 minutes long, the record label owes the publisher $9,100.00.

Compulsory mechanical licenses only give the artist rights to make an audio-only recording. And while an artist under the mechanical license can arrange the covered song to his own style, he can’t make fundamental changes such as material alterations to the song’s lyrics. The right to make other uses of the song requires additional rights – as was noted during the show. This is where this “derivative copyright” stuff comes in.

A copyright owner has a “bundle of rights” including the right to make and distribute copies and to create – or authorize others to create – “derivative works.” What’s a derivative work? You can look it up in Section 101 of the Copyright Act, but arrangements, translations, adaptations and the like are derivative works. For example, making a film from a novel is creating a derivative work of that novel. So is making a video of a song or doing a new arrangement of a song, such as keeping the lyrics but writing an entirely new melody to them, as was done in The Good Wife. Such derivative uses are often viewed as being “transformative,” in that the new work has recast and re-purposed the original work.

Most derivative uses of a copyrighted work need to be authorized or licensed by the copyright owner of the underlying work. For example, if a producer wants to use a hit song in an upcoming TV show, they need to get a “synchronization” license from the copyright owner of the song (typically, a music publisher) and permission from the copyright owner of the recording of that song (typically, the artist’s label).

However, there is an exception under the doctrine of “fair use” for a “parody” of a work. An artist may use another’s copyrighted work without permission if the new work  is commenting in some manner on the underlying original, as was held to be the case with 2 Live Crew and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”  Such a “parody”  is said to be a “transformative” use of the work, and under certain circumstances, no permission would be required and the use, even without permission, would not constitute copyright infringement.

But there’s a catch:  what was not made clear in last night’s episode, probably for dramatic purposes, is that in order to have a fair use “parody” of the work, one can only use so much of the underlying work as to “conjure” the original. One cannot simply take the entire underlying work and use it wholesale, such as taking an entire lyric and writing a new tune to it. In the “Oh, Pretty Woman” case, 2 Live Crew only used a portion of the original song and the rest was original material, thereby creating a “transformative” use of the Orbison hit. Got that?

Who knew that copyright and music licensing could be so dramatic!