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The De Minimus Exception to Infringement is Now in Vogue for Sound Recordings

On June 2, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of summary judgment to defendants and vacated an award of attorney’s fees in the case of VMG SalSoul, LLC v. Ciccone. Plaintiff alleged that Madonna’s mega-hit, Vogue, infringed both the copyright in the composition and the copyright in the sound recording of the song, Love Break, recorded several years earlier by defendant, Shep Pettibone, who also worked on the recording of Vogue. Pettibone sampled, altered and incorporated the “horn hit” from Love Break into Vogue.

The “horn hit” consists of two forms, a single and a double hit, and occurs 27 and 23 times, respectively during the course of the 1982 recording of Love Break that is 7:26 in duration. By contrast, the “horn hit” sampled in Madonna’s 1990 recording of Vogue, is sampled solely from the single hit and is pitched a half tone higher than the original “horn hit” in Love Break. There are two versions of Vogue in issue: the “radio edit” that’s 4:53 in duration and contains one “single hit” and three “double hits” and the “compilation version” that’s 5:17 in duration and contains one “single hit” and five “double hits.” The single “horn hit” lasts less than a quarter of a second and the double “horn hit” also clocks in at less than a second in duration. The Court’s opinion includes the musical notation for both versions of the “horn hit” as heard in Love Break and in Vogue.  You can listen to the respective recordings here and here.

The Ninth Circuit had previously established the de minimus exception to copyright infringement for musical works in the 2003 case, Newton v. Diamond, where the court noted that the unauthorized use “must be significant enough to constitute infringement,” and that a plaintiff “must show that the copying was greater than de minimus.” Quoting Newton, the Court stated that a “use is de minimus only if the average audience would not recognize the appropriation.” After analysis, including listening to both recordings, the court held that the appropriation of both the underlying musical work and the master recording of the two versions of the “horn hit” was de minimus.

Addressing the alleged copyright infringement in the sound recording, the Court stated:

After listening to the audio recordings submitted by the parties, we conclude that a reasonable juor could not conclude that an average audience would recognize the appropriation of the horn hit. That common-sense conclusion is borne out by dry analysis. The horn hit is very short – less than a second. The horn hit occurs only a few times in Vogue. Moreover, the horn hits in Vogue do not sound identical to the horn hits from Love Break. As noted above, assuming that the sampling occurred, Pettibone truncated the horn hit, transposed it to a different key, and added other sounds and effects to the horn hit itself. The horn hit then was added to Vogue along with many other instrument tracks.  Even if one grants the dubious proposition that a listener recognized some similarities between the horn hits in the two songs, it is hard to imagine that he or she would conclude that sampling had occurred.

In applying the de minmus exception to sampling of sound recordings, the Ninth Circuit explicitly broke with the Sixth Circuit, the only other circuit to directly address the issue. In the 2005 case, Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films, the Sixth Circuit adopted a bright-line rule, summarized by the Ninth Circuit as follows: “For copyrighted sound recordings, any unauthorized copying – no matter how trivial – constitutes infringement.”

Plaintiff, however, argued that there was a statutory basis for treating sound recordings differently from other copyrighted works and that the de minimus exception should not apply. The Court looked at Section 102, the list of copyrightable types of works, and found no basis to treat sound recordings differently from other copyrightable works, such as literary works. Similarly, in addressing the “bundle of rights” of Section 106, the Court concluded:

Again, nothing in that provision suggests differential treatment of de minimus copying of sound recordings compared to, say, sculptures. Although subsection (6) deals exclusively with sound recordings, that subsection concerns performances; nothing in its text bears on de minimus copying.

Plaintiff’s main statutory argument apparently was premised on the third sentence of Section 114(b), which reads as follows:

The exclusive rights of the owner of copyright in a sound recording under clauses (1) and (2) of section 106 do not extend to the making or duplication of another sound recording that consists entirely of an independent fixation of other sounds, even though such sounds imitate or simulate those in the copyrighted sound recording. As the Court pointed out, this section is a limitation on a copyright owner’s rights and states that “sound alike” recordings that do not incorporate a separate master recording (i.e., no sampling) are permissible.

Addressing this provision dealing with sound-alike recordings, the Court stated:

But the quoted passage does not speak to the question that we face: whether Congress intended to eliminate the longstanding de minimus exception for sound recordings in all circumstances even where, as here, the new sound recording as a whole sounds nothing like the original.

The Sixth Circuit’s Bridgeport decision was premised on an interpretation of Section 114(b) that the Ninth Circuit explicitly rejected, knowing that doing so would create a split in the circuits and uncertainty in this area of the law. The Court noted that as a practical matter, the circuit split already exists as district courts outside the Sixth Circuit have almost uniformly declined to follow Bridgeport Music’s bright line rule.  However, the Court did reverse the award of attorney’s fees:  “It plainly is reasonable to bring a claim founded on the only circuit-court precedent to have considered the legal issue, whether or not our circuit ultimately agrees with that precedent.

In dissent, Judge Silverman defended the Bridgeport precedent:

I find Bridgeport’s arguments well-reasoned and persuasive. Equally compelling is, I think, Congress’s Silence in the wake of Bridgeport, especially in light of the fact that the Sixth Circuit explicity invited Congress to clarify or change the law if Bridgeport’s bright-line rule was not what Congress intended. While it’s true that congressional inaction in the face of judicial interpretation is not ironclad evidence of Congressional approval, it’s not chopped liver, either. In this case, Bridgeport has not been hiding out in the woods, waiting to be found; it has been governing the music industry in Nashville and elsewhere for eleven years.

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My own view is that the Ninth Circuit got it right here. There is no reason to treat sound recordings differently from other types of copyrighted works and the de minimus exception should apply where appropriate. Sampling is merely a form of aural collage art and there is no doubt that a court would find the incorporation of small snippets a copyrighted work of visual art such as a painting or photograph in another painting, photograph or sculpture either to constitute fair use or a non-actionable de minimus appropriation. In sum, Madonna has made de minimus usage as in vogue in copyright as she has long done with her clothing.

Did the Joker Write the Ninth Circuit’s Batmobile Decision?

In DC Comics v. Towle, the Ninth Circuit recently upheld the district court’s summary judgment determination that the Batmobile, as it appeared in at least two very different iterations created more than twenty years apart, constitutes a single copyrighted “character.” No joke.

The case involved Towle’s creating and selling Batmobile replicas, specifically the car used in the campy 1960s series starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader and the one used in the 1989 feature film starring Michael Keaton. Both the original vehicles and Towle’s replicas are pictured in the appedices to the Court’s opinion, which I strongly encourage my gentle readers to examine before proceeding further.

The Court commenced its learned discourse by exclaiming, “Holy copyright, Batman!” Following that was a discussion of the copyrightability of characters, citing such precedents as James Bond, Godzilla and Batman himself, all of whom have appeared in various guises over the years. Curiously, nowhere does the Court refer to any particular copyright registration for the Batmobile (or even one for any particular comic book issue depicting it, for that matter) despite summarily rejecting Towle’s argument on that point in a footnote.

The Court distilled its discourse on copyright in a character into a tripartite test:

We read these precedents as establishing a three-part test for determining whether a character in a comic book, television program, or motion picture is entitled to copyright protection. First, the character must generally have “physical as well as conceptual qualities.” Second, the character must be “sufficiently delineated” to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears. Considering the character as it has appeared in different productions, it must display consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes, although the character need not have a consistent appearance. Third, the character must be “especially distinctive” and “contain some unique elements of expression.” It cannot be a stock character such as a magician in standard magician garb. Even when a character lacks sentient attributes and does not speak (like a car), it can be a protectable character if it meets this standard. (Citations omitted).

Now let’s briefly examine how the Court determined that the Batmobile satisfies this standard. The Court found that the Batmobile has “physical as well as conceptual qualities” in that the car is always “sufficiently delineated” in that it’s “equipped with high-tech gadgets and weaponry used to aid Batman in fighting crime” and that is “almost always bat-like in appearance.” The Court also noted that “[n]o matter its specific physical appearance, the Batmobile is a ‘crime-fighting’ car with sleek and powerful characteristics that allow Batman to maneuver quickly while he fights villains.” The Court further stressed: “Equally important, the Batmobile always contains the most up-to-date weaponry and technology.”

Let’s unpack this for a moment by substituting “Buick” for “Batmobile.” Does anyone really believe the state-of-the art technology in a 1966 Buick even remotely resembles that of a 1989 or 2015 model? And while the Batmobile “almost always” has bat-like features, how much does a 1966 Buick Regal bear any resemblance to its 1989 counterpart other than in its name? Or in copyright speak, assuming there was a registration for the design of the 1966 car, what copyrightable elements (expression) are incorporated into the 1989 version to merit it being considered a derivative work of the prior model? Indeed, do the two cars in question in this case look anything alike other than both being long and black? Moreover, the Court noted that Towle’s replicas did not exactly copy the originals used in the TV show and the film, although he did sell kits and accessories to customize the cars to more closely resemble them.

What the Court is describing sounds more like the “idea” of the Batmobile rather than any particular expression of it. The Court’s justification for copyrightable status seems to fly in the face of idea/expression dichotomy, codified in Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act in that ideas can’t be copyrighted, but only the particular expression of them. And that’s the problem in granting copyright protection to characters, especially those with non-speaking roles.

Plaintiff’s tiff with Towle seems to have been driven by his calling his replicas “Batmobiles” and trading upon that name, including using the domain name, batmobilereplicas.com. That, of course, is the province of the trademark law, not that of copyright, as names, titles and short phrases aren’t copyrightable. DC Comic’s complaint, did, in fact, allege trademark infringement and a cursory review of the PTO’s online database shows no fewer than four live registrations under the “Batmobile” moniker.

But assuming the Joker did not write the opinion, the Ninth Circuit hath now decreed that the Batmobile is a copyrighted character. So as the Riddler would say, riddle me this:

Since the Court did not identify any specific copyright registration, how long does the copyright in the Batmobile last? Assuming we can pin a date on any early version, it would seem that an ancient avatar would eventually fall into the public domain, although original, copyrightable features added to later iterations could not freely be used so long as they remained under copyright — at least following the Sherlock-like logic of Judge Posner’s 2014 opinion in Klinger v Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. In other words, at some point the 1960s Batmobile will be free for joy rides across the public domain while the 1989 model may not be.

And as I’m assaying the character of the Riddler, I’ll throw one out that my criminal colleague, the Joker, would truly enjoy:

We know from the Supreme Court’s decision in Campbell v. Acuff Rose Music, that parody is a form of fair use. And recent decisions have held that in some circumstances entire characters and scenes as well as entire works of visual art can be copied for fair use purposes, including parody. Since we know that Towle didn’t copy the copyrighted cars completely, what if instead of black, he had painted his replicas pink with purple polka dots and called them Clown Caper Cars instead of Batmobiles? Couldn’t that be construed as a comedic commentary on the serious, macho characteristics of the Caped Crusader and his avenging automobile?

And let’s magnify the mischief by assuming that Towle whispers in his buyer’s ear that she can paint the clown car black once it’s paid for and she drives it off the lot. Wouldn’t that be an application of the first sale doctrine under Section 109(b) in that “the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.” At least viewed through the lens of the Ninth Circuit’s brand new dancing baby case, a fair use of a work, such as “transforming” it into a protected parody, constitutes a new work that is “lawfully made.” Perhaps a future Special Guest Villain will have better luck if he avails himself of clever legal counsel prior to producing copycat cars.

Finally, if the Batmobile is now a copyrightable character, will Wonder Woman’s bracelets and Thor’s hammer be appearing as characters in cases at a courthouse near you?

Unfortunately, we can’t tune in tomorrow for the solution to these copyright conundrums as they will be riddles for future courts to unravel.