Spank Author’s Estate Whacks Music Publishers on Appeal

This case centers on rights to the musical composition “Spank.”  Ronald Louis Smith, Sr. wrote Spank in the late 1970s.  Smith’s estate later sent a cease and desist letter to one of the music publishers and filed copyright grant termination notices.  Smith’s estate followed up by suing the music publishers and others in federal court.  The Eleventh Circuit faced this question:  Can the author of a musical composition rely on the registration filed by the publisher for standing to sue under the Copyright Act, when the author assigned his rights in the sound recording to a different publisher in exchange for royalties, but that agreement is silent regarding the ownership of the musical composition rights?  The Eleventh Circuit ruled that, yes, the author does have standing to sue under such circumstances and reversed the district court’s ruling.

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Distinctively Shaped Hookah Water Container Copyright Smoked

Under what circumstances can copyright protect the shape of a useful article?  In Inhale, Inc. v. Starbuzz Tobacco, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals faced the question of whether the distinctive shape of a hookah water container affects its copyrightability.  The Ninth Circuit ruled that the hookah water container was not protected by copyright, even though it had a distinctive shape.

Inhale Inc. obtained a copyright on a hookah water container depicting a skull-and-crossbones design.  Starbuzz Tobacco allegedly sold a hookah water container with the same shape as the copyright registered Inhale hookah container, but without the skull-and-crossbones design.  Inhale sued Starbuzz for copyright infringement.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that the Copyright Office issued the registration for the skull-and-crossbones design, without considering the shape of the container.

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Haiti Quake Photos Case Offers Multiple Intriguing Issues and $1.2M Jury Award

In late November 2013, a jury awarded Daniel Morel $1.2M against Agence France Presse (AFP) and Getty Images for willfully infringing photos Morel took in Haiti on January 12, 2010, immediately after the earthquake that demolished the country.  Morel, a noted photographer, swiftly contacted AFP and Getty regarding removing his photos from their websites after he found them posted there.  

AFP actually initiated the lawsuit by bringing a declaratory judgment that it did not infringe Morel’s copyrights in his Haiti earthquake photos.  This case presents a number of intriguing issues, including AFP’s and Getty’s claims that they received a license under the Twitter terms of use, AFP’s and Getty’s claims that they were third party beneficiaries of Morel’s Twitter contract, Morel’s contributory infringement and vicarious liability claims against some of the licensees, Morel’s DMCA copyright management information claim, Getty’s claim that it was protected by a DMCA safe-harbor, Morel’s willful copyright infringement claims against AFP and Getty and Morel’s Lanham Act false representation and false advertising claims.  Morel survived motions to dismiss and summary judgment motions brought by AFP and Getty on the way to his jury verdict.  This post discusses why some issues were dismissed, while others remained in the case to be decided by the jury.

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Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Challenging Willis’ Copyright Grant Termination

When Victor Willis served Scorpio Music (Black Scorpio) and Can’t Stop Productions with a copyright grant termination notice for lyrics he wrote as the original lead singer of the Village People, Scorpio and Can’t Stop sued to challenge the validity of the termination notice.  My post Village People Cop Morphs into Copyright Grant Terminator describes Scorpio’s and Can’t Stop’s first three unsuccessful attempts to invalidate Willis’ copyright grant termination notice.  Scorpio and Can’t Stop recently met with a fourth rejection by the district court in their attempt to invalidate Willis’ copyright grant termination notice.

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Copyright Distribution Infringement Discrete from Copying Infringement

Andrew Diversey, a Ph.D. linguistics student at the University of New Mexico (UNM), sued several administrators and members of the Board of Regents for infringing his copyright in his unpublished dissertation.  Without Diversey’s authorization, a draft of his dissertation was deposited at the UMN Zimmerman Library and was sent to ProQuest, UNM’s dissertation publisher.  The district court ruled that Diversey’s claims were barred by the three year statute of limitations.  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals distinguished Diversey’s claim for unauthorized copying from his claim for unauthorized distribution and affirmed in part and reversed in part.

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