Petrella Brings Copyright Statute of Limitations Focus Shift to Circuits

Architectural firm Chicago Building Design, P.C. sued one of its former clients, Mongolian House, Inc., for copyright infringement.  At the district court level, the parties and the court focused on the date on which the statute of limitations began to run.  The district court dismissed the complaint as barred by the statute of limitations.

The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded, stating: “In light of Petrella, we now know that the right question to ask in copyright cases is whether the complaint contains allegations of infringing acts that occurred within the three-year look-back period from the date on which the suit was filed.”  (Opinion pdf page 12).

My post on the Petrella case is Raging Bull Copyright Owner KO’s Film Studios.

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Nonprofit Educational Use is Fair Use and Trumps Lack of Transformation

Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Sage Publications sued Georgia State University (GSU) for copyright infringement.  GSU made scanned materials from plaintiff’s books available to students over the Internet without obtaining permission or paying plaintiffs.  The district court ruled that the fair use defense protected GSU in forty-three instances and that GSU infringed in five instances.  The Eleventh Circuit ruled that the district court erred in its fair use analysis and reversed and remanded the case.

Here, we are called upon to determine whether the unpaid copying of scholarly works by a university for use by students—facilitated by the development of systems for digital delivery over the Internet—should be excused under the doctrine of fair use.

(Opinion pdf page 5).

The central issue in this case is under what circumstances GSU must pay permissions fees to post a digital copy of an excerpt of Plaintiffs’ works to ERes or uLearn (GSU’s course content websites).

(Opinion pdf page 11).

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Bumpin’ Bus Stop Sampling Swerves Around Copyright Infringement

David Pryor wrote the musical composition “Bumpin’ Bus Stop” in 1974.  His band, The Play Boys, recorded the song at Gold Future Recording Studio.  Pryor distributed copies of “Bumpin’ Bus Stop” to radio stations and distributors.  Pryor did not file a copyright registration for the Gold Future record.  Pryor wanted more exposure for “Bumpin Bus Stop.”  In 1975, Private Stock Records, with Pryor’s consent, remastered and shorted the Gold Future recording, changed the name of Pryor’s band to “Thunder and Lightning” and distributed the record under Private Stock’s own label.  Private Stock received copyright registrations for both the recording and the underlying musical composition.  Pryor died in 2006.

Douglas Uttal, Private Stock’s successor in interest, granted Zomba Recording a limited license to sample the Private Stock record in July 2006.  Zomba, Sony Music Entertainment and Wyclef Jean produced a musical recording and video called “Step Up,” which sampled “Bumpin’ Bus Stop.”  Disney, Buena Vista, and Summit Entertainment featured “Step Up” in a film with the same name.  Private Stock assigned all of its rights in “Bumpin’ Bus Stop” to Pryor’s heirs in October 2012.  Pryor’s heirs filed a copyright infringement action against fourteen defendants in April 2012.  The district court recently granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s third amended complaint.

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No Record But Still the Same Old Tune

The district court eloquently described the case’s status and defendants’ post-trial motion following a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiffs.  My favorite sentence in this passage is “Ultimately, the goal is to make a dispute understandable to a lay person.”:

While the world has moved beyond the free-MP3-download craze, the parties in this case have not. This hard-fought litigation spans 7 years and 628 docket entries. Numerous substantive motions were heard. And decisions by this Court did not deter the parties from revisiting the same issues time and again. As trial approached, the parties launched salvos of motions in limine seeking to resurrect discovery disputes, relitigate prior motions, and level an impressive array of claims and defenses. 

A primary function of pre-trial litigation is to distill claims. Ultimately, the goal is to make a dispute understandable to a lay person. Despite this Court’s efforts to winnow the issues, the parties insisted on an 82-page verdict sheet on liability and a 331-page verdict sheet on damages that included dense Excel tables, necessitating at least one juror’s use of a magnifying glass. While the jury did its best, their assignment was beyond all reasonable scale.

To understand how this happened, one must look at the impetus for this litigation. Robertson created a business model designed to operate at the very periphery of copyright law.  While Robertson’s business practices sometimes infringed copyrights, many of the Plaintiffs’ claims were just too big to succeed. Plaintiffs’ evidence on their most significant theories of liability—red flag knowledge and willful blindness—was sparse. And Robertson—by his words, actions, and demeanor—came across as unworthy of belief. That led the jury to rely on something other than the evidence in reaching portions of its verdict. For the following reasons, Robertson’s motions are granted in part and denied in part.

(Opinion pdf pages 1-2).

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