Intellectual Property | Copyright Infringement | Technology | Software

Copyright Case Briefs – Beyonce music infringement case

Jan 17th, 2018 | By | Category: Music Infringement

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Summary

This blog discusses a lawsuit filed against Beyonce in New York in the case of Lane v. Knowles-Carter (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 21, 2015).

Facts

This case involves a claim of copyright infringement against Beyonce Knowles- Carter. Plaintiff Ahmad Javon Lane (“Lane”) is the owner and author of the song XOXO. Importantly, only the lyrics of XOXO are registered with the Copyright Office. Additionally, through a Production Agreement, Lane was granted the exclusive rights to a sequence 4-bar introduction “Beat” used in XOXO.

On June 20, 2013, Lane sent a digital copy of his song XOXO to Chrissy Collins, a background singer for Beyonce. Lane contends thereafter that Beyonce, along with non-parties Chrissy Collins, Terrius Nash, and Ryan Tedder, used the digital copy of XOXO sent by Lane to create the hit song XO. Additionally, Lane alleges that Beyonce used the 4-bar introduction beat at the beginning of XO. Lane filed a copyright infringement suit against Beyonce seeking damages of $7.1 million. Beyonce filed a motion to dismiss under 12(b)(6) with prejudice.

Issue

Whether Plaintiff has standing to sue for copyright infringement when he alleged that the music was infringed, when only the lyrics in the composition were registered? Moreover, whether Lane’s XOXO song is substantially similar to Beyonce’s song XO?

Holding

Plaintiff does not state a claim for copyright infringement.

Analysis

Beyonce’s motion to dismiss focused primarily on two arguments: (1) that Lane does not have standing to bring a copyright claim as to the music in XOXO because he has failed to allege valid copyright registration and (2) even if he did, that XOXO and XO are not substantially similar.

Without a valid registration by the date the lawsuit commenced, a party lacks standing to sue for copyright infringement. In this case, Lane provided a copy of the registration certificate which expressly shows Lane is the copyright claimant as to XOXO’s lyrics. However, Lane did not claim infringement of the lyrics, but only its music, which the certificate excludes rights to. Lane argues that he has standing to sue for the music infringement because of the Production Agreement, which granted him the exclusive rights to use the Beat. While persons granted with exclusive licenses have standing to sue for copyright infringement, the Court found this to be irrelevant because Lane never alleged that the original owner of the Beat had a validly registered copyright in the Beat. Because such an allegation is a prerequisite to an infringement claim, the Court dismissed the claim for lack of standing.

Next, the Court turned to whether Lane’s copyright claim would be substantively viable to determine whether it could dismiss the claim with prejudice. Defendants argue that Lane’s copyright infringement claim fails because there is no substantial similarity between XOXO and XO. When a defendant raises the question of substantial similarity at the pleading stage on a motion to dismiss, a district court may determine if there is substantial similarity by considering the facts asserted in the complaint. If the similarity between the two works concerns only non-copyrightable elements of the plaintiff’s work, or if no reasonable jury, properly instructed, could find that the two works are substantially similar, then the Court may dismiss the infringement claim. In copyright claims involving music, courts have found meter and tempo; a single note; words and short phrases; and common rhythms, song structures, and harmonic progressions to be non-copyrightable. As to substantial similarity where a plaintiff’s work is not wholly original, a “more discerning observer test” is applied, wherein “the Court must look for substantial similarity between the allegedly infringing work and the original protected elements of the plaintiff’s creation.

Lane alleges that Beyonce infringed on XOXO by “using a sequence 4 bar introduction ‘Beat’ that was sampled at the beginning of XO” and that XOXO and XO are substantially similar when viewed holistically. As to the use of the Beat, the Court found that, even though the Beats were similar, the 4-bar phrase was so common place and that similarity alone would not establish substantial similarity between XOXO and XO.

Next, the Court compared the two songs holistically, focusing on the lyrics and the music. As to the lyrics, Beyonce argued that a comparison of the lyrics illustrates vast differences between XOXO and XO. The Court agreed. While both songs utilized the letters “X” and “O”, the songs had entirely different choruses and themes. Lane’s song, XOXO, are explicitly sexual, while Beyonce’s song XO expressed an uplifting celebration of love and life. The Court reasoned that a reasonable jury, having reviewed the lyrics of the two songs, could not find that XOXO and XO are lyrically and thematically substantially similar. As to the music, the Court also did not find anything in common between the songs. XOXO is four minutes and 28 seconds long, beginning with a 40-second instrumental and was an R&B style-song, with a slower tempo. Conversely, XO was three minutes and 36-seconds long, commenced with Beyonce’s vocals and was a mid-tempo pop ballad. Further, the Court found that the melodies were completely different and XO had more production complexity than XOXO. Finally, the Court found that the two songs involved different feelings. XOXO was seductive and personal, while XO was joyous and uplifting. Thus, the Court found that Lane failed to plausibly allege substantial similarity and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

Lack of standing argument

Here is what the opinion discussed as part of the “standing” argument.

A. Lack of Standing
“Defendants argue that the SAC does not adequately allege that Lane holds a valid copyright registration for the music in XOXO. Defs. Br. 14–15. Under the Copyright Act, “no civil action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until preregistration or registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title.” 17 U.S.C. § 411(a); see also Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154, 158 (2010) ( “It establishes a condition—copyright registration—that plaintiffs ordinarily must satisfy before filing an infringement claim and invoking the [Copyright] Act’s remedial provisions”).
The Court continued:
“Courts in this Circuit have required that a plaintiff either hold a valid copyright registration outright or have applied and been refused a registration prior to filing a claim, both before and after Reed Elsevier.” Muench Photography, Inc. v. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publ’g Co., No. 09 Civ. 2669(LAP), (S.D.N.Y. March 26, 2012) (emphasis in original) (collecting cases); see also BWP Media USA, Inc. v. Gossip Cop Media, LLC, 87 F.Supp.3d 499, 503 (S.D.N.Y.2015) (“Although registration is not required to obtain copyright protection, it is a prerequisite to bring an infringement action in federal court.”); Small Business Bodyguard, Inc. v. House of Moxie, Inc., No. 14 Civ. 7170(CM), (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 30, 2014) (“Without a valid registration by the date the lawsuit is commenced, a party lacks standing to sue for copyright infringement.”); Warren v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 952 F.Supp.2d 610, 616 (S.D.N.Y.2013) (“A properly plead[ed] copyright infringement claim must allege … that the copyrights have been registered in accordance with the statute.”) (quoting Kelly v. L.L. Cool J., 145 F.R.D. 32, 36 (S.D.N.Y.1992) (alteration in Warren )).
Here, Lane has provided a copy of the copyright registration certificate, which clearly states that Lane is the copyright claimant as to XOXO’s lyrics.  Lane, however, does not claim infringement of XOXO’s lyrics, but only its music, and the copyright certificate excludes rights to the music. Lane’s argument as to the music is that he has standing to sue for its infringement because, under the Production Agreement, he was granted exclusive rights to use the Beat. It is true that “persons who have been granted exclusive licenses by owners of copyrights” have standing to sue for copyright infringement. Eden Toys, Inc. v. Florelee Undergarment Co., 697 F.2d 27, 32 (2d Cir.1982), superseded on other grounds by Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a). But Lane has failed to allege that Abisinito, the owner of the Beat who licensed use of it to Lane, has a validly registered copyright in the Beat. Such an allegation is a prerequisite for bringing a copyright infringement claim. See Warren, 952 F.Supp.2d at 616.”

See Lane v. Knowles-Carter, No. 14 CIV. 6798 PAE,  (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 21, 2015)

Conclusion

The Complaint was dismissed on 12(b)(6) grounds with prejudice because Lane had no standing and no reasonable jury could find that XOXO and XO are substantially similar.

This blog was written by Ms. Jennifer Cooper, Loyola Marymount law student.

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