February 25, 2008

Co-Authorship Dispute Over Composition Performed by System of a Down

In Maxwood Music Limited v. Malakian et al., case no. 1:08-cv-01730-RWS (S.D.N.Y. complaint filed Feb. 21, 2008), the assignee of copyright interests in various compositions by Casey Chmielinksi p/k/a/ Casey Chaos seeks a declaratory judgment against System of a Down members and related publishing companies.

The dispute arises out of the hit song "B.Y.O.B", the first single on the System of a Down album entitled Mezmerize, and winner of the 2005 GRAMMY Award for "Best Hard Rock Performance". (Notably, Chaos recieved a certificate from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognizing his participation as a songwriter of the GRAMMY Award-winning song.)

The complaint alleges that Chaos and Daron Malakian, lead guitarist of the System of a Down, collaborated on an independent project entiled "Scars on Broadway", during which the two wrote approximately 14 songs. "At all times, Malakian and Chaos considered themselves the sole co-authors of 'Scars on Broadway' and each of the individual compositions written for it, including the Composition [B.Y.O.B.], and intended that they be joint authors of those musical works." (Compl. para. 14). However, the project was "put...on hold while they each returned to their own music for their respective bands." (Id. at 17.)

Unbeknownst to Chaos, B.Y.O.B. was later recorded by System of a Down and released as a single to promote Mezmerize, an album that has sold millions worldwide.

Chaos was not listed in the credits for the Single or the Album as a co-author of the Composition. Upon the release of the Album, however, Malakian's publishing company [Sony] filed a registration with the Copyright Office for the Composition that explicitly listed Chaos as an author together with Malakian.

Sony also registered Chaos as a co-author with the relevant public performance societies in the United States and United Kingdom that collect royalties for songwriters generated from public performances of their compositions.

(Id. at 21-22.)

Based on the above, Plaintiff (as assignee of Chaos' copyright interests) seeks a declaratory judgment that B.Y.O.B. was co-authored by Chaos and Malakian, without the participation of any other party; further, plaintiff seeks a declaration that Chaos owned (and Plaintiff now owns by virtue of an assignment) an equal and undivided 50% share of B.Y.O.B. Lastly, plaintiff seeks an accounting.

The theme from plaintiff's complaint is clear: if Chaos was not an equal-share co-author, why was he listed with both the Copyright Office and the public performance societies as a co-author?

An interesting aside - why did defendants consent to personal jurisdiction in the Southern District of New York?

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