May 2, 2011

Copyright Case Dismissed As Time Barred

Brand v. RMM, Universal Music Group, NYLJ 1202491912221, at *1 (SDNY, Decided April 18, 2011).

Plaintiff sued alleging that defendants infringed the copyright to his rap vocals by adding them to a song by recording artist Tito Nieves. The Court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment -- the claim was time-barred.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant infringed his copyright when it "used, sold and manufactured without his permission his rap vocals." Although styled as an infringement claim, the gravamen of Plaintiff's complaint is that he is the owner of the rap lyrics on Nieves' song.

The Court cited cases that a claim involving a dispute over copyright ownership accrues when a plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury upon which the claim is premised. A defendant's express assertion of adverse ownership or a plain and express repudiation of plaintiff's ownership such as registering the copyright in defendant's own name, distributing the work with copyright notice identifying defendant as the owner, or exploiting the work for years without paying royalties to plaintiff will trigger the accrual of the statute of limitations. If a plaintiff does not sue within three years from the date his copyright claim accrues, his complaint is time-barred. 17 U.S.C. §507(b).

In this case, the song was first released in 1991. The back of the CD cover listed defendant as the copyright owner. The song was released again in 1997 on another CD, which also listed defendant as the copyright owner on the back cover. Plaintiff never received royalties from either CD. The Court held that given this history, Plaintiff reasonably should have know of the injury upon which his claim was premised by 1991 or at the latest by 1997, thirteen years before he filed the complaint. Because Plaintiff's ownership claim was time-barred, his infringement claim also failed as a matter of law.