Plaintiff was the administer of an estate of a recording artist, songwriter, producer, and musician who died in 2012. The decedent was the sole author of the musical composition entitled Spank. Plaintiff alleged that, “[d]espite receipt of Decedent Smith’s Cease and Desist notice Defendants KC, Harrick Music, Sunshine Sound, Horne and Joy Productions have continued to commercially exploit the Composition ‘Spank.’ Count I of Plaintiff’s Complaint was for copyright infringement of the Spank composition only, and only for the period from November 28, 2011, when the Cease & Desist Letter was written, through the present.
Defendants moved to dismiss the copyright claims against them on either of two separate grounds: (1) Plaintiff lacks standing to sue for copyright infringement, given that he never registered his copyright interest; and (2) the Complaint contains insufficient allegations of infringement activity. The Court agreed that the copyright infringement count should be dismissed for all Defendants because Plaintiff lacked standing to sue, and additionally as to the moving Defendants because of insufficient pleadings.
Standing to sue for infringement must necessarily be grounded in ownership of a copyright
interest. That ownership is determined in part by compliance with the formalities of the
Copyright Act. The Act provides that “[t]he legal or beneficial owner of an exclusive right under
a copyright is entitled, subject to the requirements of section 411, to institute an action for any
infringement of that particular right committed while he or she is the owner of it.” 17 U.S.C.
§ 501(b). Section 411, in turn, states that “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.” Id. § 411(a). Any registration for the
copyright sued upon must be commenced no later than the date that the suit was brought. If Plaintiff produces a certificate of copyright, the burden shifts to Defendants to demonstrate why the claim of copyright is invalid.
Here, Plaintiff has failed to produce a certificate of copyright with respect to the Spank
composition, and fails even to allege that it had registered for one by the time this Complaint was filed. Plaintiff does attach a Certificate of Copyright Registration, dated March 1, 1979, for
Spank to the Complaint, but the Certificate names Harrick Music as the Copyright Claimant.
Smith is listed only as the author, and the Registration notes that “Harrick Music, Inc. received transfer by written notice from Ronald Luis Smith.” Even if the registration were the fruit of inaccurate information submitted by the registrant, Harrick Music, it is still a prerequisite to the filing of a copyright infringement claim – a prerequisite that neither Plaintiff nor Smith has satisfied. As such, the Court finds that Plaintiff lacks standing to bring Count I against any and all of the defendants, including Horne and Joy Productions. [Internal citations omitted].