What songwriters can do to protect their ideas when submitting demo tapes to publishers

Every songwriter has heard the words “sorry, we’re not accepting unsolicited material” from at least a dozen publishers. In fact, in a recent informal survey conducted by Law On the Row, two-thirds of the thirty publishing companies contacted indicated that they do not accept unsolicited material. Additionally, the survey revealed that none of the “major” publishers accept unsolicited material.

As unfortunate as this information is for the aspiring songwriter, it is a good business model for the publisher because it avoids idle submission claims — the theory that a publisher “stole” an idea from a songwriter’s demo tape and used it to write another song based on the same idea or concept. This genre of litigation is also prevalent in Hollywood, where movie ideas are stolen almost as often as hooks in Nashville. Is there anything a songwriter can do to protect his or her material when submitting it to a publisher? The answer, of course, is yes.

Register the copyright. While the $30 fee is sometimes a burden on the struggling songwriter’s budget, registration of the copyright is a beneficial and necessary first step in the process of protecting a copyright. Even though the copyright effectively exists from the moment a song is created, registering the copyright empowers the writer to collect statutory damages (i.e. proof of actual damages is not necessary) and attorney’s fees in a submission claim.

Keep good records of all submissions. The first element a songwriter must show in an idea submission claim is access by the defendant publisher (hence the reason many publishers do not accept unsolicited material). You can establish access by maintaining accurate business records of communications and submissions. (The second element, substantial similarity, is a more subjective determination which must be proven by expert testimony).

Establish a relationship with a reputable publisher. By establishing a good, working relationship with a reputable publisher, you minimize your risks and increase your chance of success as a songwriter. Of course, this is the “catch 22”: how to establish a relationship with a publisher without submitting material.Exposure, exposure, and more exposure. Play or have your material played at every opportunity you can — showcases, writer’s nights, gigs, etc. Don’t play your best material — play your “B” songs, i.e, those that are good but don’t necessarily “knock your socks off.” This is not to imply that every audience is full of infringers waiting to take your hook into the studio and “steal your song,” but the fact is that the typical Nashville audience is probably full of other songwriters whose subconscious minds might “soak up” your idea and regurgitate it in the form of a new song incorporating your idea.

Hire a reputable song-plugger. Nashville has a generous supply of good song-pluggers — people who pitch your songs to major labels for a fee, usually $150-300 per month. Find one with a good reputation and hire him or her. Remember to have all agreements reviewed by an entertainment attorney.Join NSAI. Nashville Songwriters Association International is a good organization with services that will assist you in developing as a songwriter and reaching reputable publishers.

Of course, none of these suggestions will guarantee that your submitted material will not be used illegally by a publisher or songwriter. If you feel you have been the subject of blatant theft of intellectual property, contact a reputable attorney.

This article originally appeared in the print edition of Law on the Row, Volume 1, Issue 1, on September 9, 1999.

Rep. John Conyers, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee brought the Performance Rights Act (HR 848) up for markup this morniJohn Conyersng. 

HR 848 created no small amount of disagreement among radio broadcasters, minority broadcasters, trade unions and civil rights groups.  However, a group  of minority artists, including Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, Dionne Farris and Jon Secada, recently sent a letter indicating support for Rep. Conyers and this legislation.  The letters stated in part: 

As minority artists, we support a strong and vibrant local radio industry. We know that minority broadcasters play a vital role in our communities. And we support efforts to create accommodations in the legislation for small, minority-owned stations. But the creation of a fair performance right cannot be delayed further. We have already waited far too long. “Not now” is not an acceptable answer.

To address the concerns of minority broadcasters, Conyers offered the following amendments at today’s markup:

Affordable payment for small, rural, nonprofit, minority, religious and educational broadcasters

· Any station that makes less than $100,000 annually will pay only $500 annually for unlimited use of music

· Any station that makes less than $500,000 but more than $100,000 annually will pay only $2500 (half of the amount in introduced bill) annually for unlimited use of music

· Any station that makes less than $1,250,000 but more than $500,000 annually will pay only $5000 (the amount in introduced bill) annually for unlimited use of music

Relief for current economic situation

· No payment for 2 years by any station that makes less than $5,000,000 annually

· No payment for 1 year by any station that makes more than $5,000,000 annually

Parity for all radio services

· Establishes a “placeholder” standard to determine a fair rate for all radio services that will encourage negotiations between the stakeholders

Cannot hurt local communities

· Assures that this legislation cannot affect broadcasters public interest obligations to serve the local community

Assures consideration of relevant evidence

· Evidence relevant to small, noncommercial, minority, and religious broadcasters and religious and minority royalty recipients must be considered by the Copyright Royalty Judges

Other minority and civil rights groups that sent letters expressing support for the act included the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute.

The executive director of the musicFIRST Coalition, Jennifer Bendall, supported the committee’s decision:

“We applaud Chairman Conyers and Committee members for their work on the Performance Rights Act and for supporting artists, musicians and rights holders in their fight for fair compensation when their music is used by AM and FM radio stations.

The Performance Rights Act will bring fairness to artists, musicians and rights holders and one that’s fair to radio and its counterparts. It also includes accommodations for small and minority-owned broadcasters. musicFIRST looks forward to the next chapter and to Congress to ensure that U.S. artists and musicians receive the performance right they deserve.”

Now that HR 848 has cleared the committee, it will be brought in front of the entire House for debate and vote. 

Link to Politico Interview

As a follow up to my previous post on the subject, the radio widget above should play Politico’s interview with Smashing Pumpkin’s founder and frontman Billy Corgan following his testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee in support of HR 848, the Performance Rights Act.

Corgan testified on Capitol Hill on behalf of the musicFIRST Coalition yesterday.  Corgan testified that the current sytems is “hurting the music business” because of radio stations’ failure to compensate musicians for performing their music.

My readers know my thoughts on this subject.  While I agree with Corgan’s overall sentiment, I stand by my emphasis yesterday that the legislation as it is written may be drafted in favor of the record labels more so than the performing artists. 

HR 848 should have a provision that provides for direct payment of royalties to the artists who performed on the sound recording and which specifically does NOT rely on the record labels to distribute these royalties “in accordance with the terms of the artist’s contract.”  (See my previous post).  This kind of language contained in the House version of the legislation at Section 6 only assures that the record labels would receive all the performance royalties and that performing artists would have to overcome numerous obstacles to ever see any of the additional income, inevitably leading to more disputes with the record label.   The current artists agreements with record labels simply do not contain provisions addressing payment of these types of royalties and, even if they did, the artists who have unrecouped balances on their ledger sheets would never see a dime. 

My proposal is that the current system for collection and distribution of performance royalties for musical compositions be utilized.  Specifically, why not allow BMI, SESAC and ASCAP to collect and distribute the performance royalties for sound recording copyrights on behalf of member artists, allowing these organizations to pay 50% of the income directly to the artists (the original owners of the sound recordings) and 50% to the record labels (the assignee owners of the sound recordings).  This structure is identical to the distribution of performance royalties for owners of the musical composition copyright.  It’s a systems that has functioned well since the turn of the 20th century and it is a systems that, overall, works fairly well. 

In general, members of the performance rights organizations have fewer royalty disputes with these entities over  than artists do with record labels, since these entities, for the most part, do not function as profit generators.  There is no doubt that this idea has some flaws as well, but in comparing the alternative, it seems to me that this would benefit the artists and musicians much more than giving the money to the record labels.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on H.R. 848 (this year’s version of HR 4789) tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m.  Although the Committee’s website does not identify any witnesses at this time, I am informed by musicFIRST that Smashing Pumpkins’ founder Billy Corgan and Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the RIAA will be speaking on their behalf at the hearing.

Billy Corgan H.R. 848 was introduced to the 111th Congress by Rep. John Conyers on February 4, 2009 then referred to committee on the same day.  It was co-sponsored by Tennessee representative, Marsha Blackburn.  If passed, HR 848 would amend The Copyright Act (specifically Title 17) to provide “parity in radio performance rights” under the Copyright Act.  In other words, the Bill would grant a performance rights in sound recordings performed over terrestrial broadcasts (i.e., traditional radio broadcasts, not satellite).   S. 379 is the Senate’s complimentary bill, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy.

The act has certain provisions to accommodate concerns by the broadcast industry, such as the provision which establishes a flat annual fee in lieu of payment of royalties for individual terrestrial broadcast stations with gross revenues of less than $1.25 million and for non-commercial, public broadcast stations; the provision which grants an exemption from royalty payments for broadcasts of religious services and for incidental uses of musical sound recordings; and the provision which grants terrestrial broadcast stations that make limited feature uses of sound recordings the option to obtain per program licenses. 

The Act specifically states that it will not adversely affect the public performance rights or royalties payable to songwriters or copyright owners of musical works.   In particular, the Act prohibits taking into account the rates established by the Copyright Royalty Judges in any proceeding to reduce or adversely affect the license fees payable for public performances by terrestrial broadcast stations. Requires that such license fees for the public performance of musical works be independent of license fees paid for the public performance of sound recordings.

The full text of the bill can be found at govtrack.us.

One provision I found interesting was Section 6, (1)(A), regarding payment of certain royalties, that states, in full:

A featured recording artist who performs on a sound recording that has been licensed for public performance by means of a digital audio transmission shall be entitled to receive payments from the copyright owner of the sound recording in accordance with the terms of the artist’s contract.

Emphasis added.  This last clause intrigues me.  What I find interesting about it is that under the current structure, the record labels own most, if not all, of the commercial sound recording masters, i.e., they are the “copyright owner of the sound recording.”  This clause entitles the “featured recording artist,” e.g., Madonna, Michael Jackson, etc., to receive payments from the owner “in accordance with the terms of the artist’s contract.” 

In most artists’ contracts, payments are based on a percentage of the gross revenues from sales of physical units – current artist contracts do not have provision for payment of performance royalties on the sound recording.  It would seem that under the Act as written, there is silence as to what happens in this instance where these specific payments of performance royalties are not addressed in the artist’s contract.  One possible remedy would be for the legislators to draft language that would apply, such as what they have done with regard to the “non-featured artists in subsection (B) of the same Section 6.   This Section 6 is not found in the Senate’s version of the legislation.

All of this makes me curious about what will happen to performance royalties that are paid under this Act to the owners of the sound recording copyrights, i.e. the record labels if there is no language in the artists’ recording agreements to specify as to what percentage the artist is entitled?  One thing is certain:  an artist who is not recouped under his artist recording agreement will never see any of these performance royalties under such time as his balance is recouped.

One proposal you might suggest to your representatives is that they consider a payment structure similar to that of the current performance rights organizations that collect and pay performance royalties for musical compositions, wherein one half of the royalties go directly to the songwriter and the other half directly to the publisher.  If this were the case under the new Act, half of the royalty payments would filter directly to the artist and the other half would go to the record labels.  If there truly is a concern about the recording artists not getting paid for his or her performances, this is the only method that would assure this happens.

If you are a recording artist whose performances are being playing on local FM and AM radios, you should investigate the impact this legislation will have on you.  Call you Senators and Representatives and ask them to keep you updated.

Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster once penned one of my favorite lyrics in the song Me and Bobby McGee, i.e., “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”  The sentiment is perhaps appropriate for the ongoing war that is being waged against copyright laws as we know them.  The latest battle in this war was fired by the esteemed Lawrence Lessig, famous lawyer and copyright scholar, in his new book Remix: Making Art & Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.  If Lessig has his way, the songwriter and music publisher will, indeed, have nothing left to lose.

Remix Lawrence Lessig The main goal of the book is the demolishment of existing copyright laws, which Lessig has described as Byzantine.  He believes our current copyright laws are futile, costly and culturally stifling. The “hybrid economy” is described by Lessig as one in which a “sharing economy” coexists with a “commercial economy.”  See this very humorous interview by Stephen Colbert.  He gives examples such as YouTube, Flikr and Wikipedia, which rely on user-generated “remixes” of information, images and sound to illustrate his point.  This “hybrid economy,” in Lessig-speak, is identical to what he calls a “Read/Write (RW)” culture — as opposed to “Read/Only (RO)” — i.e., a culture in which consumers are allowed to “create art as readily as they consume it.”  Thus, the “remix” to which he refers is the concept of taking another persons copyrighted work and “making something new” or “building on top of it.”  This is what us less-published copyright lawyers like to refer to as a derivative work!  And that is the crux of Lessig’s problem:  the copyright law DOES in fact make provision for this type of creative endeavor, provided that the creator of the derivative work gains the permission of the copyright owner.  This is that with which Lessig seeks to do away.

In the Colbert interview, Lessig drolly points out that 70% of our kids are sharing files illegally and that the “outdated” copyright laws are “turning them in to criminals.”  This reminds me just a bit of what my Daddy used to tell me: just because everybody’s doing it doesn’t make it right!   Or, as Colbert blithely responded, “isn’t that like saying arson laws are turning our kids into arsonists?”  The obvious conclusion is that perhaps the law is simply not the problem.

Colbert then comically crosses out Lessig’s name on the cover of his his advance copy of Lessig’s book, draws a picture of Snoopy inside, and then questions Lessig as to whether the book was now his (Colber’t’s) work of art, to which Lessig says “that’s great,” we “jointly” own the copyright.  That’s a point to which Lessig’s publisher, Penguin Press, would surely not acquiesce.  In the final retort to Lessig, Colbert makes the point that he likes the current system, and I quote, “the system works for me.”  I might add that the system seems to be working extremely well for Lawrence Lessig as well.  Lessig is making a fortune exploiting the very system he criticizes as antiquated – the very essence of free speech, I suppose, but in the final analysis, a bit disingenuous.

While I do admire Professor Lessig for working toward a solution to a perceived problem, it’s very difficult to believe that tearing down the entire system of copyright laws in order to accommodate a large percentage of prepubescent teenagers who are too cheap to pay for their music is the appropriately measured response we need in this instance.   Call me crazy.

Here are several good critiques of Lessig’s work and ideas here for further exploration of this issue:

The Future of Copyright, by Lawrence B. Solum (download PDF from this page)

Lessig’s call for a “simple blanket license” in Remix, by Adam Thierer

Copyright in the Digital Age, by Mark A. Fischer

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By Jennifer Bendall, Executive Director of musicFIRST

Did you know that every time you hear your favorite artist’s hit songs over the airwaves he or she doesn’t receive a single penny from the radio stations broadcasting the song? Sounds crazy, right? While AM and FM music broadcasters rightly pay the writers of these songs, they refuse to compensate the performing artist as the performer of the song.

In fact, AM and FM music radio stations earn a cool $16 billion a year in advertising revenue without compensating the artists and musicians who bring MusicFirstmusic to life and listeners’ ears to the radio dial.

The fight for a fair performance right on radio has been going on in the U.S. for more than 80 years. Frank Sinatra was a leader in this fight 20 years ago, and his daughter Nancy carries the legacy today. In 2008, Nancy Sinatra testified before a House subcommittee on behalf of the musicFIRST (Fairness in Radio Starting Today) Coalition, telling members of Congress about the life of an artist:

Imagine struggling in your job, perhaps for years, to make the best product you can – a product made of your blood, sweat and tears. Now imagine people taking that product to use to build their own hugely successful businesses. Just taking it – no permission, no payment, and no consequence.

A fair performance right is not only beneficial for the musicians and artists behind the music, but also for the U.S. economy. Currently, the U.S. is the only member of the 30-country Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not fairly compensate performing artists when their songs are played on the radio. This puts the U.S. in the company of countries such as Iran, China and North Korea who don’t pay royalties to performers for their intellectual property. Plus, since we don’t have a performance right here in the U.S., artists lose out on the royalties collected overseas for the play of American sound recordings.

The musicFIRST Coalition, a group of artists, musicians and music community organizations, supports the creation of a performance right on AM and FM radio. The Coalition formed in June 2007 to ensure that all performers – from aspiring and local artists, to background singers and well-known stars – are fairly compensated when their music is played on the radio. On February 4, 2009, bipartisan legislation – the “Performance Rights Act” – was reintroduced in the House and Senate. MusicFIRST supports this measure and plans to remain at the forefront of the fight for fair pay for airplay.

AM and FM radio remains the lone holdout in providing a fair performance right for artists and musicians. All other music platforms – Internet radio, satellite radio and cable television music channels – pay a fair performance royalty for the use of music. It’s time that radio broadcasters are held to the same standard.

Eighty years is far too long for AM and FM radio stations to refuse to compensate performers for their work. Let this be the year fairness is provided to the talented performers who bring to life the music of our lives.

My special thanks to guest author of today’s article, Jennifer Bendall, and Lindsay Dahl for making this happen.  For more information about musicFIRST and the great work they’re doing, go to www.musicfirstcoalition.org, or click on the picture above.

My Avvo.com rating is a perfect 10! Please take the time to check out my information there and, if you’re a past client or a colleague, give me a recommendation. It would be greatly appreciated.

The trial in Capital v. Thomas was one of the first stories I began tracking over a year ago.  See Jury Awards RIAA $222,000 against Thomas:  My Thoughts on the Verdict and Jammie Thomas to appeal verdict in RIAA Litigation.  

Now, in a decision issued on September 24, 2008 – only eight days shy of the one-year anniversary of the verdict – Judge Michael J. Davis of the United States District Court in Minnesota, who heard the case originally, vacated the $222,000 verdict against Jamie Thomas in Capital v. Thomas and ordered a new trial.  Read the 44-page verdict.

Judge Davis found that he provided the jury with an erroneous instruction, Jury Instruction No. 15, which read:

The act of making copyrighted sound recordings available for electronic distribution on a peer-to-peer network, without license from the copyright owners, violates the copyright owners’ exclusive right of distribution, regardless of whether actual distribution has been shown.

A fter reviewing case law in other circuits, Judge Davis reached the opposite conclusion in this memorandum and order, i.e. that “Liability for violation of the exclusive distribution right found in § 106(3) requires actual dissemination” and, therefore, the contrary assertion in the instruction substantially prejudiced the jury against Thomas.

In his opinion generally, the Judge Davis examined the reproduction right, the effect of MediaSentry’s involvement in the distribution,  the plain meaning of the term “distribution,” whether the term “distribution” is synonymous with the term “publication” under the Copyright Act, and whether a plaintiff has the exclusive right to authorize a distribution.

The Judge refutes the RIAA’s theory that making a copyright available for distribution violates Section 106(3) of the Copyright Act, which gives the owner the exclusive right “to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”   Judge Davis examines the dictionary definition of the term “distribute,” other sections of the Copyright Act, and provisions of the analogous Patent Act, to arrive at the conclusion that “the term ‘distribution’ does not including making available and, instead, requires actual dissemination.”  The Court noted that if it had intended to include “making available” as one of the means of distributing a copyright, Congress would have specifically added the language as it had done in the Patent Act when Congress amended it to forbade “offers to sell.”

Judge Davis also refuted the Plaintiff’s argument that the definitions of “publication” and “distribution” under the Copyright Act are synonymous as incorrect.  His conclusion regarding this issue is worth quoting in its entirety:

The Court concludes that simply because all distributions within the meaning of §106(3) are publications does not mean that all publications within the meaning of § 101 are distributions. The statutory definition of publication is broader than the term distribution as used in § 106(3). A publication can occur by means of the “distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending.” § 101. This portion of the definition of publication defines a distribution as set forth in § 106(3). However, a publication may also occur by “offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display.” § 101. While a publication effected by distributing copies or phonorecords of the work is a distribution, a publication effected by merely offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to the public is merely an offer of distribution, not an actual distribution. 

Congress’s choice to use both terms within the Copyright Act demonstrates an intent that the terms have different meanings. “It is untenable that the definition of a different word in a different section of the statute was meant to expand the meaning of ‘distribution’ and liability under § 106(3) to include offers to distribute.” Atl. Recording Corp. v. Howell, 554 F. Supp. 2d 976,
985 (D. Ariz. 2008). The language of the Copyright Act definition of  publication clearly includes distribution as part of its definition – so all distributions to the public are publications, but not all publications are distributions to the public.

Finally, in reaching its opinion that the jury verdict should be vacated because of the erroneous instruction, Judge Davis clearly states that it is not necessary to reach Thomas’ issue of whether the award was excessive (See page 40 of his opinion).  Nonetheless, he did indicate his leanings on this issue in dicta as follows:

The Court would be remiss if it did not take this opportunity to implore Congress to amend the Copyright Act to address liability and damages in peer-to‐peer network cases such as the one currently before this Court. The Court
begins its analysis by recognizing the unique nature of this case. The defendant is an individual, a consumer. She is not a business. She sought no profit from her acts. The myriad of copyright cases cited by Plaintiffs and the Government, in which courts upheld large statutory damages awards far above the minimum, have limited relevance in this case. All of the cited cases involve corporate or business defendants and seek to deter future illegal commercial conduct. The parties point to no case in which large statutory damages were applied to a party who did not infringe in search of commercial gain.

The statutory damages awarded against Thomas are not a deterrent against those who pirate music in order to profit. Thomas’s conduct was motivated by her desire to obtain the copyrighted music for her own use. The Court does not condone Thomas’s actions, but it would be a farce to say that a single mother’s acts of using Kazaa are the equivalent, for example, to the acts of global financial firms illegally infringing on copyrights in order to profit in the securities market. Cf. Lowry’s Reports, Inc. v. Legg Mason, Inc., 271 F. Supp. 2d 42 737, 741‐42 (D. Md. 2003) (describing defendants as a “global  financial‐services firm” and a corporation that brokers securities). While the Court does not discount Plaintiffs’ claim that, cumulatively, illegal  downloading has far‐reaching effects on their businesses, the damages awarded in this case are wholly disproportionate to the damages suffered by Plaintiffs. Thomas allegedly infringed on the copyrights of 24 songs ‐ the equivalent of approximately three CDs, costing less than $54, and yet the total damages awarded is $222,000 – more than five hundred times the cost of buying 24 separate CDs and more than four thousand times the cost of three CDs.  While the Copyright Act was intended to permit statutory damages that are larger than the simple cost of the infringed works in order to make infringing a far less attractive alternative than legitimately purchasing the songs, surely damages that are more than one hundred times the cost of the works would serve as a suffic
ient deterrent.

Thomas not only gained no profits from her alleged illegal activities, she sought no profits. Part of the justification for large statutory damages awards in copyright cases is to deter actors by ensuring that the possible penalty for infringing substantially outweighs the potential gain from infringing. In the case of commercial actors, the potential gain in revenues is enormous and enticing to potential infringers. In the case of individuals who infringe by using peer‐to‐peer networks, the potential gain from infringement is access to free music, not the possibility of hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of dollars in profits. This fact means that statutory damages awards of hundreds of thousands of dollars is certainly far greater than necessary to accomplish Congress’s goal of deterrence.

Unfortunately, by using Kazaa, Thomas acted like countless other Internet users. Her alleged acts were illegal, but common. Her status as a consumer who was not seeking to harm her competitors or make a profit does not excuse her behavior. But it does make the award of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages unprecedented and oppressive.

One issue I note in this dicta by Judge Davis is that statutory damages, as provided in the Copyright Act, were not necessarily intended only as a deterrent, but also were established because it is sometimes difficult to determine the value of an intellectual property.   This does not, however, negate his primary point that a factor of 100x the actual damages might have been a more reasonable award than 500x the actual damages. 

Expect to hear more about this case as the new trial unfolds.

On August 7th, a lawsuit was filed by Kristen Alison Hall, former member of the country band, Sugarland, against the remaining original members of the band, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush.   A copy of the complaint can be viewed here.Sugarland

Essentially, the lawsuit alleges that Nettles and Bush breached a partnership agreement between the three members, breached their fiduciary duty to Hall, and failed to account to her for partnership profits.  Among other facts alleged, Hall claims that she contributed the trademark, “Sugarland” to the partnership.  A search of the trademark database at www.uspto.gov shows that the partnership owns two marks:  a service mark for live performances, Reg. No. 2747326, and a trademark for merchandise, Reg. No. 3250679.  All three original members, Hall, Nettles and Bush, are identified as the registrants on these marks.

More about the lawsuit can be gleened from this article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, written by entertainment journalist Shane Harrison, with contributions by Rodney Ho.  Yours truly is cited as a resource in the article.

This lawsuit provides a dramatic visual aid as to why it is so important for musical groups to plan in advance with regard to issues such as who owns the band name in the event of a dispute.  Either a band partnership agreement, or a  properly established limited liability company or corporation, can effectively provide for what happens to the name in the event a member leaves.  One method I commonly use is to establish a limited liability company and assign the trademark and trade name to the company.  Provisions for what happens to a member that leaves the LLC are then incorporated into the Operating Agreement which set forth the procedure for valuing the company’s assets in that instance.  Such a structure could have eliminated the need for a lawsuit such as the one that Hall filed against the other two members of Sugarland.

If your band does not have a written document dealing with this issue, you should consider retaining an entertainment attorney for such purposes, particular if your band is starting to generate significant income.

On August 4, 2008, the Second Circuit court of appeals overturned a lower courts opinion that Cablevision’s Remote Storage” Digital Video Recorder (“RS-DVR”) system violated the Copyright Act by infringing plaintiffs’ exclusive rights of reproduction and public performance.  The full 44-page opinion is available at Cartoon Network, LLP, et al. v. Cablevision.  In my humble yet fully animated opinion, the Second Circuit’s opinion was not at all well reasoned nor, for that matter, even common sense — I believe it misinterprets at three very important areas of the Copyright Act and interpretation thereof:

When is a work “Fixed” According to Section 101

Through a system of buffers, Cablevision’s RS-DVR will allow customers who do not own stand alone DVR’s to record programming, which resides on Cablevision’s servers, and “time-shift” it to view it at a later date.  Certainly a great concept, but one which, in my opinion, should require authorization from the owners of the copyrights.

In arriving at its conclusion, the court determined that the buffer used to process the steam of data only “copies” the data for a duration of 1.2 seconds, before transferring it to another buffer used to reconstruct a copy of the program for any customer who has asked to view it at a later time.  The court concluded that this “embodiment,” i.e. the copy, was transitory in duration and therefore not “fixed” pursuant to Section 101 of the Copyright Act.  Therefore, the copyright owners’ right of reproduction was not violated.  This is clearly erroneous reasoning:

The definition of “fixed” in Section 101 of the Copyright Act states, in its entirety:

A work is “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration. A work consisting of sounds, images, or both, that are being transmitted, is “fixed” for purposes of this title if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission.

In arriving at its determination, the Second Circuit focused on its condensed version of the definition, i.e. a work is “fixed” when its embodiment “. . . sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be . . . reproduced . . . for a period of more than transitory duration.”  The court concluded, based on this shortened version of the definition, that the “language plainly imposes two distinct but related requirements, i.e. an “embodiment requirement” and a “duration requirement.”

The Second Circuit’s error is grammatical in nature:  it misinterprets the language of the definition of “fixed” by assuming that the phrase “for a period of more than transitory duration” modifies the words “permanent or stable” when in fact it actually modifies the antecedent phrase “permit it to be perceived, reproduced or otherwise communicated.”  This is certainly the case with regard to the RS-DVR – it fixes the copies for in sufficiently permanent state in one buffer (i.e. the 1.2 seconds) to permit them to be reproduced in another buffer for a period of more than transitory duration.  Thus, the court got it wrong.

Without getting into too much detail, the court also incorrectly analyzes a 9th Circuit cases, MAI Systems and its progeny which correctly apply the definition of fixed to a copy of a work created in RAM memory for a period of minutes.  The effect of this misinterpretation is to put legal practitioners in the precarious position of trying to determine at what point between 1.2 seconds and 2 minutes does a reproduction arrive at a “more than transitory” state.

Ironically, the Second Circuit ignores the U.S. Copyright Office’s analysis of this precise issue in its 2001 report on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which elaborated that a work was fixed “unless a reproduction manifests itself so fleetingly that it cannot be copied, perceived or communicated.”  This clarification is in line with my earlier interpretation that the phrase “more than transitory in duration” modifies the communication or perception, not the embodiment itself.  The Second Circuit stated that, in its mind, the U.S. Copyright Office’s interpretation “reads the ‘transitory duration’ language out of the statute.”  To the contrary, however, it is the correct interpretation in that it incorporates the transitory duration requirement into the appropriate section of the definition.

Finally, the Second Circuit completely ignores the last sentence of the definition, to wit:  A work . . . is “fixed” for purposes of this title if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission.”  In this instance, the court readily admitted that an unauthorized copy of the work was stored, i.e. “fixed” on Cablevision’s servers simultaneously with its transmission.

When is an infringer not an infringer?

In extending recent trends by some circuits to weaken the strict liability component of the Copyright Act, the Second Court refused to find that Cablevision was a direct infringer.  Instead, it rules that the customer is the direct infringer in this instance of digital recording, showing his or her intent to make a copy when he or she presses the record button on the remote.  The court reasons as follows:

In this case . . . the core of the dispute is over the authorship of the infringing conduct.  After an RS-DVR subscriber selects a program to record, and that program airs, a copy of the program–a copyrighted work–resides on
the hard disks of Cablevision’s Arroyo Server, its creation unauthorized by the copyright holder. The question is who made  this copy. If it is Cablevision, plaintiffs’ theory of direct infringement succeeds; if it is the customer, plaintiffs’ theory fails because Cablevision would then face, at most, secondary liability, a theory of liability expressly disavowed by plaintiffs.

Emphasis mine.  The first thing to note about the court’s conclusion is that it realizes, right off the bat, that the copy created on the servers of Cablevision is an infringement.  In its mind, however, the only question is who made the copy.  Now, that, of course, flies directly in the face of a host of copyright concepts which I will not address here, but suffice it to say that this is problematic.

But, for the moment, let’s just examine how the court ultimately determines who had the “volition” to infringe in this specific case:

There are only two instances of volitional conduct in this case: Cablevision’s conduct in designing, housing, and maintaining a system that exists only to produce a copy, and a customer’s conduct in ordering that system to produce a copy of a specific program. In the case of a VCR, it seems  clear–and we know of no case holding otherwise–that the operator of the VCR, the person who actually presses the button to make the recording, supplies the necessary element of volition, not the person who manufactures, maintains, or, if distinct from the operator, owns the machine. We do not believe that an RS-DVR customer is sufficiently distinguishable from a VCR user to impose liability as a direct infringer on a different party for copies that are made automatically upon that customer’s command.

The court then continues its analysis by example, offering the examples of a retailer who owns a photocopier and rents it out to the public as reinforcement of its conclusion, finding that because the retailer would not be liable for infringement, neither should Cablevision.   Despite the fact that there is case law holding that such a retailer WOULD, in fact, be liable for infringement, the Second Circuit errs in failing to see the difference between a VCR in the analog world, a single, stand-alone device used express by the customer, and a process devised by a company which makes infringement as simple as pressing my record button on my remote.  The court does not find this a “sufficient” distinction.  The court’s error in logic is apparent in this prose when it examines a 6th Circuit case on the issue:

In determining who actually “makes” a copy, a significant difference
exists between making a request to a human employee, who then volitionally operates the copying system to make the copy, and issuing a command directly to a system, which automatically obeys commands and engages in no volitional conduct.

Is this 2001 Space Odyssey?  Did H.A.L. take over when I wasn’t looking?  Who programmed the system?

If this were not enough, the Second Circuit then performs a great deal of legal gymnastics to support its finding:  First, it examines the video on demand process to illustrate that Cablevision does not have control over the transmissions being recorded by thesubscribers in the RS-VCR system.  Are they for real?  Ever heard of apples and oranges.  The VOD system is a fully licensed process which is, dare we say it, nothing like the RS-VCR system.  Secondly, the Second Circuit uses the distinction between “active” and “passive” infringement under the Patent Act to jump to the almost humorous, if it weren’t so wrong, conclusion that:

If Congress had meant to assign direct liability to both the person who actually commits a copyright-infringing act and any person who actively induces that infringement, the Patent Act tells us that it knew how to draft a statute that would have this effect.

Every intellectual property attorney worth his or her salt knows that the Copyright Act and the Patent Act are very limited in their usefulness for purposes of using one to interpret the other.  That’s why it’s said that the Copyright Act is a strict liability statute, whereas, the Patent Act is not so much.

When is work “publicly performed”?

The final error committed by the court is in its analysis of whether the buffered copy delivered to individual customers was “publicly performed.” In this regard, the Second Circuit concluded:

under the transmit clause, we must examine the potential audience of a given transmission by an alleged infringer to determine whether that transmission is “to the public.” And because the RS-DVR system, as designed, only makes transmissions to one subscriber using a copy made by that subscriber, we believe that the universe of people capable of receiving an RS-DVR transmission is the single subscriber whose self-made copy is used to create that transmission.

Again, the Second Circuit has to do a hatchet job on the definition of “public performance” in order to arrive at this convoluted conclusion.  The definition of “public performance” in the Copyright Act is actually found in the “publication” definition of Section 101.  It states, in its entirety:

To perform or display a work “publicly” means —

(1) to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or

(2) to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.

Emphasis mine.  Whereas the Second Circuit zeroed in on the phrase “to the public” in making its determination, the definition clearly intends to define public performance as any process that allows the public, in general, the ability to receive the transmission, whether or not it is in the same place or the same time.  Its not very difficult to see the fallacy of the Second Circuit’s reasoning.   The Cablevision RS-DVR clearly does precisely what the definition anticipates, it creates multiple copies stored in the buffers for individual subscribers in multiple places, who then view the (buffered) transmissions at different times.

While this seems simple, the Second Circuit jumps through numerous irrational hoops to arrive at the idea that:

the transmit clause directs us to identify the potential audience of a given transmission, i.e., the persons “capable of receiving” it, to determine whether that transmission is made “to the public.”

Nothing in the statute dictates this conclusion, to the contrary, the legislators probably thought that the word “public” was generic enough to not need interpretation.

The effect of this ruling, at least for now, is that anyone can make digital copies of any copyrighted work on their servers for purposes of transmitting to an individual customer, so long as that individual customer makes a request for it, and there is no implication of the performance rights.

This is a fine example of a court “reasoning” the meaning completely out of a statute.

Conclusion

If it is not obvious by now, I think this is one of the most poorly reasoned and drafted opinions by a Circuit Court that I have read in a long time.  If there is a bright side, it is that the effect of this decision is primarily that it overturns the grant of a summary judgement by the lower court.  From a broader perspective, however, and the more unfortunate result is that, because of the concept of stare decisis, this reasoning can now be cited in other cases in other jurisdictions across the country as good law.  So, unfortunately, we entertainment attorneys will be dealing with the negative impact of this decision for some time to come, until perhaps some higher court, in this case the Supremes, decides to rectify it.