Brown Rudnick Represents Lead Singer, Inc. In Music Lyric Copyright Infringement Lawsuit
Karaoke machine manufacturer appeals court's decision that ruled recordings including display of song lyrics infringed on BMG's copyrights
Brown Rudnick, a premier international law firm, announced that it has filed an appeal on behalf of its client, Leadsinger, Inc., a New York-based karaoke product manufacturer, that could reverse previous rulings on compulsory copyright licensing in the entertainment industry.
The appeal, currently pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is in an October 2004 case, Leadsinger v. BMG Music Publishing, which was filed in the Federal District Court in Los Angeles. In that case, Leadsinger disputed BMG's claim that Leadsinger needed an additional license to display lyrics on a television screen during play of a karaoke recording. After unsuccessful attempts by the parties to resolve the dispute, the lawsuit moved forward and BMG filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. BMG argued that karaoke recordings are not covered by the Section 115 Compulsory License of the Copyright Act. The court granted BMG's request for a dismissal, relying upon a 10-year-old decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in ABKCO v. Stellar Records, a case which involved a number of Rolling Stones' songs. In ABKCO, the Second Circuit held that:
(1) a licensee's compulsory licenses for musical compositions did not give it a right to show a song's lyrics on a television screen during play of karaoke compact discs; and
(2) compact discs encoding both an audio rendition of a song and a video display of the song's lyrics, known as "compact discs plus graphics" (CD+G's), were not "phonorecords" under the Copyright Act.
Leadsinger has taken the position in the appeal that the inclusion of viewable song lyrics does not convert a phonorecord into an audiovisual work as defined by the Copyright Act. This is because two of the requirements necessary to have an audiovisual work under the copyright law are not present in the case of karaoke recordings. First, song lyrics are not inherently meant to be shown by machines, and second the images of the lyrics are not related to each other in the sense of the Copyright Act, for example, in the way that sequential images in a motion picture, because of their relationship to each other, have the effect of simulating motion.
By way of illustration, motion picture images are clearly meant to be displayed with a projector. On the other hand, karaoke images could be displayed on placards or paper and be equally effective. In other words, the inherent characteristic of the image has nothing to do with the method used to display the image.
Leadsinger has also taken the position that given the fact that the music is licensed, the display of lyrics is a de minimis use, in much the same way that lyrics are often published without an additional license in CD recordings, and the display is a fair use which is exempted from infringement under the copyright law.
The court in the Rolling Stones case did not consider either of these issues and accordingly, reversal is widely seen as a not unlikely outcome.
According to Anthony H. Handal, a Partner in Brown Rudnick's Litigation Department and Counsel for Leadsinger, Inc., "It is our position that the decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is erroneous because the court did not accurately interpret certain passages of copyright law when it held, essentially, that all artistic works having music and visual images are audiovisual works and thus not covered by the Section 115 Compulsory License of the Copyright Act. We are confident the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will adopt our view of the law."
Mr. Handal has been involved in other landmark copyright cases, and is the attorney who succeeded in obtaining the appellate decision that led to clothing being found protectable by the copyright law. In this 2005 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that garments can now be protected by copyright, reversing previous rulings from a long line of cases that held garments were not protectable under U.S. copyright law. Specifically, the court held that sculptural aspects of clothing can be considered under the copyright law if design elements are proven to be separable from functional elements.
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