Jones v. Blige

Jones v. Blige, 558 F. 3d 485 (2009) 

Opinion (cache)

Facts / Procedural History:
  • This is a case about copyright infringement. The song allegedly infringed was "Party Ain't Crunk" by Tim Acker (a.k.a. "Benevolence"), while the song that allegedly contained the infringement was called "Family Affair" by famous Hip-Hop artist Mary J. Blige.
  • Acker recorded "Party Ain't Crunk" with the help of a musical engineer, Longmire, and Acker's manager, White. White and Acker co-wrote the song, while Longmire created some "beats" to be used. After the song was done, White registered "Party Ain't Crunk" with the Copyright Office.
  • White submitted a demo including "Party Ain't Crunk" to Universal, Blige's Label. The record indicates that the demo was opened and listened to by a higher-up at Universal. However, it was returned along with a rejection notice.
  • It should be noted that testimony and records supplied by Universal show that "Family Affair" was recorded before Universal received "Party Ain't Crunk".
  • Later, White heard "Family Affair" on the radio and believed it to have infringed on his client's song, "Party Ain't Crunk." He sued everyone available for copyright infringement. The defendants successfully moved for summary judgment.

Important Cases / Statutes Cited:
  • Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986) discusses the standards for summary judgment.
  • Kohus v. Mariol, 328 F.3d 848 (6th Cir. 2003) discusses copyright infringement in the context of summary judgment. It mandates that summary judgment in copyright infringement is to be used sparingly because it's often a question of fact, however, judges can still grant summary judgment when a "trier of fact would not be permitted to find substantial similarity."

  • Affirmed. The district court's granting of summary judgment to the defendants was not in error.

  • A defendant must first have had access to a copyrighted work to commit copyright infringement. Access is "essentially hearing or having a reasonable opportunity to hear the plaintiff's work and thus having the opportunity to copy."
  • Here, even though a copy of "Party Ain't Crunk" was delivered to Universal, the plaintiff's couldn't prove that the defendant song creators had access. The plaintiff's tried to establish that it was reasonable that one of the song creators could have gotten a copy of the demo while it was at Universal, but it couldn't meet the burden of proof here. The plaintiffs even tried to establish access by virtue of the "corporate receipt" doctrine, but the court refused to adopt this doctrine. "The plaintiffs... have set forth no evidence tending to show that a reasonable possibility that their work made its way from the plaintiffs to the creators of 'Family Affair.'"
  • Furthermore, the Court reasoned that Universal had submitted ample evidence to show that there was an independent creation because it showed that "Family Affair" was created before Universal got a copy of "Party Ain't Crunk."

Criticism / Analysis:
  • The Court seems to be setting a high bar here in terms of what the plaintiff must prove. The Court says that it's "cautious of making it overly difficult for plaintiffs to establish access where the chain of possession of a work within a corporation is difficult to prove," but nothing it says in this opinion seems to indicate that it's giving any hope to a plaintiff in White's situation. One would wonder how someone in his situation could possibly make a showing that meets the standards of what the court's laying out here without the Corporate Receipt doctrine.
  • Keep in mind, this is summary judgment here. The court seems to shirk the ideas laid out beforehand that defendants should seldom be granted summary judgment in copyright infringement cases.

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