Shapiro, Arato & Isserles Prevails in Case Raising Novel Copyright Issue

On February 9, 2012, Shapiro, Arato & Isserles LLP obtained a ruling on a question of first impression under the United States Copyright Act from the United States District Court for the Central District of California in favor of Cash Money Records, Inc. Cash Money was one of several defendants named in Rick Cunningham v. Lamar Seymour et al., CV 11-08095 DMG (AJWx), an action over disputed rights to the Lil’ Wayne hit single, “How to Love.” In its February 9th ruling, the Court granted Cash Money’s motion to dismiss in its entirety and, in so doing, embraced the arguments made by Shapiro, Arato & Isserles LLP concerning a novel issue of Copyright law.

In the Cunningham action, the plaintiff asserted that he was the owner of one of the “beats” featured in “How to Love” because the beat was created for him as a “work for hire.” Cunningham alleged that the beat was incorporated into the Lil’ Wayne song without his permission and asserted claims under contract law and other common-law theories. In his complaint, however, the plaintiff did not allege that there was a signed, written work-for-hire agreement between the plaintiff and the beat’s creators. Instead, the maintained that their supposed agreement had been captured on a videotape recording.

Shapiro, Arato & Isserles LLP moved to dismiss the claims asserted against Cash Money, arguing that the plaintiff could not be the owner of the beat at issue because the Copyright Act requires a written instrument signed by the parties to establish a work-for-hire relationship with an independent contractor. The question whether a videotape recording could constitute a signed written instrument for purposes of the Copyright Act was an issue of first impression. Drawing on decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Shapiro, Arato & Isserles LLP argued that the Act’s requirements were designed to ensure predictability and certainty regarding copyright ownership and should be construed strictly. As such, Shapiro, Arato & Isserles LLP argued, the plaintiff could not establish his ownership of the beat because his allegations concerning a videotaped agreement – even if true – were insufficient under the Copyright Act.

In a February 9, 2012 written decision, District Judge Dolly M. Gee accepted each of the arguments advanced by Shapiro, Arato & Isserles LLP concerning the work-for-hire provisions of the Copyright Act. In particular, the Court held that the Copyright Act clearly required a written instrument signed by the parties, and that the videotape alleged by the plaintiff did not satisfy the Act’s requirements. Accordingly, the Court granted Shapiro, Arato & Isserles LLP’s motion to dismiss the claims against Cash Money and denied the plaintiff leave to amend his complaint, noting that “any amendment would be futile.”

Cynthia S. Arato and Daniel J. O’Neill co-authored the briefs and Murphy Rosen Meylen & Davitt LLP served as co-counsel. The Court’s decision granting Cash Money’s motion to dismiss is available here.