Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Copyright Infringement Suit Against Mary J. Blige Thrown Out

U. S. District Court Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. has thrown out a copyright infringement lawsuit against Mary J. Blige and several of her co-writers brought by Sharice Davis, ruling that Davis' co-writer had assigned his rights in the songs at issue to one of Blige's co-writers. The plaintiff "conceded that the Disputed Compositions were co-authored by non-party Bruce Chambliss, defendant Miller's father....Davis registered the Disputed Compositions with the United States Copyright Office on two occasions, listing Chambliss as a co-author....In deposition testimony, Miller likewise asserts that Chambliss is the author of Disputed Composition "L.O.V.E."....Miller also presents two written agreements...., in which Chambliss assigns his rights in each of the Disputed Compositions to Miller....The Written Agreements each provide that "[Bruce Chambliss] does hereby sell, assign, transfer and set over to unto Bruce Millerd/b/a/ CWAB Music (SESAC), its successors and assigns, an undivided one hundred percent (100%) share in and to all of [Bruce Chambliss's] right, title and interest in the [Disputed Composition] of the universe-wide copyrights in and to the musical composition....' According to Defendants, the Written Agreements served to memorialize a prior oral transfer...Davis hotly contests the existence of any oral transfer...."

The judge granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on all federal law claims. He declined to assert jurisdiction over the state law claims. "The defendants' motion rests upon Chambliss' alleged transfer to Miller of his rights in the Disputed Compositions. The defendants content that Chambliss orally transferred this rights sometime between late 1998 and early 1999, and that this transfer was ratified by the Written Agreements...signed on June 23, 2004. The Copyright Act requires that transfers of copyright ownership be made in writing. The writing requirement may be satisfied, however, by the copyright owner's subsequent execution of a writing confirming the earlier oral agreement....A number of inconsistencies are apparent in the testimony describing the allged oral transfer and subsequent written confirmation....Chambliss claims he was motivated to sign over his rights in all of his musical works to his son because he knew he would be going to prison....The earlier incarceration took place between the creation of the Disputed Compositions, whereas the later sentence was served after the song "L.O.V.E." has already been used by Miller....Thus Chambliss's recollection appears to be in error. Chambliss' timing is not only internally inconsistent, it is also contradicted by the testimony of Miller, who dates the transfer to either late 1998 or early 1999....Neither Chambliss nor Miller provides any further details...They both testify simply that Chambliss orally transferred all the songs had had ever written to Miller. Furthermore, the existence of the alleged oral agreement was unknown to any of the other parties involved...until Miller's deposition on December 9, 2003....Finally, Davis maintains that Chambliss told her, in the presence of a witness...that she could have all the songs they had co-written, that those songs were hers to keep and to do with them as she wished....Taken together, these inconsistencies amount to a factually issue that must be resolved by a finder of fact. Inr resolving all ambiguities and drawing all inferences against Defendants, as the movants, I conclude that a reasonable jury could find an oral agreement never existed between Chambliss and Miller.

"Since a genuine issue exists as to whether Chambliss ever orally transferred his rights in the Prior Compositions to Miller, the Court need not consider whether the Written Agreements are sufficient to satisfy the writing requuirement as a written ratification of a prior ratification of a prior oral transfer. Defendants contend, however, that even if there was no prior oral transfer...the written agreements would nonetheless be valid to defeat Davis' claims. I agree. Defendants agree that, as a co-owner of the copyright in the Disputed Compositions, Chambliss may grant a retroactive license to the works that cures past infringement. The Written Agreements...serve to retroactively transfer the Disputed Compositions to Miller. Defendants argue that, having effected authorization from one joint copyright owner, they are immunized from any copyright infringement action brought by the other joint owner. Dispute the factual questions that abound...there exists no genuine issue as to the intent of co-author Chambliss to transfer his right to Miller....When there is no dispute between transferor and transferee of a copyright as to the validity of the transfer, such a transfer has been consistently upheld. This is the case even when the license or transfer taken place after the institution of an action for copyright infringement..."

The case is Davis v. Blige, 2005 U. S. Dist. LEXIS 29483 (2005)(U.S. Dist. Ct. S. D. N.Y.).

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