Don’t Wait for Termination to Claim Copyright Ownership
by Pamela Chestek • March 26, 2013 • copyright • 1 Comment
When we last visited Scorpio Music v. Willis, Victor Willis, one of the Village People, was successful in dismissing a suit filed by Scorpio Music, his former music publisher. Scorpio Music claimed Willis couldn’t terminate his copyright grant without his co-authors. In the decision we learned he could and the suit was dismissed, effectively terminating Willis copyright grant to Scorpio Music. But, Scorpio was a given leave to amend to seek declaratory relief on what percentage of the copyright interest Willis was regaining upon the termination.
Scorpio Music claims that Willis’ copyright ownership percentage should be the same as the 33.3% royalty share he receives from BMI, a rights society that remits royalties to writers and publishers. Willis counterclaimed that one of the three recipients of royalties, Henri Belolo, was not an author of 24 of the 33 compositions in dispute and therefore Willis’ share is 50% for those compositions. Scorpio Music rejoined that Willis’ claim that Belolo was not an author was time-barred.
The statute of limitations on a claim under the Copyright Act is three years “after the claim accrues.” 17 U.S.C. § 507(b). The question, therefore, is when Willis’ claim that Belolo is not an author accrued.
Willis argued that § 203(b)(2) controls the accrual of an authorship claim related to termination. 17 USC. § 203(b)(2) states that “future rights that will revert upon termination of the grant become vested on the date of the notice of the termination has been served . . . .” Willis, with support from the Songwriters Guild of America, therefore claimed that because he wasn’t vested until he served his notice of termination in 2011, his ownership claim couldn’t have accrued until termination, i.e., relief on the ownership claim wouldn’t have been meaningful until after termination so he didn’t have a claim until then. Alternatively, by its terms § 203 says that “all rights” revert, so the statute of limitations shouldn’t prevent the reversion of all of his rights.
The court found the arguments “interesting,” but didn’t read the language of § 203 as defining the ownership share upon of termination or altering the statute of limitations.
The fact that Willis’s future rights to the disputed works vested upon service of the notice of termination does not mean that Willis could not have brought his co-ownership claim earlier. At the time Willis granted his copyright interests in the disputed works to [Scorpio Music], the Copyright Act of 1976 was already enacted. Therefore, Willis knew from the very beginning that he would have the opportunity to terminate his grants and could have litigated any ownership disputes of which he was aware to preserve his rights.
Rather, the court decided the standard rule for determining when an ownership claim accrues still applies. A claim with respect to ownership, as distinct from a claim for infringement, accrues “when plain and express repudiation of co-ownership is communicated to the claimant.” There were, however, questions of fact about when Willis had notice that Belolo was a potential author (therefore repudiating a portion of Willis’ claim), so the motion to dismiss Willis’ counterclaim was denied.
Scorpio Music S.A. v. Willis, Case No. 11cv1557 BTM(RBB), (S.D. Calif. March 4, 2013).
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