La-la-lawsuits: A Look at October’s Most Litigious Moments

October 31st, 2012

The Ray Charles Foundation, the charitable organization that was bequeathed his money and assets, is being challenged by Charles’ children, who were for the most part left out of the will and are now demanding that the copyright grants of his songs to Warner/Chappell be terminated.  In effect, this would cut off royalty checks to the Foundation.  In March, the Foundation sued the children seeking declaration that their termination notices were invalid, relying on the argument that Charles’ music were works-made-for-hire and therefore, the children have no right to terminate anything.  A judge, though, came to the conclusion that the Foundation had no standing to sue (unlike Warner/Chappell who would have standing), but stated this issue would be different if the music was determined to not be works-made-for-hire.  So, earlier this month, the Foundation switched its position and is claiming just that: that Charles’ songs were not works-made-for-hire and this way, the Foundation has standing to assert an infringement claim against the children, but the judge isn’t sure yet whether it has standing to challenge termination rights.  The decision of this case has two heavy implications: 1.) If the judge allows the Foundation to have standing in the termination rights suit, this would open the door for various other entities to file suits for this purpose and 2.) whether the judge determines the songs are works-made-for-hire or not has a crucial impact on artists, labels, and publishers.

In April, two black men, Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson, had sued ABC in a Nashville federal court arguing that they were rejected because of their race from the starring role as the bachelor in ABC’s reality television show, “The Bachelor“.  However, the federal judge decided to dismiss this discrimination suit stating that the producers of “The Bachelor” have a First Amendment right to “control their creative content” however they wish.

CMG Worldwide, Inc. is suing Marlon Brando’s estate for allegedly backing out of an agreement between the two, which granted the use of Brando’s name , likeness, and image to Madonna’s 2012 World Tour for a fee of $5,000 per tour performance, including future distribution of  recordings of the performance.  Brando’s estate allegedly agreed orally and via e-mail to the terms of the license, but one week later demanded a fee of $20,000, not $5,000.  CMG is seeking promissory estoppel and a declaration that the contract is valid and enforceable against Brando’s estate.  The case recently has been removed to federal court.

The Association of American Publishers and Google announced a settlement agreement. The terms of the agreement allows “access to publishers’ in-copyright books and journals digitized by Google for its Google Library Project.  The case started in October 2005 when five publishers alleging copyright infringement against Google.  One of the basics of the settlement is that copyright holders may choose to remove their books or journals from the Google Library. Also, Google will still enter into individual agreements with US publishers for the use of the works in the Library Project.  This is a great step in achieving a more diverse array of books available digitally.

Stan Lee Media, a company that apparently owns the rights in Marvel characters, has sued Disney.  Stan Lee, who created many of the Marvel characters, allegedly assigned his rights in them to Stan Lee Media and also, assigned them to Marvel Enterprises one month later.  Disney then later acquired Marvel in 2009.  Now, Stan Lee Media alleges that they own the copyrights to all these characters that Disney has exploited in many of its films.  The case is still undecided.

VMG Salsoul, the copyright owner of the 1976 song “Love Break”, sued Madonna for illegally sampling the aforementioned song in Madonna’s hit, “Vogue”.  Robert “Shep” Pettibone, a co-defendant in the suit who worked with Madonna on the song, moved to dismiss claiming that if any copying was done, which he explicitly denies, it is de minimis and therefore, cannot be the basis for a copyright infringement suit.  No decision has been made quite yet.

A class action lawsuit has been filed against Live Nation Entertainment alleging that the company has used its monopoly over the event ticketing industry to cause customers to pay excessive amounts in surcharges and the like when they purchase tickets.  Add-on fees attached to ticket prices have existed for a long time, but the obvious lack of competition versus Live Nation has done nothing to help the cause for consumers who fight against these fees.  The class is seeking an injunction barring Live Nation from charging these excessive add-on fees and also, restitution under California unfair competition law.

Jay-Z and Beyonce lost the battle to trademark their 9-month old baby girl’s name, Blue Ivy.  A Boston events company, named Blue Ivy Events, won the trademark struggle after proving that they had been using the name consistently since 2009.  Apparently, the Carters wanted to trademark the name in order to plan for future baby apparel and product lines. Looks like they may have to just have another child.

Sam Lutfi, ex-manager of Britney Spears, has sued the former teen popstar alleging she defamed him in her 2008 book Through The Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World and also, is seeking unpaid management fees.  The trial began on October 18 and already, little known information regarding Spears has leaked.  Apparently, Spears’ decline into “unhappiness” was sparked by the breakup with (newlywed) Justin Timberlake.  In money matters, Spears apparently earned a whopping $800,000 per month during the period of Lufti’s management (2007-2008).  Lufti is suing for his portion of 15% of that monthly figure, which amounts to $120,000 per month.  Finally, Spears’ most photographed breakdown in which she shaved her head, was allegedly done to circumvent drug tests, which if came back positive could have put the custody of her children at risk.  It looks like this trial may get messier as the days pass by.