Copyright and Entertainment Litigation
In addition to Jenner & Block’s preeminence in high tech content protection litigation, we are among the nation’s leading practitioners in traditional copyright and entertainment litigation. Clients look to the Firm to handle all manner of disputes concerning their valuable intellectual property. Whether the actions are based on copyright, contract, statutory rights, tort, accounting, or otherwise, we help content owners enforce their rights and defend against claims brought by others. Jenner & Block represents entertainment companies, authors and publishers, and copyright owners of all kinds in high-profile litigation, spanning issues such as substantial similarity, fair use, renewal and termination rights, rights of publicity, theft of ideas, and IP joint ventures.
We are regularly engaged to handle contractual disputes relating to content and rights acquisition and distribution, talent and artist agreements, and royalty accountings. These claims are most commonly asserted by artists and composers and relate to subjects as varied as the scope of rights granted, the applicable rates for digital exploitation, the propriety of deductions taken, exploitation and collections by foreign subsidiaries, joint authorship, and many more. The Firm’s extensive experience with the intricacies of entertainment contracts and royalty accountings has proven to be a great asset to clients in navigating these complex actions.
Representative cases handled by our Copyright and Entertainment Litigation team include:
- Panama Music Corp. et al v. Universal Music Group Inc.: Jenner & Block won a significant decision the Southern District of Florida when the court granted Universal Music Group’s (UMG’s) motion for summary judgment in a breach of contract claim filed by Panama Music Corp. (PMC). The matter concerned the calculation of royalties owing on income derived from the sale of digital downloads and ringtones and from streaming services. PMC argued that the royalty calculation on digital sales was not provided in the agreement and thus fell under a “catch-all” provision providing for payment of 50 percent of net receipts on all income not otherwise addressed in the agreement. UMG’s motion argued that downloads and ringtones were simply modern formats of records and thus the contractual royalty term for record sales applied. The ruling in favor of UMG specifically held that downloads and ringtones were records and that sales of downloads through iTunes, Amazon and other retailers constituted distribution through Normal Retail Channels. This decision has significant implications in the industry as it serves to limit the holding of the Ninth Circuit in F.B.T. Productions v. Aftermath Records awarding the rapper Eminem 50 percent of net receipts on download sales based on markedly different contract terms.
- Connie Franconero v. Universal Music Corp.: Jenner & Block won a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by singer Connie Francis concerning the royalty rate applicable to digital downloads. Francis alleged that she was entitled to a royalty rate of 50% of UMG’s net receipts from sales of digital downloads through online retailers. The court rejected Francis’ attempts to limit the definition of "record" and "phonograph record," because the agreements contemplated that the term "record" encompassed any future medium that transmitted sound recordings. The court further agreed that the plain, unambiguous language of the royalty provision was determinative and dismissed Francis’s contract and quasi-contract claims.
- Warner Bros. Entertainment v. The Global Asylum: Jenner & Block prevented a low-budget movie originally called “Age of the Hobbits” from being distributed under that name, arguing that the title unlawfully tried to cash in on Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.’s blockbuster “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” The court issued a preliminary injunction, barring Asylum from advertising, selling or distributing any film titled “Age of the Hobbits” or using any mark that is similar to “The Hobbit" or “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”
- Fifty Shades Ltd. et al. v. Smash Pictures Inc. et al.: Jenner & Block secured a victory for Universal Studios and author E L James in a copyright infringement case against a production company and director who created a pornographic version of the popular “Fifty Shades of Grey” novels. The two sides reached a settlement in which the defendants paid an undisclosed sum to Universal and agreed to a permanent injunction that prohibits the defendants from marketing or selling the adaptations of the popular trilogy.
- Yngwie J. Malmsteen v. Universal Music Group, Inc.: Jenner & Block won summary judgment dismissing a breach of contract lawsuit brought by guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen including a claim relating to the calculation of royalty payments on income derived from the sale of digital downloads through online retailers. Malmsteen alleged that he was entitled to 50% of UMG’s net receipts from digital download sales pursuant to a contractual provision that applied that rate in certain limited circumstances. The court granted summary judgment in favor of our client, UMG, on the ground that contractual provisions that set a lower royalty rate for all sales of “records” through “normal retail channels,” was unambiguous and applied to digital downloads. The issue of the applicability of 50% net receipt provisions to income from digital exploitation is a hot button item in the recorded music industry and this is the first major litigation in which the record companies prevailed by summary judgment and thus is of great precedential value.
- Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Limited v. UMG Recordings: Jenner & Block represented UMG Recordings in a case brought by the heirs of Bob Marley, one of the most iconic performers in the recent history of popular music. The heirs claimed ownership of the renewal copyrights in some of Marley’s famous sound recordings. In a significant victory for our client, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted UMG’s motion for partial summary judgment, dismissing plaintiffs’ claim to the copyrights in question. The court held that, through its predecessor-in-interest, UMG is the statutory “author” of the recordings, which were “works for hire” for purposes of the Copyright Act of 1909. As such, UMG is the owner of the initial and renewal term copyrights in the recordings. In the remaining claims, the heirs raised contractual issues relating to the appropriate rate of royalties to be paid on digital downloads, and other accounting issues arising from UMG’s distribution of albums containing these sound recordings. The court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on the royalty accounting claims and subsequently granted UMG’s motion for summary judgment as to a substantial portion of the remaining accounting claims based on the contractual limitations period. The case subsequently settled.
- Penguin Group (USA) v. Steinbeck: Jenner & Block won a victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit for the Estate of Elaine Steinbeck, widow of author John Steinbeck, in litigation over copyright to his works. The case put to rest a decades-long dispute over the rights to John Steinbeck’s classic literary works such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath when the Second Circuit held that the rights to the author’s best-known early works lawfully belong to the Estate of Elaine Steinbeck.
- Anthony v. The Walt Disney Co.: Represented Disney and Pixar in their defense of a copyright infringement and breach of implied contract lawsuit in which the plaintiff claimed that our clients’ Cars motion pictures and animated shorts infringed his copyrighted materials and misappropriated a concept he had purportedly submitted to defendants. On behalf of our clients, we successfully obtained dismissal of all claims. That order of dismissal is currently on appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
- DiTocco v. Riordan: Represented author Rick Riordan and Disney Book Group in a copyright infringement lawsuit over Riordan’s blockbuster series of novels, Percy Jackson & The Olympians. In 2011, secured a decision dismissing all claims. That order of dismissal is currently on appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
- Connie Franconero v. UMG Recordings: Jenner & Block represents UMG Recordings in a case brought by singer Connie Francis. Initially, Francis alleged an eight figure tort claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. That claim was dismissed on a motion for summary judgment. The principal remaining claim alleged that UMG improperly allowed Francis’ recorded music to be used on albums not composed entirely of her own material. On a subsequent motion for summary judgment, the court dismissed the “coupling” claim, thereby reducing Francis’ claim by more than 90%.
- Universal City Studios v. Global Asylum: Jenner & Block successfully represented Universal Studios in prosecuting trademark, unfair competition, and copyright claims against a film studio that produced and distributed in the United States and internationally a “mockbuster” DVD that copied the title, title design, and key art for Universal’s 2012 motion picture Battleship. Following litigation in the United Kingdom and in California, the defendant agreed to change the title, title design and artwork to a non-infringing format for all distribution of the DVD worldwide.
- Greenfield v. Philles Records: Jenner & Block attorneys represented the copyright holder in this seminal 2002 decision from the New York Court of Appeals confirming the unlimited right of recording companies to exploit performances created under recording agreements.
- Jobim v. Songs of Universal: Jenner & Block is currently defending Songs of Universal in an action brought by the heirs of songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim relating to the exploitation of “The Girl from Ipanema,” and other famous Jobim compositions, pursuant to a series of sub-publishing agreements between the parties. The case raises complicated issues of international exploitation of copyrights and foreign collection of royalties. The two primary claims in the litigation sought termination of the agreements and calculation of royalties based on income received by Universal’s international licensees “at source” rather than the income ultimately received by Universal from those licensees. The Jenner & Block team achieved a considerable victory when the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, in ruling on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, rejected plaintiffs’ claims for “at source” accounting and for termination of the sub-publishing agreements.
- Marvel Enterprises v. Walt Disney Company: Our attorneys represented Disney in the successful resolution of a multimillion dollar lawsuit by Marvel. Marvel alleged numerous counts of copyright infringement and breach of contract arising out of Disney’s exploitation and licensing of animated television programs based on Marvel’s well-known superhero characters including Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Incredible Hulk.
- Astaire v. McKenzie Astaire: Representing the daughter of Fred Astaire, Jenner & Block attorneys secured dismissal at the pleading stage of a claim for violation of the California posthumous right of publicity brought by Mr. Astaire’s widow.
- Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust v. NBC Universal: Jenner & Block is defending NBC Universal, Universal Studios, and a dozen related companies in a copyright and breach of contract action brought by the Sheldon Abend estate. The suit alleges that the 2007 motion picture Disturbia, which Universal distributed in certain overseas territories, infringed plaintiff’s rights in the 1942 short story on which the classic Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window was based. The estate claimed that license agreements dating from 1991 and 1992 concerning Universal’s distribution of Rear Window contained implied negative covenants that prohibited any exploitation of a film using ideas or themes similar to the 1942 short story. After removing the case from state to federal court on copyright preemption grounds, Jenner & Block obtained the dismissal of all claims against the defendants in October 2011.
- Saregama India v. Taylor: Jenner & Block achieved a significant victory for two major recording industry clients, UMG Recordings and WB Music Group, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of copyright claims alleging that the rap producer Timbaland used a sample from the soundtrack of a 1969 Indian film entitled Aradhana in the song “Put You on the Game” (a song that was performed by the rap artist The Game and appeared on The Game’s 2005 album, The Documentary). The district court had dismissed the complaint on the grounds that there was no evidence that the soundtrack was created during the term of the agreement at issue, and that the plaintiff therefore lacked standing to pursue the infringement action. The district court also found an absence of substantial similarity, refusing to follow the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films, which had held that plaintiffs in infringement actions based on the sampling of a sound recording are not required to prove substantial similarity. The district court awarded attorneys’ fees and costs to our clients.
- Mena v. Fox Entertainment Group: Jenner & Block is defending Fox and Warner Bros. in a copyright infringement suit based on the television series Past Life, brought by the author of an unproduced film script that also involves elements of crime-solving and recovered memories of past lives.
- BMS Entertainment/Heat Music v. Bridges: Jenner & Block defended Universal Music Group and Universal Music & Video Distribution Corp. in a jury trial in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against copyright claims alleging Universal manufactured and distributed a record that infringed a song written by the plaintiff rap group. The Firm successfully persuaded the jury that any musical content shared by the two songs was not original to the plaintiff and therefore not protectable under copyright law.
- Crowder v. Universal Pictures: Jenner & Block attorneys defended Universal Pictures in a suit for copyright infringement and “theft of ideas” in which the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the imminent release of a motion picture. The court denied the plaintiffs’ TRO request, finding that the film was not similar to the plaintiffs’ screenplay, and the motion picture opened nationwide on schedule.
- Johnson v. Cypress Hill: Jenner & Block successfully defended Sony Music and UMG Recordings against plaintiff Syl Johnson’s claims of copyright infringement and unfair competition relating to the sampling of a small portion of one of his 1960s hits on a recording released by Cypress Hill in 1993. On behalf of our clients, we moved for summary judgment after discovering that Johnson’s recording was not covered by any federal copyright registration. The district court granted the motion for summary judgment, denied Johnson’s motion to amend, and awarded attorneys’ fees to our clients. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a new complaint in Cook County Circuit Court, mirroring the amended complaint disallowed in the dismissed federal suit and seeking relief under Illinois common law. In February 2010, after removal to federal court, the court granted our clients’ motion for summary judgment on the grounds of res judicata, dismissing the suit with prejudice. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed all of the district court’s rulings.
- Robinson v. Sanctuary Records Group: Jenner & Block represented defendants in an action for alleged non-payment of royalties under a variety of recording agreements and an asset purchase agreement, which together transferred to our clients the rights to exploit certain recordings by the Sugar Hill Gang and other artists. Plaintiffs sought damages or, in the alternative, rescission of the recording agreements. Prior to the Firm’s engagement, the court had entered a default judgment against defendants, but found that plaintiffs had not proven damages. The Second Circuit vacated the default judgment without disturbing the district court’s damages ruling. On remand, represented by the Firm, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the district court’s prior damages ruling was res judicata or “law of the case,” and that plaintiffs’ claim for rescission was barred as a matter of law. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted defendants’ motion in its entirety and dismissed the case.
- Santryall v. Burrell: Jenner & Block attorneys successfully defended Capitol Records and recording artist MC Hammer against a multimillion dollar copyright infringement claim alleging that a rhythmic chant in a song MC Hammer wrote and recorded was identical to a chant in one of plaintiffs’ songs. A jury found for the Firm’s clients after a full trial in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
- Inter-Avid Productions v. Ventura Content: Jenner & Block is representing an internet entertainment company against copyright infringement claims brought by the creator of numerous episodes of adult video content previously licensed by our client. The case raises important issues concerning the interpretation and termination of exclusive license agreements, as well as work-for-hire issues.
- Shivers v. Friedman: Our attorneys successfully defeated false light and defamation claims brought against an online entertainment news reporter for FoxNews.com. All of the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. The team then obtained a dismissal of the appeal with prejudice under California’s vexatious litigant rules.
- Kent v. Universal Pictures: Jenner & Block attorneys defended Universal Pictures, BBC Worldwide Americas, and various production companies and DVD distributors in a copyright and trademark infringement lawsuit based on the use of a portion of the plaintiff’s news report in the motion picture Charlie Wilson’s War. The case settled favorably for our clients after we obtained dismissal of the Lanham Act false endorsement claims and all state law claims, and a secured ruling that the plaintiff could not recover statutory damages or attorneys’ fees on his copyright claim.
- Milton H. Greene Archives v. BPI Communications: Jenner & Block attorneys defended the publisher of a biography of Marilyn Monroe against copyright infringement claims arising from the use of publicity photos distributed in the 1950s to promote the films Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl. On behalf of our publisher client, we obtained summary judgment on the grounds that all of the photographs in question were published without copyright notices in advertisements and promotional materials and thus fell into the public domain. The team subsequently obtained an award of more than 97% of the attorneys’ fees incurred. Both decisions were affirmed on appeal by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
- ABKCO Music v. Stellar Records: Jenner & Block lawyers represented ABKCO Music in a copyright case of first impression in the Second Circuit involving the rights of music publishers to compositions being used in the karaoke industry. ABKCO owned the copyrights to seven musical compositions by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, including the rock-and-roll classics “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No),” “Jumping Jack Flash,” and “Brown Sugar,” which it had not licensed for commercial use. The Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s order granting summary judgment and enjoining defendant from publishing the lyrics to the copyrighted songs.
- Ellison v. Fantagraphics Books: Jenner & Block attorneys defended a comic book and graphic novel publishing company, Fantagraphics Books, against claims of defamation and violation of the right of publicity brought by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who challenged our client’s references to Mr. Ellison in an anthology of essays and on a book cover.
- Diaz v. Universal Pictures: Jenner & Block attorneys successfully defended Universal Pictures in a putative libel class action brought by a class of former and current federal drug enforcement officers who claimed they were defamed by the film American Gangster. The district court denied the TRO request and dismissed the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously affirmed.
- Broadcast Music Inc. v. Claire’s Boutiques: Jenner & Block lawyers represented Claire’s Boutiques in a Seventh Circuit decision interpreting Section 110(5) of the Copyright Act. The case involved the question of whether a corporate owner of a chain of retail stores must pay copyright license fees for playing radio broadcasts. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Claire’s on the basis that, under certain circumstances, Section 110(5) exempts persons who play their radio or television in a public place if received by a single receiving apparatus of a kind commonly used in private homes.