Spreading “Ultralight” on Copyright Registration Requirement: An Application is not a Registration

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[co-author: Jinming Zhang, Law Clerk]

Kayne West was involved in yet another lawsuit. This time, instead of suing to force his way onto the November 2020 presidential ballot, he was sued for allegedly copying from a child.

This October, rapper Kanye West reached an undisclosed settlement to end a copyright infringement suit related to his 2016 song “Ultralight Beam.” The plaintiffs against West are (1) the adoptive parents, Andrew Green and Shirley Green, suing on behalf of their daughter, solely identified as N.G., and (2) Andreia Green. The plaintiffs alleged that West sampled the audio from a viral Instagram video of N.G. passionately praying with Andreia Green without permission or just compensation. Although the lawsuit reached an uneventful result, like West’s 2020 presidential campaign, the Court’s interlocutory decision on a copyright issue is still worth discussing. Specifically, this article will cover the Court’s decision to dismiss Plaintiff Andreia Green’s copyright infringement claims.

In February of 2019, N.G.’s adoptive parents., together with Andreia Green, filed suit in the District Court for the District of South Carolina against Kanye West and his recording companies for copyright infringement. In this case, the original viral Instagram video allegedly infringed by West included both N.G. and Andreia praying passionately together. Plaintiffs alleged that West sampled N.G. saying, “We don’t want no devils in the house, we want the Lord . . .” which can be heard at the beginning of West’s “Ultralight Beam” song. In response, Kanye West filed a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleading (a motion to dispose of cases in which there is no substantive dispute that warrants the litigants and the court proceeding further), seeking to dismiss, among other claims, Plaintiff Andreia Green’s copyright infringement claims and plaintiffs’ falsification of copyright management information claim. The Court issued an Order in January of 2020, denying in part West’s motion while granting in part West’s motion as to Plaintiff Andreia Green’s copyright infringement claims. West then filed a motion for reconsideration, which the Court subsequently denied.

Regarding the Court’s decision to dismiss Plaintiff Andreia Green’s copyright infringement claims, the crucial issue was whether Green owned the copyright to the work that West allegedly copied. To establish a claim for copyright infringement, a Plaintiff must show that (1) they own the copyright to the work that was allegedly copied; and (2) that the Defendant copied protected elements of the work. Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991). The Supreme Court also recently stated that a copyright claimant generally must comply with the Copyright Act’s registration requirement under 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) (titled “Registration and Civil Infringement Actions”) before pursuing an infringement claim in court. See Fourth Estate Pub. Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC, 139 S. Ct. 881, 887 (2019).

The Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that the original, protectable performing arts work of N.G. and Andreia Green was validly registered with the United States Copyright Office, effective April 21, 2016, as PA 1-996-946 with N.G. named as the sole owner of the copyright. However, plaintiffs also argued that Andreia was an owner of the copyright because they filed an application for a supplemental registration in January 2020 to add Andreia Green as a claimant and author. The Court disagreed, stating that “a copyright infringement claim cannot be based on a registration application.” Fourth Estate Pub. Benefit Corp., 139 S. Ct. at 892. Because the Court found that Andreia was not a registered owner of the copyright at issue, she cannot bring infringement claims based on it.

The Court’s decision followed the Supreme Court’s stringent registration requirement for filing a copyright infringement suit. The Court’s decision shows that it is important for any potential claimants under the Copyright Act to promptly register their copyrights after the creation of copyrightable works or after receiving notice of infringement. A mere last-minute application at the Copyright Office will not rescue an infringement claim from dismissal.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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