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Second Circuit affirms that infringement suit over hip-hop beat in 50 Cent song “I Get Money” is claim for ownership interest in copyright time-barred by Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations.

Tyrone Simmons sued producer William C. Stanberry Jr., rapper Curtis Jackson (50 Cent), and various corporate entities involved in the production and distribution of the 2007 song “I Get Money.” Simmons alleged that in February 2006, he purchased from Stanberry an exclusive license to a hip-hop beat. However, when Jackson expressed interest in that same beat, Stanberry agreed to collaborate with Jackson on the production of his song employing the beat. Simmons further alleged that in May 2007, Stanberry attempted to repudiate Simmons’ license in an email.

50 Cent’s song “I Get Money” was released in the summer of 2007 and enjoyed immediate and continuing success. Despite Simmons’ evident awareness of Stanberry’s repudiation of the sale to him, Stanberry’s agreement with Jackson to use the beat and their release of the allegedly infringing song, Simmons did not file suit until December 2010, more than three years after the song had been released. Accordingly, defendants moved to dismiss the suit as untimely. The district court granted the motion.

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, citing its 2011 ruling in Kwan v. Schlein. In Kwan, the Second Circuit concluded the suit over a book’s authorship credit was barred by the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations. The plaintiff, although aware of the defendant’s acts of infringement in rejecting plaintiff’s claims of a copyright interest, had waited more than three years to sue, noted the Second Circuit. It further held that “[w]here the plaintiff’s claims were rooted in her contested assertion of an ownership interest in the copyright, and that claim of ownership interest was time-barred because of the plaintiff’s delay in suing, the plaintiff could not resuscitate the untimely claim by relying on claims against the defendant’s continuing course of infringing publication after the plaintiff’s ownership claim became time-barred.” Thus, “[w]here … the ownership claim is time-barred, and ownership is the dispositive issue, any attendant infringement claim must fail.”

The Second Circuit held that Kwan controlled this case because Simmons knew more than three years before filing suit that Stanberry rejected Simmons’ assertion of an interest in the copyright and had gone on to exploit the copyrighted work. Consequently, Simmons’ suit was time-barred and could not be revived by the defendants’ continuing exploitation of the copyright within three years of his filing suit. The Second Circuit rejected Simmons’ argument that Kwan was distinguishable on the grounds that this case involved an exclusive license rather than an assertion of ownership. The Second Circuit explained that the Copyright Act recognizes that an exclusive license is effectively a transfer of ownership over the rights licensed. As a result, an exclusive licensee is essentially equivalent to an owner for enforcement purposes. Thus, the Second Circuit held, there was no reason why the statute of limitations should apply differently to an exclusive licensee.