In the summer of 2007, hip-hop artist Curtis Jackson—who performs under the stage name “50 Cent”—rapped his way to fame and riches with the smash hit “I Get Money.” After 50 Cent made a mint on this work (he sold more than 2 million copies), a man named Tyrone Simmons appeared on the scene claiming that he purchased an exclusive license to the underlying “beat” to I Get Money in 2006 from the song’s producer, William Stanberry. In June 2007, Stanberry allegedly “repudiated” the assignment. Nonetheless, Simmons waited over three years—until December 2010—before he deposited his claims in federal court. That’s when Simmons sued 50 Cent, Stanberry, and a host of others for various copyright claims in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
The trial court dismissed the copyright claims as barred by Section 507 of Copyright Act. That section provides, in pertinent part, that civil actions must be brought “within three years after the claim has accrued.” As the court noted, a claim of copyright ownership accrues only once and at the time when a “reasonably diligent plaintiff would have been put on inquiry as to the existence” of the adverse claim. By contrast, a claim of copyright infringement may be commenced within three years of any infringing act, regardless of any prior acts of infringement.” The trial court found that Simmons’ complaint, taken as a whole, was really a claim over ownership, not infringement. Because Simmons knew of the adverse ownership claim to “I Get Money” more than three years before he sued in December 2010, his claims were simply not worth the pleading paper on which they were printed. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal in a per curiam opinion on January 15, 2016.
There is at least one takeaway and one question posed by this case. First, the takeaway: copyright ownership claims and copyright infringement claims have different rules regarding accrual for purposes of Section 507 of the Copyright Act. This can be a bit of a trap for the unwary and calls for careful attention to the nature of the claims asserted. Second, the question: why doesn’t the Supreme Court’s recent “Raging Bull” decision on laches revive this claim against 50 Cent and his entourage? The answer lies in the difference between the claims alleged in the two cases. The Raging Bull case involved copyright infringement claims that “accrued” each time the infringer committed a new act of infringement. In that context, the Court held that laches could not bar recovery for acts of infringement that “accrued” during the three year statute of limitations period. Here, by contrast, the issue of ownership accrues once, and any such claim must be pursued within three years thereafter.
In sum, it looks like 50 Cent is free to continue to get money off of his hip-hop hit without fear that Simmons will be able to cash in under the Copyright Act.