USDC M.D. Tennessee, February 5, 2010

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In copyright infringement action involving sound recordings, district court holds that a variation of a copyrighted musical composition embodied in a sound recording does not qualify as a separate work for purposes of statutory damages.  

Plaintiffs, owners of 215 copyrighted musical compositions, filed a copyright infringement action against defendants seeking statutory damages for defendants’ alleged transmissions of 308 separate sound recordings embodying those compositions, arguing that each sound recording constitutes a separate work under the Copyright Act and therefore justifies a separate statutory damages award.

Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings under 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, contending that statutory damages under the Copyright Act were only available for each infringed work, not each instance of infringement. Thus, defendants argued, plaintiffs at most were limited to one award of statutory damages for each of the 215 works it claimed to own – not for each of the 308 sound recordings alleged in the complaint. Plaintiffs agreed that they may recover only one statutory damages award per work infringed, but disagreed with defendants on what constitutes a “work,” arguing that each sound recording embodying their compositions is a separate work for which damages may be awarded, and that plaintiffs should be entitled to recover for each of the sound recordings even though they do not actually own the copyrights to the sound recordings.

First observing that the term “work” is not defined in the Copyright Act, the court noted that sound recordings and musical compositions are separate works with their own distinct copyrights. In addition, the court stated that separate copyrights do not constitute distinct “works” unless they can “live their own copyright life” – in other words, where separate copyrights have no independent economic value, they must be considered part of a single work.

Following these principles, the court held that even though each musical composition is a distinct, viable work with separate economic value and a copyright life of its own, any variation of that “work” is still simply one “work” for the purposes of statutory damages, that to the extent a sound recording embodies a musical composition and is a separate “work,” plaintiff must possess ownership and registration of those copyrights to be entitled to any statutory damages, and that a sound recording that is simply a variation of a copyrighted musical composition does not in and of itself make it a separate “work” for which statutory damages may be awarded.

Accordingly, the court granted defendant’s motion, ruling that statutory damages, if any, are recoverable only on the 215 musical compositions alleged in the complaint, rather than the 308 sound recordings.