The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a music composer/producer’s copyright infringement and breach of contract claims against the defendants, but reversed and remanded the producers co-ownership claim against the record publisher (record publisher and artist) to determine if the statute of limitation (SOL) had run as to later “versions” of an original work on which the SOL barred the ownership claim. Maurice S. Jordan v. Sony BMG Music Entertainment Inc., et al., Case No. 08-20835 (5th Cir., Dec. 8, 2009) (Higginbotham, J.; Garza, J.; Prado, J.).

Jordon, known professionally as Kenoe, composes and produces music. Weston (known professionally as rapper Lil’ Flip) signed with Suckafree Records. On the same day, Suckafree signed a distribution agreement with Sony granting defendant Sony a license to Weston’s sound recordings. Later, Jordan entered into an agreement with Suckafree in which Jordan agreed to produce three recordings for Weston. If Weston used one or more of the recordings on his album, Jordan would receive royalties of “three percent (3%) per Recording [of] the sale of any such records embodying the Recordings” and a royalty cash advance of $3,000.

Jordan composed three melodies for Weston. Weston added rap lyrics over the melodies and Sony distributed the three songs in an album launched later that same year (2002). Sony registered its copyright in the 2002 sound recordings with the Copyright Office. The following year, Sony released a second album with the songs and, like before, registered the 2003 sound recording with the Copyright Office. From 2003 to 2006, Jordan repeatedly requested royalty payments from Sony and Suckafree. When neither paid, Jordan sued for breach of contract, co-ownership of the copyright, and copyright infringement. After the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Sony and Weston Jordan appealed.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the breach of contract claims, finding no evidence that Jordan had an enforceable contract with either Sony or Weston. The court also affirmed the dismissal of the copyright infringement claims, finding no evidence that Sony infringed the underlying melodies of the songs. However, as to the co-ownership claims, the court agreed only in part.

The district court dismissed all of Jordan’s co-ownership claims based upon the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations. The Fifth Circuit found that the 2002 registration provided notice to Jordan of Sony’s ownership in that recording claim and, since Jordan did not file suit until 2006, the claim was now time-barred. Thus, the court affirmed the dismissal as to the 2002 sound recording.

As for the 2003 sound recording, the court found the record below was unclear as to whether the recordings in 2002 and 2003 were two independent recordings or duplicates of the same recording. The court noted the district court’s references to “versions” of the songs and noted that Sony’s filing for a second copyright registration suggested that the sound recordings were distinct. As Jordan’s claim of co-ownership for the 2003 recording was not time barred if the two recordings were in fact distinct, the Court remanded the case for further findings on this issue.