Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Smith

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit denied a motion filed by a non-party to a lawsuit, claiming to be the legal owner of the disputed copyright by operation of law at the time the lawsuit was filed, asking the district court to set aside the default judgments. Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Smith, Case No. 12-1523 (6th Cir., May 2, 1013) (Suhrheinrich, J.).

In 1974, songwriter, performer and producer Abrim Tilmon, Jr. (Tilmon) wrote the disputed song “You’re Getting’ a Little Too Smart” (the “Smart” song) and registered the song with the U.S. Copyright Office. Years later, Tilmon assigned his rights in the song, together with other compositions, to the Plaintiff, Bridgeport. Tilmon died in 1982 and was survived by his widow, Janyce Tilmon-Jones.

In 1997, Rashaam A. Smith, a rap artist and defendant in this case, released a recording titled “You and Me.” Bridgeport Music sued Smith, alleging that the song included samples from the Smart song and was ultimately awarded a default judgment. Bridgeport recorded the judgment with the U. S. Copyright Office. Bridgeport also filed for renewal registration of the Smart song, claiming it was acting as the “duly authorized agent” of Tilmon-Jones.

In 2011, Tilmon-Jones filed a motion pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) seeking to have the judgment set aside, claiming that she was the rightful owner and copyright holder of the Smart song at the time of filing of Bridgeport’s claims against Smith. The widow’s argument was based on the fact that the initial copyright term in the composition expired in 2002 and that renewal interest had reverted back to Tilmon’s heirs. In addition, Tilmon-Jones had earlier also filed a separate lawsuit against Bridgeport, alleging, among other things, infringement of two different songs and objecting to ownership claims by Bridgeport in registration of those works. This matter settled in 2007.

According to Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b), the court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment, order or proceeding for various reasons, including “fraud” and “any other reason that justifies relief.”

The district court denied the motion, finding that Tilmon-Jones could not establish standing based either on fraud or on the basis that she had been “strongly affected” by the judgment. The district court noted that Tilmon-Jones always had the option of suing Bridgeport in order to establish rightful ownership of the Smart song. Tilmon-Jones appealed.

The 6th Circuit affirmed, noting that although there are cases in which non-parties to a law suit were permitted to seek relief (e.g., where they had interests that “were direct or strongly affected by the judgment”) even if the 6th Circuit were to adopt such an exception, Tilmon-Jones interest in the renewal of the copyright had not been strongly affected by the judgment against the defendant.