In copyright infringement suit against Latin pop singer Ricky Martin, district court denies in part Martin’s motion for judgment on pleadings, holding plaintiff plausibly pleaded ownership of music video he submitted to Sony Music’s “SuperSong Contest” (rejecting Martin’s arguments that video was work for hire and/or plaintiff assigned ownership rights to Sony) but dismissing plaintiff’s claim that he was fraudulently induced by Sony to sign release and affidavit relinquishing rights to video.
Sony Music Entertainment cosponsored a songwriting competition in 2014, inviting entrants to submit an original musical composition with an accompanying music video that, if selected as the winning entry, would be performed by Latin pop singer Ricky Martin at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Plaintiff Luis Adrian Cortes-Ramos entered the contest, submitting an original song and music video called “La Copa del Mundo.” Sony sent Cortes-Ramos an email informing him that he had been selected as a semifinalist and asking him to confirm the terms and conditions set out in the contest’s official rules. The official rules included a provision stating that the copyright in the materials that were submitted (excluding the underlying copyright in the song) would be considered a work made for hire and that the entrant irrevocably assigned the copyright in his entry to Sony and its cosponsor. Plaintiff later signed a release authorizing Sony to “reproduce, digitize, modify, change, alter, adapt, or otherwise make use” of his submission materials, as well as an affidavit affirming that he had complied with the contest rules. A few months later, Martin released a song and music video titled “Vida,” which plaintiff alleges is nearly identical to his work.
Cortes-Ramos filed his first lawsuit against Sony in July 2014, but that case was dismissed on the grounds that Cortes-Ramos was bound by the mandatory arbitration clause in the contest rules. Cortes-Ramos then filed a second action against Martin alone, which the district court dismissed for similar reasons. On appeal, the First Circuit reversed, holding that Martin was neither a party to nor an intended beneficiary of the contest rules and thus could not rely upon its arbitration clause (read our summary of the First Circuit’s ruling here). On remand, the district court dismissed Cortes-Ramos’ complaint for failure to register his song with the U.S. Copyright Office, a prerequisite to filing a copyright infringement claim. The First Circuit affirmed (read our summary of the First Circuit’s decision here).
Cortes-Ramos registered his copyright with the Copyright Office and filed a third lawsuit against Martin in 2021, alleging that Martin infringed his copyright by producing, distributing and displaying the “Vida” music video. Cortes-Ramos also claimed that Sony fraudulently induced him to sign the release and affidavit. In response, Martin filed two counterclaims, seeking (1) a declaratory judgment that Cortes-Ramos has no valid copyright in the work and (2) a permanent injunction enjoining Cortes-Ramos from asserting any rights to the video. Martin then filed a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings.
The court first addressed whether Cortes-Ramos had standing to assert his infringement claim. Martin argued that Cortes-Ramos’ music video was a work made for hire and, therefore, ownership did not vest with Cortes-Ramos as the author. A work made for hire must either be (1) prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or (2) commissioned for certain uses, where the parties expressly agree in a signed, written instrument that the work is to be considered a work made for hire. The written instrument must be signed by both parties and must be signed before the work is created. In this case, although the contest rules contained language suggesting that the video was a work made for hire, neither party signed the official rules. Moreover, although Cortes-Ramos signed an affidavit agreeing to abide by the rules, he did so after he had already created and entered his music video in the contest. The court thus concluded that the submission was not a work for hire and that Cortes-Ramos, as the author, was the original owner of the copyright.
The question remained, however, whether Cortes-Ramos assigned his copyright in the work to Sony by signing the release and affidavit. Under the Copyright Act, the transfer of copyright ownership requires a written instrument of conveyance that is signed by the owner of the rights conveyed. The court found that the release conveyed to Sony only the right to use the submission — not any ownership interest — and was thus a license rather than a transfer of copyright.
Martin also argued that Cortes-Ramos was bound by his affidavit affirming compliance with the contest rules, as the rules explicitly state that if an entrant’s submission is not considered a work for hire, the entrant nevertheless irrevocably assigns all right, title and interest in the work to Sony. Cortes-Ramos stated that he did not receive a copy of the rules, and the court was thus reluctant to treat the affidavit as a memorandum of the transfer of copyright ownership under Section 204(a) of the Copyright Act.
The district court thus concluded that Cortes-Ramos had standing to bring his infringement claim, and it further held that he adequately pleaded the remaining elements of his copyright infringement claim by raising reasonable inferences that Martin had access to his submission and that the “Vida” music video is substantially similar to it.
The court also addressed Cortes-Ramos’ claim that Sony fraudulently induced him to sign the release and affidavit. Because allegations of fraud are assessed under the heightened pleading standards of Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Cortes-Ramos was required to specify “the who, what, where, and when of the allegedly false or fraudulent representation.” Because he was unable to specify the content of Sony’s alleged false statements — i.e., the “what” — the court dismissed Cortes-Ramos’ fraudulent inducement claim without prejudice.