The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant-appellee Universal-MCA Music Publishing (Universal), agreeing that plaintiff-appellant Bridgeport Music, Inc. (Bridgeport) had failed to set forth specific facts showing a triable issue of material fact. Bridgeport Music, Inc., et al. v. WB Music Corp., et al., Case No. 06-5546 (6th Cir., Nov. 21, 2007) (Gibbons, J.).
The plaintiff, Bridgeport, owned the copyright to the P-Funk All Stars’ song “Pumpin’ It Up.” A few years later, Calvin Broadus (a/k/a Snoop Dogg) collaborated with Priest Joseph Brooks and Lenton Hutton on the recording “Change Gone Come.” In May 1999, Soul Town released the album Well Connected and in October 2000, D-3 Albums released the album Dead Man Walkin. Both albums contained the recording “Change Gone Come.” Neither of these albums nor any recording containing “Change Gone Come” was manufactured, distributed or sold by Universal. Hutton and Universal entered into an “Exclusive Songwriter & Co-Publishing Agreement,” by which Universal acquired a 25 percent interest in the copyright of songs such as “Change Gone Come,” as well as “universe-wide exclusive administration rights” over Hutton’s works, including the right to license the use of certain compositions. Under its agreement, Universal received some royalties in connection with “Change Gone Come” but did not control public performances of “Change Gone Come” and never performed it. Also, Universal never manufactured or sold or distributed either album. Bridgeport (on the other hand) never received any royalties from the alleged sampling of “Pumpin’ It Up” in “Change Gone Come,” and never licensed the use of “Pumpin’ It Up” in “Change Gone Come.”
After Bridgeport discovered the alleged infringement, it brought suit naming Universal as a defendant. Universal moved for summary judgment of non-infringement. The magistrate judge issued a report recommending that the district court grant Universal’s motion, having determined that there was “no genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Universal issued a license in the infringing works.” The magistrate judge further concluded that the “receipt of royalties alone was insufficient to create contributory copyright infringement.” After, the district court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation, Bridgeport appealed.
Bridgeport asserted that Universal had granted an oral, written or implied license in “Change Gone Come” as a consequence of the fact the recording appeared on the albums Well Connected and Dead Man Walkin. In rebuttal, Universal introduced an affidavit attesting to the fact that it had not issued any licenses in connection with “Change Gone Come,” thereby shifting the burden to Bridgeport. Relying on binding 6th Circuit precedent, Rhyme Syndicate, the 6th Circuit concluded that the circumstantial evidence relied upon by Bridgeport cannot create a genuine issue of material fact. “The evidence of an infringing act and Universal’s partial ownership interest in the ‘Change Gone Come’ copyright does not permit the inference that Universal granted a license.”
Bridgeport also argued that Universal was liable for both vicarious and contributory infringement alleging Universal had a right to “police” the alleged infringement (giving rise to vicarious liability) and knew or should have known of the infringement (giving rise to contributory infringement). The court made short work of both theories, finding no factual support in the record to support supervision or control over the infringing activity (vicarious) or evidence that Universal induced, caused or contributed to the infringement by another party (contributory).