USDC S.D. New York, September 29, 2008
The plaintiff composed a series of musical works that comprised the instrumental score for a motion picture titled Don Dinero – Su Vida y La Calle. Defendants Guitian Brothers Music and Universal Music Group received a copyright registration as the sole owners of the copyright in the movie in 2003. In 2005, the plaintiff obtained copyright registration for the 13 musical works that comprise the score.
The plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement and Universal filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s claim was a dispute over copyright ownership, that plaintiff was aware of the dispute since 2003, and that his claim was therefore barred by the statute of limitations. The court agreed. It held that the gravamen of the plaintiff’s claim was a dispute over ownership of the copyright in the musical works and that the plaintiff should reasonably have discovered that the defendants were claiming to be the sole owners of the copyright by February, 2004, a few months after the movie was distributed, which is outside the three-year statute of limitations.
Specifically, the court held that the plaintiff should have known that the defendants claimed to be the sole owners of the copyright due to public distribution of the movie in DVD format with a copyright notice in the names of the defendants only and due to the defendants’ act of registering the copyright, which the plaintiff should have anticipated. Since the plaintiff wrote the musical works for inclusion in the movie, “he should reasonably have anticipated that Defendants would seek to copyright the Motion Picture prior to or in conjunction with marketing and distributing it, and, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, discovered the Defendants’ registration.” The plaintiff also was on notice of his ownership claim because he did not receive any royalties.
The plaintiff argued that the defendants’ copyright registration in the movie did not apply to the underlying musical compositions contained in the movie because they were preexisting works. The court stated that it was inclined to agree with Universal’s position that because the score was written for the film, and was not a pre-existing work, the registration of the film covered the score and Universal was the owner of these compositions. However, the court declined to rule on this because it determined the ownership claim was time barred. The court also held that the plaintiff’s state law claim of unjust enrichment was preempted by the Copyright Act, it denied the plaintiff’s motion for default judgment against the Guitian Brothers defendants, and it held that the court did have jurisdiction over the copyright claims but not the plaintiff’s quasi contract unjust enrichment claims against Guitian Brothers.