Addressing for the first time whether determination of co-authorship of copyrighted works requires application of the Copyright Act and thus results in federal subject matter jurisdiction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit answered in the affirmative, holding that a determination of copyright ownership based upon a disputed allegation of co-authorship presents a federal question that arises under, and must be determined according to, the Copyright Act.   Severe Records, LLC v. Rich, Case No. 09-6175 (6th Cir., Sep. 23, 2011) (Kennedy, J).

Plaintiff Chris Sevier collaborated with defendant Shanna Crooks on two songs, “Better” and “Watching Me Leave.”   The extent of the collaboration was in dispute.  Crooks used the recording of the songs on a compilation she shopped to defendants John Rich, his publishing companies and management company defendant Muzik Mafia LLC.  After signing with these entities, Crooks assigned her copyright ownership in the two songs to defendant Rich and his publishing company.  Plaintiff also sought to commercially benefit from the songs by releasing them through several online music retailers.  Subsequently, the relationship between Sevier and defendant Crooks collapsed.  The defendants began sending cease-and-desist letters to Sevier in which they accused Sevier of copyright infringement based on his alleged unauthorized distribution of the songs, including selling “bootleg” digital downloads.  The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendants for several claims of copyright infringement and seeking a declaratory judgment that the plaintiff had not infringed the copyrighted songs and that defendant Crook was not an author of the songs.  The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s copyright infringement claims on the basis that there was no unauthorized distribution by defendant Crooks.  The court dismissed plaintiff’s declaratory judgment claim concerning copyright ownership finding that it was governed by state law and thus does not require the application of the Copyright Act.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit upheld the district court’s finding of no infringement by the defendants.   Although the court recognized that there was conflicting evidence concerning whether Sevier was the sole author of the copyrighted song at issue on appeal, even assuming that Sevier was the sole author, the plaintiff’s complaint did not allege any claim of improper copying by the defendants.

Concerning the declaratory judgment claim, the court reversed the lower court’s holding that the ownership dispute did not arise under the Copyright Act.   Explaining that the issue required a court to “determine whether or not the cause of action anticipated by the declaratory judgment plaintiff arises under federal law,” the court found that the defendants’ cease and desist letters suggested that the dispute concerned authorship of the songs, rather than ownership, making the issue one of copyright infringement.  Whereas copyright ownership disputes arising purely from contractual rights arise under state law, lacking federal court jurisdiction, the court explained that ownership disputes arising from issues of statutory co-authorship arise directly from the Copyright Act.  Therefore, where the question before the court is one of authorship, such dispute arises under federal law and is properly justiciable in federal court.  Accordingly, the court found that the district court had abused its discretion in dismissing the declaratory judgment claim and remanded the case to the district court for further consideration of that claim.