USDC S.D. New York, April 18, 2011

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  • Court grants defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim seeking a share of profits for his contributions to a rap song was an ownership claim, which was time-barred because plaintiff failed to bring it within three years of the song’s release.

In 1991, defendants RMM and Sergio Georges produced a rap song by Tito Nieves entitled “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More Baby” (“Nieves Song”). Georges solicited plaintiff Ronnie Brand to write lyrics to the song, but Brand refused to sign any documents and was not paid for his work.

That year, the Nieves Song was released on the Tito Nieves album Dejame Vivir. Plaintiff received no royalties or other payment from RMM or Georges in connection with Dejame Vivir. In 1997, the Nieves Song was re-released on the Tito Nieves album I Like It Like That. Again, plaintiff received no royalties or other payments in connection with the release of the 1997 album.

The U.S. Copyright Office issued a certificate for the Nieves Song in 1991, listing RMM Records as the sole copyright claimant. In 1999, plaintiff obtained a sound recording registration certificate from the Copyright Office for the “words, melody of song – rap lyrics” to “I’m Gonna Love You.” Defendant Universal Music Group acquired RMM’s copyright to the Nieves Song in 2001 and “paid over” the song to Warner/Chappell.

In 2004, plaintiff’s attorney sent a claim for compensation to Universal, claiming that plaintiff owned the copyright to the Nieves Song and arguing that the 1991 and 1997 Nieves albums infringed plaintiff’s copyright. Universal and Warner/Chappell responded that it had no record of any agreement or arrangement with the plaintiff.

In 2009, plaintiff sued defendants for copyright infringement, arguing, pro se, that defendants profited from plaintiff’s work without compensating plaintiff for his contribution to the Nieve’s albums. Defendants moved to dismiss or for summary judgment.

Treating the motion as one for summary judgment, the court held that, although styled as an infringement claim, the gravamen of plaintiff’s complaint was that he is the owner of the rap lyrics on Nieves’ song. The Copyright Act provides for a three-year statute of limitations on copyright claims, and a claim involving a dispute over copyright ownership accrues when a plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury upon which the claim is premised, and a defendant's express assertion of adverse ownership or repudiation of plaintiff’s ownership, such as registering the copyright in defendant’s own name, distributing the work with copyright notice identifying defendant as owner, or exploiting the work for years without paying royalties to plaintiff, will trigger the accrual of the statute of limitations. Here, the court held that plaintiff reasonably should have known of the injury when defendant released the song and registered the copyright in 1991, or at the latest when the song was re-released in 1997, and that defendant was clearly aware of such releases and registrations by the time his attorney sent his letter in 2004. Because Brand's ownership claim was time-barred, the court held that his infringement claim also fails as a matter of law, citing the Second Circuit’s decision in Kwan v. Schlein earlier this year for the proposition that “[w]here, as here, the ownership claim is time-barred, and ownership is the dispositive issue, any attendant infringement claims must fail."