In September 2015, Pryor Cashman successfully obtained a dismissal of a copyright infringement suit brought against clients Kanye West, Shawn Carter (known professionally as “Jay-Z”), Mike Dean, UMG Recordings, Inc., Roc-A-Fella Records, LLC and Roc Nation LLC (“Defendants”).

Plaintiff’s Failed Suit

In his failed action, plaintiff Joel R. McDonald – a musician – claimed the Defendants’ musical composition, “Made in America,” infringed his copyright in a song he wrote in 2008 with the same title. Specifically, McDonald alleged that: (1) both songs share the title, “Made in America”; (2) McDonald’s song contains the lyric “Made in America” while Defendants’ song has the lyric “Made it in America”; (3) both songs make reference to historical figures Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and appear in the same order; and (4) the songs contain certain musical similarities.

Pryor Cashman moved to dismiss McDonald’s suit, arguing that: (1) “Made in America” is not protectable under copyright law as a title or short phrase; (2) the use of the names Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (or order in which they appear) is not protectable under copyright law; and (3) McDonald failed to allege any musical similarities between the two compositions.

The District Court’s Decision

In granting Defendants’ motion to dismiss, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of N.Y. found:

  • the phrase “Made in America” is not copyrightable as a title or lyric, as it is “too brief, common and unoriginal to create any exclusive right vested in [McDonald];”
  • the use and arrangement of the names Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are not protectable, as one cannot claim a copyright over names of historical figures, nor is there anything original about the selection and arrangement of these names; and
  • McDonald failed to plausibly plead substantial musical similarities between the two songs.

The Court’s analysis compelled the conclusion that no reasonable jury could find that the two songs were substantially similar.

Second Circuit Victory

In September 2016, McDonald appeared pro se before the Second Circuit in an attempt to persuade the Court that the lower court erred in dismissing his claims against the Defendants.

In a succinct and unequivocal decision, the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling on behalf of the Defendants, “for substantially the reasons stated by the district court in its thorough and well-reasoned decision,” adding, “We have considered all of McDonald’s arguments and find them to be without merit.”