394 F.3d 357 (5th Cir. 2004), 03-30625, Positive Black Talk Inc. v. Cash Money Records, Inc.

Docket Nº:03-30625, 03-30702.
Citation:394 F.3d 357
Party Name:73 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321 POSITIVE BLACK TALK INC., doing business as Take Fo' Records, doing business as Take Fo' Publishing, Plaintiff-Counter Defendant-Appellant, v. CASH MONEY RECORDS INC.; et al., Defendants, Cash Money Records Inc.; Terius Gray, also known as Juvenile, Defendants-Counter Claimants-Appellees, and UMG Recordings Inc., Universal Record
Case Date:December 17, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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394 F.3d 357 (5th Cir. 2004)

73 U.S.P.Q.2d 1321

POSITIVE BLACK TALK INC., doing business as Take Fo' Records, doing business as Take Fo' Publishing, Plaintiff-Counter Defendant-Appellant,

v.

CASH MONEY RECORDS INC.; et al., Defendants,

Cash Money Records Inc.; Terius Gray, also known as Juvenile, Defendants-Counter Claimants-Appellees,

and

UMG Recordings Inc., Universal Records Inc. merged into UMG Recordings Inc.; Universal Music and Video Distribution Corp.; Defendants-Appellees.

Positive Black Talk Inc., doing business as Take Fo' Records, doing business as Take Fo' Publishing, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Cash Money Records Inc.; et al., Defendants,

Cash Money Records Inc.; UMG Recording Inc., Universal Records, Inc.; Universal Music and Video Distribution Corp.; Terius Gray, also known as Juvenile, Defendants-Appellants.

Nos. 03-30625, 03-30702.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 17, 2004

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Nathan T. Gisclair, Jr. (argued), Jeffrey Scott Loeb, Eugene Joseph Radcliff,

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Montgomery, Barnett, Brown, Read, Hammond & Mintz, New Orleans, LA, for Plaintiff-Counter Defendant-Appellant.

Bruce Victor Schewe (argued), J. Michael Monahan, II, Phelps Dunbar, New Orleans, LA, for Defendants-Counter Claimants-Appellees.

Thomas K. Potter, III (argued), Gregory D. Latham, Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre, New Orleans, LA, for Defendants-Appellees.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Before KING, Chief Judge, and SMITH and GARZA, Circuit Judges.

KING, Chief Judge:

This appeal arises out of a dispute concerning the popular rap song Back That Azz Up. Plaintiff-Appellant Positive Black Talk, Inc. filed this lawsuit against three defendants, alleging, inter alia, violations of the United States copyright laws. The defendants counterclaimed under the copyright laws, the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practices Act, and theories of negligent misrepresentation. After a jury trial, the district court entered judgment in accordance with the verdict in favor of the defendants on all of Positive Black Talk's claims, as well as on the defendants' non-copyright counterclaims. The district court awarded the defendants attorney's fees only in relation to the successful unfair trade practices counterclaim.

In this consolidated appeal, Positive Black Talk appeals the judgment of the district court on the grounds that the court erred in instructing the jury and in making several evidentiary rulings. The defendants appeal the district court's decision not to award them attorney's fees as the prevailing parties on Positive Black Talk's copyright infringement claim. We AFFIRM.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

In 1997, two rap artists based in New Orleans, Louisiana--Terius Gray, professionally known as Juvenile ("Juvenile"), and Jerome Temple, professionally known as D.J. Jubilee ("Jubilee")--each recorded a song that included the poetic four-word phrase "back that ass up." Specifically, with respect to Jubilee, he recorded his song in November 1997 and entitled it Back That Ass Up. In the Spring of 1998, Positive Black Talk, Inc. ("PBT"), a recording company, released Jubilee's Back That Ass Up on the album TAKE IT TO THE ST. THOMAS. Jubilee subsequently performed the song at a number of live shows, including the New Orleans Jazzfest on April 26, 1998.

Turning to Juvenile, at some point during the fall of 1997, Juvenile recorded his song and entitled it Back That Azz Up. In May 1998, Cash Money Records, Inc. ("CMR"), the recording company that produced Juvenile's album 400 DEGREEZ, signed a national distribution contract with Universal Records. Consequently, 400 DEGREEZ, which contained Juvenile's song Back That Azz Up, was released in November 1998. 400 DEGREEZ quickly garnered national acclaim, selling over four million albums and grossing more than $40 million.

In 2000, Jubilee applied for and received a certificate of registration (Form PA) from the United States Copyright Office for the lyrics of Back That Ass Up. Jubilee also obtained a certificate of registration for the lyrics and music (Form SR) in the sound recording of the song. On February 15, 2002, PBT mailed a supplementary application for registration (containing an application, deposit, and fee) to the Copyright Office, stating that PBT should

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have been listed as the author and copyright claimant on Jubilee's prior PA registration (lyrics only). On the same day, PBT filed this lawsuit in the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleging copyright infringement and the violation of the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practices Act (LUPTA).1 On February 19, 2002, four days after the suit was filed, the Copyright Office received PBT's supplementary registration application.

In response, the defendants filed counterclaims, alleging copyright infringement, violation of LUPTA, and negligent misrepresentation. On February 11, 2003, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, in which they argued, inter alia, that the district court should dismiss PBT's lawsuit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because PBT failed to comply with the statutory requirement that the Copyright Office receive the registration application before a plaintiff may file an infringement suit. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that the defect had been cured and that dismissing the case after a year of litigation, only to have PBT re-file the suit, would be a tremendous waste of judicial resources.

In May 2003, the case proceeded to a jury trial. Although the jury found that PBT proved by a preponderance of the evidence that it owned a copyright interest in the lyrics and music of Jubilee's song Back That Ass Up, it nevertheless found in favor of the defendants on PBT's copyright infringement claim. Specifically, the jury found that: (1) PBT failed to prove that Juvenile or CMR factually copied Back That Ass Up; (2) the defendants proved that CMR and Juvenile independently created Back That Azz Up; and (3) PBT failed to prove that Back That Azz Up is substantially similar to Back That Ass Up.2 The jury also decided against PBT on its non-copyright claim. In addition, the jury found in favor of the defendants on their LUPTA and negligent misrepresentation counterclaims. However, the jury found against the defendants on their copyright infringement counterclaim. Accordingly, the district court entered judgment in favor of the defendants. The court awarded the defendants attorney's fees in relation to their LUPTA counterclaim but not for their successful defense of PBT's copyright infringement claim.

PBT then filed a timely notice of appeal. PBT argues on appeal that the district court erroneously instructed the jury on relevant copyright laws and erred in making several evidentiary rulings.3 The defendants cross-appeal the district court's award of attorney's fees, contending that they are entitled to fees for prevailing

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against PBT on its copyright claim.4

II. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The district court's subject matter jurisdiction was based on 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question) and 1338 (copyright laws). That broad underlying jurisdiction was supplemented by the specific statutory provisions of the copyright laws. Specifically, 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) sets forth the jurisdictional prerequisite that "no action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title." 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) (2000); see also Creations Unlimited, Inc. v. McCain, 112 F.3d 814, 816 (5th Cir. 1997) (per curiam) ("registration with the copyright office is a jurisdictional prerequisite to filing a copyright infringement suit"). Although some circuits require that a plaintiff actually obtain a certificate from the Copyright Office before bringing suit, the Fifth Circuit requires only that the Copyright Office actually receive the application, deposit, and fee before a plaintiff files an infringement action. See Lakedreams v. Taylor, 932 F.2d 1103, 1108 (5th Cir. 1991). Here, the defendants argue that PBT failed to comply with the statutory formality set forth in § 411 (and that the district court therefore lacked jurisdiction over PBT's copyright infringement claim) because PBT filed suit four days before the Copyright Office received its application, deposit, and fee (all of which PBT had mailed on the same day it filed suit).5

We hold, along with the other courts that have considered this matter, that the ultimate judgment is not rendered a nullity in this instance by the district court's refusal to dismiss PBT's suit for want of jurisdiction. Rather, we find that the jurisdictional defect was cured when the Copyright Office received PBT's application, deposit, and fee four days after PBT filed suit.

A number of other courts have found that a plaintiff who files a copyright infringement lawsuit before registering with the Copyright Office may cure the § 411 defect by subsequently amending or supplementing its complaint once it has registered the copyright. See, e.g.,

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M.G.B. Homes, Inc. v. Ameron Homes, Inc., 903 F.2d 1486, 1488-89 (11th Cir. 1990); J. Racenstein & Co., Inc. v. Wallace, 1997 WL 605107, *1-2 (S.D.N.Y. Oct.1, 1997) ("Where an action is commenced without registration being effected, the defect can be cured by subsequent registration, and an appropriate amendment to the complaint may be made to provide the necessary basis for subject matter jurisdiction."); ...

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