Three Boys Music Corp. v. Bolton, N-PAREIL

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
Citation212 F.3d 477
Docket Number97-55154,Nos. 97-55150,WARNER-CHAPPELL,NON-PAREIL,N-PAREIL,s. 97-55150
Decision Date09 May 2000

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; Lourdes G. Baird, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-92-01177 LGB

Before: Betty B. Fletcher, Dorothy W. Nelson, and Melvin Brunetti, Circuit



D.W. NELSON, Circuit Judge:

In 1994, a jury found that Michael Bolton's 1991 pop hit, "Love Is a Wonderful Thing," infringed on the copyright of a 1964 Isley Brothers' song of the same name. The district court denied Bolton's motion for a new trial and affirmed the jury's award of $5.4 million.

Bolton, his co-author, Andrew Goldmark, and their record companies ("Sony Music") appeal, arguing that the district court erred in finding that: (1) sufficient evidence supported the jury's finding that the appellants had access to the Isley Brothers' song; (2) sufficient evidence supported the jury's finding that the songs were substantially similar; (3) subject matter jurisdiction existed based on the Isley Brothers registering a complete copy of the song; (4) sufficient evidence supported the jury's attribution of profits to the infringing elements of the song; (5) Sony Music could not deduct its tax liability; and (6) the appellants' motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence was unwarranted.

We affirm.


The Isley Brothers, one of this country's most well-known rhythm and blues groups, have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They helped define the soul sound of the 1960s with songs such as "Shout," "Twist and Shout," and "This Old Heart of Mine," and they mastered the funky beats of the 1970s with songs such as "Who's That Lady, " "Fight the Power," and "It's Your Thing." In 1964, the Isley Brothers wrote and recorded "Love is a Wonderful Thing " for United Artists. The Isley Brothers received a copyright for "Love is a Wonderful Thing" from the Register of Copyrights on February 6, 1964. The following year, they switched to the famous Motown label and had three top-100 hits including "This Old Heart of Mine."

Hoping to benefit from the Isley Brothers' Motown success, United Artists released "Love is a Wonderful Thing" in 1966. The song was not released on an album, only on a 45record as a single. Several industry publications predicted that "Love is a Wonderful Thing" would be a hit -"Cash Box" on August 27, 1966, "Gavin Report" on August 26, 1966, and "Billboard" on September 10, 1966. On September 17, 1966, Billboard listed "Love is a Wonderful Thing" at number 110 in a chart titled "Bubbling Under the Hot 100. " The song was never listed on any other Top 100 charts. In 1991, the Isley Brothers' "Love is a Wonderful Thing" was released on compact disc. See Isley Brothers, The Isley Brothers -The Complete UA Sessions, (EMI 1991).

Michael Bolton is a singer/songwriter who gained popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s by reviving the soul sound of the 1960s. Bolton has orchestrated this soul-music revival in part by covering old songs such as Percy Sledge's "When a Man Love a Woman" and Otis Redding's"(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay." Bolton also has written his own hit songs. In early 1990, Bolton and Goldmark wrote a song called "Love Is a Wonderful Thing." Bolton released it as a single in April 1991, and as part of Bolton's album,"Time, Love and Tenderness." Bolton's "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" finished 1991 at number 49 on Billboard's year-end pop chart.

On February 24, 1992, Three Boys Music Corporation filed a copyright infringement action for damages against the appellants under 17 U.S.C. SS 101 et seq. (1988). The parties agreed to a trifurcated trial. On April 25, 1994, in the first phase, the jury determined that the appellants had infringed the Isley Brothers' copyright. At the end of second phase five days later, the jury decided that Bolton's "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" accounted for 28 percent of the profits from "Time, Love and Tenderness." The jury also found that 66 percent of the profits from commercial uses of the song could be attributed to the inclusion of infringing elements. On May 9, 1994, the district court entered judgment in favor of the Isley Brothers based on the first two phases.

The deadline for post-trial motions was May 25, 1994. On that day, the appellants filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law and a motion for new trial. The district court denied the motions on August 11, 1994. On June 8, 1994, the appellants filed a second motion for new trial based on newly discovered evidence on the issue of copyright ownership. The district court dismissed this motion as untimely.

On December 5, 1996, the district court adopted the findings of the Special Master's Amended Report about the allocation of damages (third phase). In the final judgment entered against the appellants, the district court ordered Sony Music to pay $4,218,838; Bolton to pay $932,924; Goldmark to pay $220,785; and their music publishing companies to pay $75,900. They timely appealed.


Proof of copyright infringement is often highly circumstantial, particularly in cases involving music. A copyright plaintiff must prove (1) ownership of the copyright; and (2) infringement -that the defendant copied protected elements of the plaintiff's work. See Smith v. Jackson , 84 F.3d 1213, 1218 (9th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). Absent direct evidence of copying, proof of infringement involves fact-based showings that the defendant had "access" to the plaintiff's work and that the two works are "substantially similar." Id.

Given the difficulty of proving access and substantial similarity, appellate courts have been reluctant to reverse jury verdicts in music cases. See, e.g., id. at 1221 (affirming a jury's verdict for the defendants in a copyright infringement case involving Michael Jackson and other musicians); Gaste v. Kaiserman, 863 F.2d 1061, 1071 (2d Cir. 1988) (affirming a jury's damages award against a defendant in a music copyright infringement case). Judge Newman's opinion in Gaste nicely articulated the proper role for an appeals court in reviewing a jury verdict:

The guiding principle in deciding whether to overturn a jury verdict for insufficiency of the evidence is whether the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable men could have reached.

Id. at 1066 (internal quotations omitted). In Arnstein v. Porter, the seminal case about musical copyright infringement, Judge Jerome Frank wrote:

Each of these two issues -copying and improper appropriation -is an issue of fact. If there is a trial, the conclusions on those issues of the trier of the facts -of the judge if he sat without a jury, or of the jury if there was a jury trial -bind this court on appeal, provided the evidence supports those findings, regardless of whether we would ourselves have reached the same conclusions.

Arnstein v. Porter, 154 F.2d 464, 469 (2d Cir. 1946).

As a general matter, the standard for reviewing jury verdicts is whether they are supported by "substantial evidence" -that is, such relevant evidence as reasonable minds might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. See Poppell v. City of San Diego, 149 F.3d 951, 962 (9th Cir. 1998). The credibility of witnesses is an issue for the jury and is generally not subject to appellate review. See Gilbrook v. City of Westminster, 177 F.3d 839, 856 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 120 S. Ct. 614 (1999).

We affirm the jury's verdict in this case in light of the standard of review and copyright law's "guiding principles." Although we will address each of the appellant's arguments in turn, we focus on access because it is the most difficult issue in this case. Our decision is predicated on judicial deference -finding that the law has been properly applied in this case, viewing the facts most favorably to the appellees, and not substituting our judgment for that of the jury.

A. Access

[1] Proof of access requires "an opportunity to view or to copy plaintiff's work." Sid and Marty Krofft Television Prods., Inc. v. McDonald's Corp., 562 F.2d 1157, 1172 (9th Cir. 1977). This is often described as providing a "reasonable opportunity" or "reasonable possibility" of viewing the plaintiff's work. 4 Melville B. Nimmer & David Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright, S 13.02[A], at 13-19 (1999); Jason v. Fonda, 526 F. Supp. 774, 775 (C.D. Cal. 1981), aff'd , 698 F.2d 966 (9th Cir. 1983). We have defined reasonable access as "more than a `bare possibility.' " Jason, 698 F.2d at 967. Nimmer has elaborated on our definition: "Of course, reasonable opportunity as here used, does not encompass any bare possibility in the sense that anything is possible. Access may not be inferred through mere speculation or conjecture. There must be a reasonable...

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