In a recent appeal from the dismissal of one of the lengthiest complaints ever filed — at a whopping 795 paragraphs, 68 attachments and 506 pages (including exhibits) — the Sixth Circuit weighed in on a contentious dispute originating in the Nashville music scene. The plaintiffs in Severe Records, et al. v. Rich, et al. [available here.pdf], sued John Rich (of “Big & Rich” fame), along with Muzik Mafia and John D. Richafella Publishing, for, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that the plaintiffs authored and had ownership rights to two songs recorded by performer Shanna Crooks.
While the alleged facts of the case are the stuff country music is made of — theft, obsession, narcissism, threats and more — the legal issues considered by the Court were fairly straightforward. First, the Court considered whether the plaintiffs asserted a cognizable claim for copyright infringement based on the defendants’ alleged prevention of the plaintiffs’ use of the songs he (at least partly) wrote. This claim was summarily dismissed after the Court concluded that the plaintiffs demonstrated no unauthorized copying of the songs by the defendants, a requirement for a cognizable copyright claim. Next, the Court evaluated whether the district court erroneously dismissed the plaintiffs’ declaratory judgment claim on the grounds that it was premature and did not state a claim under federal law. The Court answered the question in the affirmative and, in doing so, adopted the prevailing view that disputed claims about co-authorship of a work require application of the Copyright Act.
We recently reported on another case that is making its way up to the Sixth Circuit concerning the song “I’ll Fly Away.” The Nashville-influence on the Sixth Circuit’s docket may help make the Court a trendsetter in some of these copyright disputes in the song-writing context.