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Second Circuit Tells Rapper to Face the Music for Failing to Register the Work

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a copyright infringement claim by one rap artist against another on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to register the work in question. The Court emphasized the distinction between a musical work and a sound recording of that work, noting that they are separately copyrightable and require separate registrations. Nwosuocha v. Glover, Case No. 23-703 (2d Cir. May 10, 2024) (Jacobs, Park, Nathan, CJ.) (per curium) (nonprecedential)

In fall 2016, the rapper Emelike Nwosuocha, who goes by Kidd Wes, wrote and published a song called “Made in America.” In May 2017, Kidd Wes registered an album that included “Made in America” with the US Copyright Office and was issued a sound recording registration. In 2018, the rapper Donald Glover, known as Childish Gambino, released the song “This is America.” The song won in all four of its nominated categories at the 61st Grammy Awards in 2019: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance and Best Music Video. Kidd Wes then filed a complaint in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York against Glover and his music labels, alleging infringement of his copyright.

A valid copyright registration is a prerequisite to suit under 17 U.S.C. § 411(a). Here, Kidd Wes only registered his copyright for the sound recording of “Made in America,” not for the musical work itself. Since his infringement allegations concerned the work and not the recording of the work, the district court granted Childish Gambino’s motion to dismiss the claim for failure to register the copyright at issue. The court also dismissed the claim for the independent reason that Childish Gambino’s song did not infringe.

Kidd Wes appealed, arguing that § 411(b) permits suit “regardless of whether the certificate [of registration] contains any inaccurate information,” unless the inaccuracy was knowing or material, and that the distinction between a sound recording and a musical work is an administrative classification imposed by the Register of Copyrights and therefore has “no significance with respect to the subject matter of copyright or the exclusive rights provided by [Title 17 of the United States Code].”

The Second Circuit rejected both lines of argument. First, the Court noted that failing to register the musical work “Made in America” is not the same as accidentally including inaccurate information on the registration form. The Court explained that “the difference between forgiving technical mistakes in a copyright application and allowing applications to create registrations in material never mentioned” is an important distinction, and they should not be conflated.

Second, the Second Circuit noted that the distinction between a musical work and a sound recording of that work is not just an administrative classification, but a distinction created by statute. (17 U.S.C. §§ 102(a)(2) and (a)(7).) The distinction is important, the Court explained, because “sound recordings and musical works are different artistic works that can be copyrighted by different creators and are infringed in different ways.”

Having [...]

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Take Three for Take-Two: Jury Finds Implied License for Tattoos on Video-Game Avatar

A jury rejected allegations that a video-game maker’s use of tattoos in a game violated the copyright of the artist who inked them, finding the video-game maker had an implied license to depict a player’s tattoos in its likeness of him. Hayden v. 2K Games Inc., Case No. 1:17-cv-02635 (N.D. Ohio)

Jimmy Hayden is a tattoo artist who has created works for many National Basketball Association (NBA) stars, including Lebron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Kyrie Irving, Danny Green and Tristan Thompson. Hayden filed suit against Take-Two Interactive Games, a developer, publisher and marketer of interactive entertainment and video games, in 2017 for the depiction of his copyrighted tattoos on the likenesses of James, Green and Thompson in the popular NBA 2K game series. The NBA 2K series allows players to control realistic avatars of more than 400 NBA players.

In January 2024, the district court dismissed the infringement claims concerning four of the six tattoos but ruled that claims concerning two of the tattoos on James could proceed to trial. The jury found that Take-Two’s agreement with the NBA and its players’ union to use James’s likeness included an implied license to depict his tattoos.

Practice Note: A likely issue on appeal will be whether the jury was correctly instructed in the implied license doctrine, which involves inferring intent from the parties’ conduct, as well as whether it applied the doctrine correctly.

Similar Cases

This case is the latest in a series of disputes between tattoo artists and the use of their work in video games. In 2020, Take-Two was sued in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York over its depiction of tattoos on NBA players, including James, Kenyon Martin and Eric Bledsoe. In that case, Solid Oak Sketches, Inc. v. Take-Two Games, Inc. (499 F.Supp.3d 333 (S.D.N.Y. 2020)), the district court granted Take-Two’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the tattoos depicted on the basketball players were not substantially similar to the actual tattoos, that the video game company’s use was within the license granted by the players to use their likeness and that the video game’s use of the copyrighted tattoos was transformative.

In another case, Alexander v. Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. et al. (Case No. 18-cv-966-SMY, (S.D. Ill. 2022)), a tattoo artist won a jury trial concerning the depiction of tattoos on professional wrestler Randy Orton in Take-Two’s WWE 2K video game series. In that case, the jury awarded Alexander $3,750 in damages, finding that the reproduction of the tattoos was not fair use, but the small size of the award reflected their finding that the game’s profits were not attributable to the copied tattoos.




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Back in the USA: Seventh Circuit Lifts Sanctions, Anti-Suit Injunction Contempt

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit stayed a district court’s contempt sanctions relating to an anti-suit injunction violation, finding that the adjudicated infringer had done all it could to withdraw from the other proceeding in China. Motorola Solutions, Inc. v. Hytera Communications Ltd., Case No. 24-1531 (7th Cir. Apr. 16, 2024) (Hamilton, Brennan, St. Eve., JJ.) (per curiam).

Motorola Solutions previously obtained a $500 million judgment against Hytera for trade secret misappropriation and infringement of copyrighted code used in Motorola’s two-way radio systems. Motorola subsequently brought contempt proceedings after Hytera launched a new line of two-way radio systems, asserting that the new radio systems also used the copyrighted code. As part of the contempt proceeding, the district court imposed an anti-suit injunction ordering Hytera to “refrain from further pursuing or enforcing in any way” a lawsuit that Hytera had filed in the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court in China seeking a declaratory judgment that the new line of radios did not infringe Motorola’s intellectual property.

After evidence emerged that Hytera continued to participate in the Chinese proceeding, the district court issued an order directing Hytera to withdraw from the Chinese proceeding. Just a few days later the district court issued an order finding that Hytera had violated the anti-suit injunction by continuing to participate in the Chinese proceeding and imposed contempt sanctions, including a worldwide suspension of Hytera’s sales of two-way radio products; a fine of $1 million per day; and worldwide notice of the sanctions and prohibitions to customers, distributors and others. A few days after the order issued, Hytera filed an appeal.

At the same time, Hytera filed a petition with the Chinese court seeking to withdraw the declaratory judgment action and seeking the return of all evidence from that court. Less than a week later, Motorola appeared before the Chinese court. Because of the anti-suit injunction, Hytera did not appear at the hearing. At the hearing, the Chinese court denied Hytera’s motion to withdraw. Later that same afternoon, the Chinese court summoned Hytera and thereafter issued a short order granting the motion to withdraw.

Despite the Chinese court’s decision to grant Hytera’s motion to withdraw, the district court did not lift the sanctions. The district court expressed concern about a scenario in which a written order “technically withdraws the action” but comes with “a whole series of other consequences that generates duplicative litigation . . . and thereby undermines the whole purpose of the anti-suit injunction and the subsequent contempt proceedings.” The district court also noted that Hytera had not yet produced a promised log of ex parte communications between it and the Chinese court, and thus the district court could not be sure that Hytera was not using the Chinese court’s ex parte procedure to push for a favorable written order behind closed doors. Under the pressure of the continued contempt sanctions, Hytera repeatedly asked the Chinese court to clarify the status and effect of the order granting its withdrawal.

On appeal before the [...]

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Late Expert Report Dooms Copyright Case

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit weighed in for a third time on an eight-year copyright battle, this time finding that a district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the plaintiff’s proposed expert or granting summary judgment to the defendant with respect to a copyright claim related to software. RJ Control Consultants, Inc., et al. v. Multiject, LLC, et al., Case No. 23-1591 (6th Cir. Apr. 3, 2024) (Siler, Cole, Mathis, JJ.)

This case concerns a copyright infringement claim filed by Paul Rogers through his company RJ Control Consultants (RJC) against his former friend Jack Elder, sole owner of Multiject. Multiject engineers and sells industrial accessories related to plastic injection molding. Rogers developed technical diagrams and software source code for a rotary turntable control system for Multiject. After Elder obtained copies of the code and drawings, he fired Rogers and hired a different company, RSW, to implement the technology. Rogers obtained copyright registrations for the code and drawings and filed suit against Elder, Multiject and RSW for copyright and trademark infringement, as well as certain state law claims.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on RJC’s copyright infringement and trademark infringement claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. RJC appealed the dismissal of its copyright infringement claim. In December 2020, in RJ Control I, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the decision regarding the technical drawings but reversed and remanded the copyright claim to the district court, finding that the software technology was complex and required an expert to answer material questions related to the functionality of the code.

On remand, the district court established deadlines for expert disclosures and for filing dispositive motions and motions challenging experts. Both parties timely served expert disclosures in which they identified the names of their respective experts, but neither side produced an expert report with their disclosures.

In April 2021, the district court extended the discovery and motions deadlines but not the expert disclosure deadline. The defendants moved to exclude RJC’s expert on the grounds that RJC failed to properly disclose the expert because RJC did not produce an expert report. The defendants also filed motions for summary judgment. The district court granted the defendants’ motions, finding that RJC “failed to put forth any expert evidence that identifies any specific portions of the code that they claim are protectible.” RJC appealed.

The Sixth Circuit dismissed the second appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction, finding that the district court’s decision was not final because the court had not disposed of Multiject and Elder’s counterclaim (RJ Control II). The case was remanded again. On remand, the district court dismissed the then-pending counterclaim. RJC appealed again.

RJC argued that the Sixth Circuit lacked jurisdiction to decide RJ Control I, just as it did in RJ Control II, because at that time the counterclaim remained pending in district court. The Court agreed and vacated its decision in RJ Control I, but then affirmed [...]

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Easy Tiger: Docuseries Summary Judgment Remanded for Further Fair Use Consideration

Addressing copyright fair use in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent guidance in Warhol, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit partially reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The Tenth Circuit held that the first fair use factor (the purpose and character of the use) weighed in favor of the plaintiffs and remanded for further consideration of the accused infringing work’s effect on the potential market for the copyrighted work. Whyte Monkee Productions, LLC; Timothy Sepi v. Netflix, Inc.; Royal Goode Productions, LLC, Case No. 22-6068 (10th Cir. Mar. 27, 2024) (Holmes, C.J.; Hartz, Carson, JJ.)

In 2020, Netflix and Royal Goode Productions (the defendants) released the popular multipart documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Tiger King included eight videos filmed by Timothy Sepi (the plaintiff), seven of which were filmed while Sepi was employed by the zoological park featured in the docuseries. The eighth video, a 24-minute recording of the funeral of Travis Maldonado (who was the husband of Joe Exotic, aka the Tiger King) was filmed by Sepi after his employment ended. After the release of Tiger King, the plaintiffs registered the copyrights for the eight videos and sued the defendants for copyright infringement.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, holding that Sepi did not own the copyright for the seven videos he filmed during his employment because they were “works made for hire” and that the defendant’s use of the eighth video was permissible fair use. The plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in holding that seven of the videos were works made for hire because Sepi’s scope of employment “did not extend to cinematography and film editing conducted on his own time.” The plaintiffs also argued that the district court incorrectly assessed each of the fair use factors in connection with the eighth video.

The Tenth Circuit swiftly affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the first seven videos, noting that the plaintiffs’ argument regarding the scope of Sepi’s employment was a new theory on appeal and therefore had been waived. Nonetheless, the Court reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants with respect to the eighth video, stating that the district court erred in concluding that the first and fourth fair use factors weighed in favor of the defendants.

As set forth in the Copyright Act, there are four nonexclusive factors to consider in assessing whether the use of a copyrighted work is protected fair use:

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used
  • The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Important here, the Tenth Circuit noted that all four factors should be weighed together “in light of the aim of copyright, which is ‘to promote the progress of science and the arts, [...]

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Strong Signal: Personal Jurisdiction Over Foreign Defendant Based on Confluence of Factors

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded that a district court had personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant’s website that purposefully targeted a US-based audience. DISH Network, LLC v. Bassam Elahmad, Case No. 23-20180 (5th Cir. Mar. 8, 2024) (Willett, Wilson, Ramirez, JJ.) (per curiam).

DISH Network sued Bassam Elahmad, a German resident doing business as Elahmad.com, for contributory copyright infringement, alleging that Elahmad unlawfully provided access to DISH’s copyrighted Arabic language channels. DISH alleged that Elahmad found, combined and organized illegal streams and loaded links onto Elahmad.com. DISH sent more than 60 copyright infringement notices to Elahmad, who never responded or removed the content. Although Elahmad resided in Germany, DISH argued that any court in the United States had jurisdiction over him under Fed. R of Civ. Pro. 4(k)(2) because his website reached into and targeted the US. DISH also argued that Elahmad was not subject to jurisdiction in any particular US state. The district court disagreed, concluding that it could not exercise personal jurisdiction over Elahmad because DISH’s complaint did not allege that any conduct had occurred in Texas. The district court twice denied DISH’s motions for default judgment and dismissed the complaint. DISH appealed.

The Fifth Circuit addressed the district court’s application of Rule 4(k)(2) and whether DISH had made a sufficient prima facie showing of specific personal jurisdiction to sustain its case.

Addressing Rule 4(k)(2), which provides personal jurisdiction in any US district court if a defendant is not otherwise subject to jurisdiction in a specific state, the Fifth Circuit clarified that for a finding of personal jurisdiction under this rule, the question is whether a defendant has sufficient minimum contact “with the entire United States, not a forum state.” The Fifth Circuit found that the district court’s analysis focused solely on Elahmad’s Texas contacts – not the entire US – and was therefore reversible error.

Turning to DISH’s burden to establish a prima facie case of personal jurisdiction, the Fifth Circuit noted that DISH had properly served Elahmad. DISH therefore only had to satisfy three other conditions: that its claims arose from federal law, that Elahmad was not subject to general jurisdiction in another state, and that exercising jurisdiction would be consistent with the US Constitution. The Court concluded that the first two conditions were easily met because copyright laws are federal and the burden to establish that another state has jurisdiction falls on the defendant. Elahmad had not answered the complaint or joined the appeal. Clearly, he had not met that burden.

The Fifth Circuit found that the third condition was “a closer question” that required consideration of whether Elahmad had sufficient ties to the US to satisfy constitutional due process concerns. Because DISH argued that the district court had only specific personal jurisdiction over the defendant (not general), DISH needed to show that Elahmad purposefully availed himself of “the privilege of conducting activities in the United States,” that DISH’s claim arose out of those contacts, and that it would be [...]

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Gentlemen, Start Your Engines: Even Bland Works Support Copyright

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed an award of profit disgorgement and attorneys’ fees in a copyright infringement case, holding that even “workaday” or “humdrum” subject matter can support a valid copyright. Premier Dealer Servs. Inc. v. Allegiance Adm’rs LLC, Case No. 23-3394 (6th Cir. Feb. 26, 2024) (Sutton, C.J.; Clay, Bloomekatz, JJ.)

Premier and Allegiance both administered car dealers’ loyalty programs. Customers enrolled in these programs were required to meet certain conditions (such as changing the car’s oil at predetermined intervals), and if a part under warranty broke, the dealer would help the car owner initiate a claim through the loyalty program administrator. In conjunction with administering these programs, Premier created a loyalty certificate. The certificate collected the customer’s personal information and provided the program’s terms and conditions. Premier registered its certificate for copyright protection in 2008.

In 2018, Tricolor – one of Premier’s large, long-standing customers – switched its program to Allegiance. When Allegiance took over, it repurposed Premier’s loyalty certificate by simply updating the administrator’s contact information. Allegiance and Tricolor continued to use the otherwise unaltered certificate. Premier sued for copyright infringement.

The district court found that the certificate’s “dull” subject matter did not preclude copyright protection, enjoined Allegiance from further copyright infringement, and awarded Premier disgorgement of Allegiance’s profits as well as attorneys’ fees, totaling more than $1 million. Allegiance appealed, challenging the certificate’s copyrightability and the damages calculations.

As to the copyrightability of the certificate, the Sixth Circuit explained that while copyright requires originality, it is a low threshold that can be shown by making “non-obvious choices” or evidencing some creative spark. “[A]rtistic merit” is not necessarily required. The Court noted three categories that copyrights will not cover:

  • Facts that already exist in the world (although the expression of facts may be copyrightable)
  • Merger, “when there is only a single way to express a given set of facts” and
  • Scenes a faire, in which industry norms require expressing facts in a particular way.

Premier’s copyright was registered and therefore presumed valid, meaning the burden was on Allegiance to rebut that presumption. The Sixth Circuit rejected Allegiance’s challenge to the originality of Premier’s copyright, primarily because copyrights “protect all manner of works – mundane or lofty . . . so long as they satisfy the modest imperatives of originality.” Allegiance argued that Premier’s forms collected client information in a way that was unoriginal, because there was only one way to collect the information (merger) and because the layout was typical for the industry (scenes a faire). The Court looked to areas in which Premier indicated creativity, noting that its forms differed from other loyalty program certificates in evidence. Further, Premier made the creative choice to allow program members to select from various schedules for oil changes, instead of a single predetermined timetable. This and other evidence suggested choice, ideas and creativity, despite the functionality of the loyalty certificates.

The Sixth Circuit hinted at how Allegiance might have better established the [...]

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Rock On: Clichéd Song Themes Don’t Infringe Copyright

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment grant to an alleged song copier, finding neither evidence of factual copying nor striking similarity between the two songs. Kirk Johnston v. Chad Kroeger et al., Case No. 23-50254 (5th Cir. Feb. 19, 2024) (Jones, Haynes, Douglas, JJ.) (per curiam) (non-precedential).

Kirk Johnston is a musician and songwriter who plays guitar for the Texas rock band Snowblind (now called Snowblind Revival). In 2001, he wrote a song called “Rock Star.” Four years later, the Canadian rock band Nickelback released a song called “Rockstar” that became one of its most popular singles. In 2020, Johnston sued Nickelback, its record label and its music publishing company for copyright infringement. Nickelback moved for summary judgment, and the district court referred the motion to a magistrate judge. The judge recommended summary judgment in favor of Nickelback, finding no genuine dispute of material fact as to factual copying and finding that the two songs did not sound alike. The district court accepted the magistrate judge’s recommendation and dismissed Johnston’s infringement claim. Johnston appealed.

The Fifth Circuit reviewed the motion of summary judgment de novo. With respect to the element of factual copying, Nickelback’s members and executives claimed that they had never even heard of Johnston’s song. The Court found Johnston’s circumstantial evidence that Nickelback had access to his song unpersuasive. Johnston said that access could be inferred from the fact that the two bands were “moving in relatively the same circles” and that executives associated with Nickelback likely attended Snowblind’s shows. The Court said that Johnston’s arguments regarding the likelihood that Nickelback had access to his song “Rock Star” required “leaps of logic” not supported by the record and were “mere speculation.”

Johnston also unsuccessfully argued that the district court erred by not applying the “more discerning ordinary observer test” and by considering all versions of the songs on the record rather than just the “stripped down” versions. The Fifth Circuit pointed out that those standards only apply under a substantial similarity analysis, which requires a plaintiff to establish factual copying. Because there was no proof of access, much less copying, Johnston had to show a “striking similarity” between his song and Nickelback’s hit.

Johnston argued that his expert demonstrated that there were clear lyrical and musical similarities between the hooks of the songs, both of which concern the desire to be a rock star. However, the Fifth Circuit noted that the expert’s analysis was unpersuasive as to both the musical and lyrical similarities; concluding that neither was sufficiently similar to preclude all explanations but copying. The other themes in the song that Johnston pointed to as strikingly similar were “making lots of money,” “connections to famous people” and “references to sports.” The Court pointed out that as a general matter, those categories “are mere clichés of being a rockstar that are not unique to the rock genre.” As the Court put it, “[s]inging about being a rockstar is not [...]

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Yo-Ho-No Vicarious Liability for Online Piracy Without Financial Benefit

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed-in-part, vacated-in-part and affirmed in part a district court decision that found an internet service provider liable for $1 billion in damages for vicarious and contributory copyright infringement. Sony Music Entm’t., et al. v. Cox Commc’ns, Inc., Case No. 21-1168 (4th Cir. Feb. 20, 2024) (Harris, Rushing, JJ., Floyd, Sr. J.) (per curiam).

Sony Music along with 52 other music companies filed suit against Cox Communications in July 2018, alleging both contributory and vicarious liability based on copyright infringement by Cox’s customers. Sony argued that Cox knew that some of its customers used its service to download or distribute songs over the internet without permission but chose not to cancel their subscriptions. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) created a safe harbor for internet service providers in such circumstances but a prior case against Cox held that it did not qualify for the safe harbor because “its repeat infringer policy as implemented was inadequate under the DMCA.” In the present case, the jury found Cox liable for vicarious and contributory infringement of all 10,017 copyrighted works alleged to have been infringed and found that Cox’s infringement was willful. The jury awarded Sony more than $99,000 per work infringed, totaling $1 billion in statutory damages. Cox appealed.

The appeal garnered noteworthy amici in support of both sides. Cox was supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Library Association and the Center for Democracy and Technology, among others. Sony was supported by the National Music Publishers’ Association, the Songwriters of North America, the Nashville Songwriters Association International and the Copyright Alliance.

Cox raised many questions of law concerning the scope of secondary liability and what constitutes a compilation or derivative work in the digital age. The Fourth Circuit upheld the jury verdict finding Cox liable for contributory copyright infringement, rejecting Cox’s arguments that its service was also used for lawful activity and that its contribution must amount to aiding and abetting the infringement. The Court explained that “supplying a product with knowledge that the recipient will use it to infringe copyrights is exactly the sort of conduct sufficient for contributory infringement.” The Court concluded that the jury saw sufficient evidence that Cox knew specific users were repeatedly infringing but chose not to terminate their service.

The Fourth Circuit, however, reversed the jury’s verdict of vicarious liability, finding that Cox did not profit from its subscribers’ acts of infringement and so did not meet the legal prerequisite for that form of secondary liability. Reviewing landmark cases on vicarious liability, the Court explained that “the crux of the financial benefit inquiry is whether a causal relationship exists between the infringing activity and a financial benefit to the defendant . . . the financial benefit to the defendant must flow directly from the third party’s acts of infringement to establish vicarious liability.” Since Sony failed to show that Cox profited from its subscribers’ infringing activity, it failed to establish vicarious liability.

The [...]

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Copyrightability? Think Outside the Checkbox

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s judgment that a customer intake form was not copyrightable because it lacked requisite originality. Ronald Ragan, Jr. v. Berkshire Hathaway Automotive, Inc., Case No. 22-3355 (8th Cir. Feb. 2, 2024) (Grasz, Smith, Gruender, JJ.)

Ronald Ragan claimed that he owned the Guest Sheet, a form he designed to aid car dealerships in their sales processes. The form, registered with the US Copyright Office in 1999, included various questions, prompts, headings, fill-in-the-blank lines and checkboxes. Ragan initially accused an auto dealership of copying and using the Guest Sheet. However, subsequent legal action regarding the dealership’s alleged infringement was dismissed because of jurisdictional issues.

Five years later, Berkshire Hathaway Automotive acquired the dealership. Berkshire Hathaway continued to use the Guest Sheet post-acquisition despite Ragan’s objections. Allegedly, Berkshire Hathaway agreed to modify the form but continued to use it, prompting Ragan to initiate a copyright infringement lawsuit. Berkshire Hathaway moved for judgment on the pleadings, contending that the Guest Sheet was not copyrightable. After the district court granted the motion, Ragan appealed.

Ragan argued that the district court erroneously found the Guest Sheet uncopyrightable. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, stating that the Guest Sheet lacked the necessary originality to qualify for copyright protection. Despite Ragan’s contentions regarding the form’s sophistication distilled from years of experience, the Court found it to be a basic customer intake sheet with minimal creativity, consisting of simple questions, prompts and checkboxes and totaling fewer than 100 words. Citing and quoting from the 1991 Supreme Court decision in Feist Publ’ns. v. Rural Tel. Serv., the Eighth Circuit explained that to be copyrightable, a work must possess a minimal degree of originality: “To meet this [originality] requirement, a work must be ‘independently created by the author (as opposed to copied from other works), and . . . possess[] at least some minimal degree of creativity.’”

The Eighth Circuit rejected Ragan’s argument that the selection and arrangement of words on the Guest Sheet constituted sufficient originality, emphasizing the need for creativity beyond mere selection. The Court also noted that the Guest Sheet primarily served as a tool for collecting information rather than conveying substantial content, further diminishing its claim to copyright protection.

Ragan also argued that the Guest Sheet’s copyright registration certificate afforded it a presumption of validity. However, the Eighth Circuit rebuffed this argument noting that Berkshire’s challenge to Guest Sheet’s copyrightability could be based solely on examination of the form itself, notwithstanding the presumption of validity attendant to the registration certificate.

Practice Note: This decision highlights the importance of demonstrating substantial creativity in crafting documents for potential copyright protection and emphasizes that mere selection and arrangement of words may not suffice. Legal proceedings can hinge on the functionality and purpose of a document, as evidenced by the court’s distinction between information-conveying and information-capturing forms in determining copyrightability.




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