Court Says Album Is A Single Work For Copyright Purposes; Each Song Is NOT Separate Infringement

from the interesting... dept

In a somewhat surprising case, the Second Circuit appeals court has ruled that infringing on a full album only counts as a single infringement for the sake of statutory damages, rather than counting each song separately. In an era when juries are awarding the record labels $1.92 million for an album’s worth of songs being infringed (and industry apologists claim this is totally reasonable), it’s nice to see a court recognize how ridiculous this is. As Eric Goldman notes in the link above, this is a situation where a company “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” It won the lawsuit, and while the court suggested it settle, it kept demanding an award of over $1 million $6 million, by claiming each song was a separate infringement and that each infringement deserved the statutory max of $150,000 per infringement (despite the fact that the amount of actual infringement involved was minimal — totally $331 accidentally not paid to the client).

That’s what happens when you use statutory damages for copyright infringement being totally out of line with common sense. Copyright holders start dreaming of a legal windfall. Thankfully, the court said no way, noting that each album (there were two) only were eligible for a single statutory damage claim, and that the infringement was “innocent infringement,” lowering the awards even more. The total amount awarded: $2,400 — or significantly less than the copyright holder most likely spent on legal fees. The court seemed to recognize the blatant greed in the copyright holder:

Appellees also were reasonable in trying to resolve the case short of trial: Appellees made an Offer of Judgment in the amount of $3000, which Appellants rejected, in favor of continuing to demand over $1 million in damages, notwithstanding the evidence that Appellees had received less than $600 in revenues from infringing sales.

Of course, the news might not be all bad for the record labels. Eriq Gardner is suggesting that some labels may read the decision in a way that will help them prevent artists from terminating their copyright assignments and taking back control over their works. Many musicians have been preparing to take back their copyrights through the somewhat complex system of copyright termination, which lets original copyright holders reclaim works they assigned to others after a certain period of time. The labels have been fighting this for years, famously having a Congressional staffer sneak four words into an unrelated bill late at night, to make all music ineligible for such termination rights, by calling it a “work for hire.” That Congressional staffer was then hired for a cushy job at the RIAA a few months later. However, the outrage from musicians finally got Congress to rescind that change.

But it hasn’t stopped the industry from looking for ways to prevent termination rights — including trying to claim that a remastered version of a song should get a new copyright, separate from the old one. And, don’t be surprised if they try to use this ruling in their favor as well. As Gardner notes, even though this ruling was over a totally different issue (damages for infringement), the current definition of a “work for hire” includes “compilations,” and the judge’s ruling in this case points that an album is a single infringement because it’s considered a compilation. And, so, the argument goes, the record labels may have just been given a judge to quote on why albums are compilations… and thus works made for hire… and thus not eligible for termination rights. Fun stuff.

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Comments on “Court Says Album Is A Single Work For Copyright Purposes; Each Song Is NOT Separate Infringement”

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13 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

this would be a judgement likely to be appealed. there is little value to copyright holders to protect their claims if the damages awarded are less than what the process itself costs. it should be clear that the process to show violation is in fact a damage, as without the infringement, no money would need to be spent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“there is little value to copyright holders to protect their claims if the damages awarded are less than what the process itself costs.”

TAM, you’re missing the point. The point is that the person offered a reasonable settlement amount to begin with, had the plaintiff accepted that settlement amount they would have been compensated for their infringement and not payed ridiculous court fees. But the plaintiff continued the lawsuit and if it is determined that the defendant already offered reasonable payment for their infringement, then why should the defendant have to pay for the legal fees just because the plaintiff made a bad decision and decided to continue pursuing the issue.

It’s like if I accidentally hit your car with my car and I offer to pay it and the damages only cost $300 but you demand $4 million instead and I refuse and so you sue me and the judge awards you $300, the cost of the damages, why should I also have to pay your $800 lawyer fees on top of that just because you decided to make a bad decision to begin with?

William says:

Depends on the copyright

This whole thing sounds a bit off.
Depending on the copyright applied for, one can indeed copyright every song individually or as a “complete works” set (often used as an album). It seems odd for a judge to assume only one form is valid, when both forms have long legal standing.

Either way, the important part isn’t that: it’s that sharing of software, games, music, and film has an unjustly high punishment cost to it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Depends on the copyright

and claiming “rights” to something that you don’t have rights to has a comparatively low cost to it and that itself is wrong because you are in a better position to know what copyrights you “own” than anyone else is and for you to expect others to know when you don’t even know is ridiculous. This is especially true when copyright is opt out and no one can magically know what works are and aren’t protected.

Angela (profile) says:

any fair use repercussions?

what I wonder is will this potentially have repercussions on whether an entire album is considered a single work when doing a fair use analysis? Currently we consider each song to be a full work. But it would really help educators, particular music teachers, if it was the album that was the entire work. This is of course assuming this decision isn’t overturned later on.

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