Songwriter Wins Copyright Case In Spite Of Herself
from the incredible dept
A few weeks back, the NY Times had the story of a copyright lawsuit in NY that is really quite incredible on a few points. It was a “pro se” lawsuit (i.e., filed by a woman on behalf of herself, without a lawyer) in which she made a ton of mistakes — such that the court got noticeably upset with how she dealt with the case, and later sanctioned her… and yet she still “won” the case. But even that victory may turn out to be Pyrrhic in the long run. Pro se cases can often be quite nutty, but this one takes it to another level. In this case, the woman, Peggy Harley, a songwriter, sued a bunch of folks, but mainly singer Ann Nesby and indie record label Shanachie, for supposedly infringing on the copyright to a song that Harley wrote and recorded in 2002 (though she didn’t bother to register the copyright until 2008). She demanded millions in damages (and went with actual damages rather than statutory — which you don’t often see). As the NY Times reports, this was basically a comedy of errors:
“My lifes work was stolen from me,” she wrote in a 13-page complaint riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors. “I am afflicted with pain and suffering and emotional distress.”
But Ms. Harley proceeded to do just about everything possible to sabotage her own claim.
She failed to appear for hearings or showed up late. Judges accused her of interrupting them, filing frivolous motions, disobeying court orders and refusing to participate in the discovery process. She accused judges of bias.
She was admonished in court, ordered to pay about $13,000 in sanctions and even barred from using certain evidence.
One particularly exasperated judge observed: “The world is going to end someday, and my job is to try to see that this case gets adjudicated before the world ends.”
But then… she won. Well, at least the copyright part. A different judge granted summary judgment, claiming that the two songs were similar enough. To be honest, Harley should be amazingly thankful that the judge sided with her here. Going through the docket in this case, Harley appears to have done pretty much everything possible to antagonize the judge. Below I’ve embedded (among other things) a transcript of a hearing to respond to Harley’s request to have the judge removed from the case for bias. Harley showed up 20 minutes late, after the judge explained why such a removal was not reasonable and highlighted that her request was based on “frivolous and ad hominem attacks.” When Harley eventually did show up, she challenged the judge repeatedly, despite her clear annoyance at the situation. Here’s how the hearing ended, though reading the whole thing (it’s not that long) is worthwhile:
MS. HARLEY: Yes. For the record, why am I not entitled to have you disqualified as a judge?
THE COURT: Ms. Harley, had you been here on time, you would have heard. Now we actually waited until 10:15.
MS. HARLEY: But I’m here now, and for the record, I’d like to have you disqualified.
THE COURT: For the record, I will repeat it to you. In this one instance I will tell you why your motion was baseless and entirely frivolous, but there is a transcript of this proceeding. Your motion indicates that this case was somehow assigned to me in a way that evidences partiality. It was not.
MS. HARLEY: Pardon me? I’m sorry. I don’t understand that. Could you repeat that.
THE COURT: I will repeat what I’m going to say one time, and then we are going to adjourn.
Your motion indicated that this matter was assigned to me in some way that evidenced my partiality. It was not. That I was somehow showing bias.
I will not entertain questions.
MS. HARLEY: Why?
THE COURT: I will not entertain questions. Your motion also indicated that the manner of the removal of the reference also indicated some sort of bias. Everything that has been done in this matter has proceeded according to the routine practice for all matters that have come to me.
MS. HARLEY: Objection.
THE COURT: That is it, counsel. We are adjourned on this matter. Thank you.
MS. HARLEY: Objection.
THE CLERK: All rise.
The order (pdf) about sanctions against Harper detail a rather incredible pattern of absolute refusal to actually comply with basic discovery processes, which indicate that Harley appears to believe she could withhold evidence she planned to use at trial. End result? Despite her attempts to get out of it, she was told to pay over $13,000 in sanctions.
And she still “won.”
The judge basically said that despite all of this the two songs were similar enough (though not identical) and there was enough evidence to suggest that the defendants had access to the song (Harley had given copies of the song to someone who was thanked on the album). While the actual songs may be similar, even the “similarities” in terms of lyrics seem pretty damn generic to me. The judge notes the following lyrics as infringing:
(1) Never meant to hurt you/Never meant to cause you pain;
(2) Sorry baby/Sorry that I hurt you; and
(3) I will never hurt you again/It will never happen again.
It’s hard to come up with three more generic musical lyrics. In fact, a quick search on LyricFind of “never meant to hurt you” turns up 180 songs with that lyric. “Sorry that I hurt you” gets 25 songs. “Never happen again” shows up in 84 songs. That doesn’t mean that this wasn’t necessarily infringing, but damn are those generic lyrics that are found in an awfully large number of songs.
It’s really quite amazing that she won the summary judgment.
And, of course, looking over the docket, it’s just full of crazyness. It’s not worth going through it all, but aspects of the case have continued since the summary judgment ruling, including Harley trying to appeal certain things, only to be told by the judge that “there is no basis for an appeal at this time. Plaintiff must await a final judgment.”
In the end, it’s entirely possible that there was infringement here. Certainly the judge — despite all of the problems with Harley’s actions in the case — felt the songs were similar enough to grant summary judgment. But if you’re looking for a guide in how not to go about a lawsuit, this seems to be it.