Sound Engineer Must Pay Jay-Z $195K after Failed Copyright Case

A New York federal judge ordered a sound engineer to pay hip-hop artist Jay-Z and his company, Roc-A-Fella Records, close to $195,000 in legal fees after finding that the engineer’s copyright lawsuit was unreasonable.

Background

Sound EngineerChauncey Mahan worked as a sound engineer on three albums produced by Roc-A-Fella and featuring Jay-Z (born Shawn Carter) during 1999 and 2000. Mahan contributed to 41 sound recordings.

After the recording sessions, Mahan still possessed computer hard drives and storage peripherals containing records and mixes that weren’t released to the public, as well as copies of the album versions. He told Roc-A-Fella at the time that he had these “unpublished joint works” but the company didn’t respond.

Flash forward to 2014, when the lawyer for Roc Nation (a “full-service entertainment company” also founded by Jay-Z) was told to meet Mahan at his storage unit. They spent hours inventorying the “valuable items” in Mahan’s possession.

Jay-Z then told his lawyer to contact the local police and convince them that Mahan should be arrested for possession of stolen property.

The LA Police Department subsequently seized items from Mahan’s storage unit, but Mahan wasn’t arrested or charged with any crimes.

The Lawsuit

Shortly after the seizure, Mahan claimed a “joint copyright ownership interest” in the sound recordings and filed suit against Jay-Z and his companies.

The defendants moved to dismiss.

According to the defendants, Mahan “attempted to wrongfully extract a large sum of money in exchange for the return of computer sound files and backup tapes relating” to the albums and

When that scheme failed, [Mahan] decided to invoke Plan B—an equally misguided attempt to use the Copyright Act as the path to his desired windfall.

According to the defendants,

Lacking any documentary support for any of his ownership claims, [Mahan] self-servingly alleges that because hip-hop music is an “intrinsically collaborative musical form,” the creators of the Albums “had the collegial intent to collaborate with Petitioner” to create works of joint authorship. [cite] However, [Mahan] admits that he never had a written agreement with Roc-A-Fella, and that he and Mr. Carter never discussed the issue of copyright ownership of the sound recordings or any contractual arrangements. [cite] Further, the Petition fails to plausibly allege any verbal agreements between [Mahan] and Roc-A-Fella.

Statute of Limitations

Even if there was such an agreement, as the court noted, civil actions under the US Copyright Act are subject to a three-year statute of limitations.

The court found that it was clear any claims Mahan had as “joint copyright owner” accrued more than three years before he brought suit because he was on notice that he’d been “omitted” as a joint copyright owner:

  • Roc-A-Fella recorded its copyrights in the albums in 2000, and Mahan wasn’t listed as a joint owner.
  • The copyright notices on the albums’ packaging don’t list Mahan as a joint owner.
  • The fact that Mahan wasn’t sent any royalties shows that no one considered him a joint owner.

Mahan also argued that even if Roc-A-Fella owned the copyright to the final versions of the albums, it didn’t own the rights to any unpublished recordings created in connection with the production of the albums. The court rejected this argument, as

Courts have “consistently rejected” the “notion that a copyright owner is required to separately register every draft or version of an evolving work, as “[s]uch a requirement would be wasteful and impractical.”

In April, the judge dismissed the case.

Mahan appealed.

In July, the judge ordered Mahan to pay Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella close to $195,000, with another $59,000 to Roc Nation, finding that his case was plainly time-barred and thus “objectively unreasonable.”

The order is here.

If you believe you have a copyright claim…

If you believe you have a claim for copyright infringement, it’s important to bring it within the three-year period of the statute. It’s also important to have a well-grounded claim. As this case illustrates, filing a complaint that a court considers “unreasonable” can be very expensive.

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