Fifth Circuit: Beyonce song does not infringe songwriter’s copyrightDecember 26, 2007

In a decision last week, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court's grant of summary judgment of no copyright infringement. A plaintiff brought suit against the singer Beyoncé Knowles and several parties with whom she is associated alleging that Beyoncé's song "Baby Boy" infringed the plaintiff's work. The district court granted summary judgment of noninfringement based on a lack of substantial similarity.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed, but on the grounds that the plaintiff had not proven access to the copyrighted work. The plaintiff's responses to Beyoncé's requests for admissions foreclosed most of her theories of access, and the remaining theories were too speculative to survive summary judgment. As a result, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment of noninfringement.

Jennifer Armour, an aspiring singer and songwriter, composed a demo tape that she hoped would help advance her career. The material on the tape included an instrumental version of her song, "Got a Little Bit of Love for You" (hereinafter "Little Bit of Love"). On February 12, 2003, Armour registered a copyright of an a cappella version of "Little Bit of Love." On May 1, 2006, she registered a copyright of an instrumental version of the same song. Sometime between January and March 2003, Armour's manager sent copies of the tape to a number of people thought to be associated with Beyoncé Knowles. There was no response, and none of the tapes were returned. Meanwhile, in February 2003, Beyoncé recorded song entitled "Baby Boy." After finishing in the studio, Beyoncé added a guest artist, who contributed a section to the song and it was commercially released June 24, 2003. Armour after being struck by the similarities between the two songs, filed a suit for copyright infringement against Beyoncé, her record label and various other parties involved in the creation and distribution of "Baby Boy" (all defendants hereinafter collectively referred to as "Beyoncé"). Beyoncé successfully moved for summary judgment of noninfringement. The district court concluded that no reasonable jury could find the two songs substantially similar. The court also awarded Beyoncé costs.The Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment, and dismissed the appeal of an order awarding costs. Armour tried to establish copyright infringement by proving access and substantial similarity. While the district court granted summary judgment on the grounds of no substantial similarity, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment on the grounds that Armour had not proven access, and did not reach the question of substantial similarity.The court noted that to establish access, a plaintiff must prove that "the person who created the allegedly infringing work had a reasonable opportunity to view the copyrighted work" before creating the infringing work. The court also noted that "[a] bare possibility will not suffice; neither will a finding of access based on speculation or conjecture."Armour suggested four means by which Beyoncé allegedly had access to her demo before composing the relevant portion of "Baby Boy" on February 13. She claimed that the song was sent to Beyoncé's father and manager; to an executive at Beyoncé's record publisher, Sony Music; to an executive at Atlantic Records, the label of Beyoncé's collaborator Sean Paul; and to a mysterious man known as "T-Bone," who Armour contends was a "friend" of Beyoncé's.Noting that the question of when Beyoncé had access to Armour's demo tape remains a heavily disputed, the court noted that the dispute is almost entirely eclipsed by Armour's response to Beyoncé's request for admissions. In her responses, Armour stated that the demo tapes were sent or given to three of the four associates in late February or early March 2003. The binding date of "late February or early March" makes access impossible under the first three scenarios, because Beyoncé created the allegedly infringing portion of "Baby Boy" by February 13.The only remaining associate, then was T-bone which the court held was "the weakest of Armour's theories," because the nature of T-Bone's relationship with Beyoncé was not established in the record. Armour relied solely on the affidavit of her manager in which he stated his personal belief that T-Bone and Beyoncé were good friends. The only other evidence in the affidavit was a suggestion that Beyoncé and T-Bone had worked together on a movie set in the past and that T-Bone had played one of Armour's previous demo tapes for everyone on the set to hear. The court noted that: "Not surprisingly, the record contains no affidavit from, or deposition of, T-Bone."The court held that even construed in the light most favorable to Armour, "the T-Bone theory requires too much speculation and conjecture on which to rest the conclusion that Beyoncé had a reasonable opportunity for access. The court thus affirmed the summary judgment rejecting all four theories of access. The court also dismissed the appeal of the lower courts' award of costs to Beyoncé. The award was issued nearly two months after the summary judgment order, and a separate notice of appeal was not filed on the issue.To read the full decision in Armour v. Knowles, click here.

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