Justia U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Copyright
by
In 1999, Hiller, the largest home-services company in Tennessee, became a paying “member” of Success Group, which offers management advice and customer-service training to home-services companies. Clockwork owned Success, which conducted training courses using manuals copyrighted by Clockwork. Hiller sent its employees to those courses; they had access to the Manuals. In 2014, Clockwork sold Success to Aquila. Clockwork retained ownership of the Manual copyrights but granted Aquila a perpetual license. In 2015, Hiller hired the Pike Group to create the Guide for use in place of the Manuals to train its technicians. Pike had no expertise in the home-services industry; to learn what Hiller wanted, Pike conducted a workshop attended by Hiller employees and representatives of Aquila and Success. The participants referred to at least one of the Manuals.The resulting Guide included some content taken directly from the Manuals. In 2016, Success conducted a class using a workbook that closely resembled the Guide. Hiller ended its Success membership, demanded that Success stop using the workbook, registered its copyright in the Guide, and sued Success for copyright infringement. Clockwork was allowed to intervene.A jury concluded that Hiller had a valid copyright in the Guide and that the Success workbook copied protected elements of the Guide. Clockwork’s request for declaratory relief invalidating Hiller’s copyright was rejected. The Third Circuit affirmed. The jury reasonably concluded that Hiller created enough original material to gain copyright protection and the jury was correctly instructed that the Guide’s incorporation of some Clockwork-copyrighted content did not invalidate Hiller’s copyright in the Guide’s original parts. View "Hiller, LLC v. Success Group International Learning Alliance, LLC" on Justia Law

by
Carrier manufactures residential Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems. ECIMOS produced the quality-control system that tested completed HVAC units at the end of Carrier’s assembly line. ECIMOS alleged that Carrier infringed on its copyright on its database-script source code—a part of ECIMOS’s software that stores test results. ECIMOS alleges that Carrier improperly used the database and copied certain aspects of the code to aid a third-party’s development of new testing software that Carrier now employs in its Collierville, Tennessee manufacturing facility.ECIMOS won a $7.5 million jury award. The court reduced Carrier’s total damages liability to $6,782,800; enjoined Carrier from using its new database, but stayed the injunction until Carrier could develop a new, non-infringing database subject to the supervision of a special master; and enjoined Carrier from disclosing ECIMOS’s trade secrets while holding that certain elements of ECIMOS’s system were not protectable as trade secrets (such as ECIMOS’s assembled hardware). The Sixth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. There are sufficient reasons to conclude that Carrier did infringe on ECIMOS’s copyright, but Carrier’s liability to ECIMOS based on its copyright infringement and its breach of contract can total no more than $5,566,050. The district court did not err when it crafted its post-trial injunctions. View "ECIMOS, LLC v. Carrier Corp." on Justia Law

by
Enchant produces a holiday-themed light show, which it exhibits across the U.S. and Canada. “Enchant Christmas,” features large three-dimensional sculptures fitted with lights, including sculptures of polar bears, deer, and ice crystals. Enchant obtained copyright registrations for several sculptures. Wallain worked with Enchant and had access to design files used to construct Enchant’s light sculptures. Wallain and Glowco discussed producing an Enchant Christmas light show in Nashville. The parties could not strike an agreement. Wallain and Glowco decided to pursue a Nashville light show without Enchant, purchased some sculptures from Enchant, and solicited manufacturers in China to produce additional light sculptures. Wallain sent two-dimensional images of Enchant’s sculptures, obtained from Enchant’s files, to solicit bids.Enchant sued, alleging copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, and violation of the Tennessee Personal and Commercial Computer Act. The district court concluded, after comparing the designs of the disputed sculptures, that any copyright-protected interest in Enchant’s sculptures was “very thin” and that numerous differences between the sculptures would be clear to an ordinary observer. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Qualities of Enchant’s sculptures that are inherent in the chosen subject—animal sculpture—are not subject to copyright protection. To the extent that Enchant’s sculptures contained some original work warranting protection, Enchant had "thin copyright at best." Most of the similarities identified by Enchant are inherent to the subject matter, including animal features and naturally occurring poses. View "Enchant Christmas Light Maze & Market, Inc. v. Glowco LLC" on Justia Law

by
In 1960, the Everly Brothers (Don and Phil) recorded, released, and copyrighted "Cathy’s Clown" and two other songs (the Compositions), granting the copyrights to Acuff-Rose. The original copyrights listed Phil and Don as authors; both received royalties. They were both credited as authors of Cathy’s Clown in 1961 and 1975 awards. They took joint credit for authoring the song in a 1972 television interview. In a 1980 “Release and Assignment,” Phil agreed to release to Don all of his rights to the Compositions, including “every claim of every nature by him as to the compositions of said songs.” Don subsequently received all royalty payments and public credit as the author; Acuff-Rose changed its business records to reflect Don as sole author. Licenses and credits for Cathy’s Clown and a 1988 copyright renewal listed Don as the only author. Both brothers nonetheless made public statements continuing to credit Phil as a co-author. In 2011, Don sought to execute his 17 U.S.C. 304(c) right to termination to regain copyright ownership from Acuff-Rose, claiming exclusive copyright ownership. Phil exercised termination rights as to other compositions, in 2007 and 2012, but never attempted to terminate any grant related to the 1960 Compositions.After Phil’s 2014 death, his children filed notices of termination as to the 1960 Grants, seeking to regain Phil’s rights to Cathy’s Clown. In 2016, they served a notice of termination as to Phil’s 1980 Assignment to Don. The district court granted Don summary judgment, finding that the claim of Phil’s co-authorship was barred by the statute of limitations. The Sixth Circuit reversed, finding a genuine factual dispute as to whether Don expressly repudiated Phil’s co-authorship, and thus triggered the statute of limitations, no later than 2011. View "Everly v. Everly" on Justia Law

by
In 1965, in Memphis, Tennessee, Plaintiffs wrote the song Ain’t That a Lot of Love and registered it with the U.S.Copyright Office. The following year, in London, England, brothers Mervyn and Steve Winwood, members of the Spencer Davis Group, wrote the song Gimme Some Lovin’, which was also registered with the Copyright Office. "Ain’t" fell flat. "Gimme" reached the second spot in the U.K. and the seventh spot in the U.S. Fifty-one years later, Plaintiffs sued the Winwoods for copyright infringement, 17 U.S.C. 504, claiming the Winwoods lifted the bass line from Ain’t That a Lot of Love. The defendants claimed no one in the Group had heard the song before writing Gimme Some Lovin’. Plaintiffs argued that the Group could have copied the bass line during a 21-day window between "Ain’t That’s" debut and the commercial release of Gimme. The court ruled that documents Plaintiffs sought to rely on to show direct evidence of copying were inadmissible under the rule against hearsay and that Mervyn did not have enough of a connection with Tennessee to exercise jurisdiction over him. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Plaintiffs presented no admissible evidence that created a genuine issue of material fact over whether Winwood copied "Ain’t That." Exercising jurisdiction over Mervyn would conflict with due process because he has not purposely availed himself of the privilege of acting in Tennessee. View "Parker v. Winwood" on Justia Law

by
In 2012, Smith, a recording artist called Bigg Robb, wrote and recorded “Looking for a Country Girl” and registered his copyright. Thomas, called Bishop Bullwinkle, another Southern Soul musician, used the first 12 seconds of "Looking" as the beat for a new song, Hell 2 Da Naw Naw, without Smith’s permission or giving Smith credit. When the two were performing at the same venue, Smith, in his dressing room, “heard one of [his] songs playing” and rushed out to see Thomas performing Hell 2. Smith confronted Thomas, who admitted to sampling. As the two negotiated, Hell 2 went viral. Thomas uploaded a music video, which got millions of views, and articles were written about his “meteoric rise.” Eventually, Thomas stopped acknowledging Smith’s contribution. He publicly accused Smith of being a liar. Smith sued. Both parties represented themselves. Thomas did not appear at trial: he only filed a two-page answer to Smith’s complaint and two short conclusory letters. He ignored discovery requests. Smith gave a thorough presentation with supporting exhibits and played both songs. Smith explained that he had only a “guesstimation” of damages based on Hell 2’s YouTube views and Thomas’s public performances. The court awarded him 50% ownership rights in Hell 2 (and any derivatives) and enjoined Thomas from further infringement; found that Smith had not presented sufficient evidence to show actual damages but had “elected” statutory damages, 17 U.S.C. 504(c), and awarded Smith $30,000, substantially less than he requested. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Smith made multiple statements that clearly indicated his intent to seek statutory damages. View "Smith v. Thomas" on Justia Law

by
Team sells materials to help individuals profit in multi-level marketing businesses. Doe anonymously runs the “Amthrax” blog, in which he criticizes multi-level marketing companies and Team. Doe posted a hyperlink to a downloadable copy of the entirety of “The Team Builder’s Textbook,” copyrighted by Team. After Team served the blog’s host with a take-down notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 512, Doe removed the hyperlink. Team filed suit, seeking only injunctive relief and that the court identify Doe. Doe asserted fair-use and copyright-misuse defenses and that he has a First Amendment right to speak anonymously. The court ultimately entered summary judgment for Team, found that unmasking Doe “was unnecessary to ensure that defendant would not engage in future infringement” and that “defendant has already declared ... that he has complied with the proposed injunctive relief” by destroying the copies of the Textbook in his possession such that “no further injunctive relief is necessary.” The Sixth Circuit remanded with respect to unmasking Doe; the district court failed to recognize the presumption in favor of open judicial records. View "Signature Management Team, LLC v. Doe" on Justia Law

by
Albert Brumley, author of the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away,” assigned the song’s 1932 copyright to a company. The company subsequently became the property of his son, Robert. Albert died in 1977. Albert’s widow also executed an assignment to Robert. During the term of a copyright, an author may use, assign, sell, or license the copyright, 17 U.S.C. 201(d), but songwriters and their descendants may terminate the songwriter’s assignment of a copyright to another party, Sections 203, 304(c). In 2008, four of Brumley’s six children filed notice to terminate the assignment to their brother, Robert. The copyright was then generating about $300,000 per year. The district court and Sixth Circuit affirmed their right to terminate the assignment, rejecting arguments that the song was a “work made for hire,” which is not eligible for termination, 17 U.S.C. 304(c); and that Albert’s widow relinquished any termination rights. View "Brumley v. Brumley & Sons, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Varsity manufactures cheerleading and athletic apparel. Its designers sketch concepts: “original combinations, positionings, and arrangements of elements which include V’s (chevrons), lines, curves, stripes, angles, diagonals, inverted V’s, coloring, and shapes,” but do not consider functionality or the ease of actually producing a uniform. Varsity decides whether to implement the completed design concept. Varsity advertises in catalogs and online, inviting customers to choose a design concept before selecting the shape, colors, and braiding for the uniform. Varsity received copyright registration for “two-dimensional artwork” for some designs. Star sells sports and cheerleading uniforms and advertised cheerleading uniforms that looked similar to five of Varsity’s registered designs. Varsity sued, alleging violation of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 101. The court entered summary judgment in Star’s favor, concluding that Varsity’s designs were not copyrightable because their graphic elements are not physically or conceptually separable from the utilitarian function of a uniform because the “colors, stripes, chevrons, and similar designs” make the garment “recognizable as a cheerleading uniform.” The court did not address whether Varsity’s designs were unprotectable as unoriginal. The Sixth circuit reversed, finding that the graphic features of Varsity’s designs are more like fabric design than dress design, and are protectable subject matter under the Copyright Act View "Varsity Brands, Inc. v. Star Athletica, LLC" on Justia Law

by
In 2001, ASC and Paragon entered into a contract to develop and support computer software for the Chicago Tribune. This software, called the “Single Copy Distribution System” (SCDS) would allow the Tribune to manage and track newspaper deliveries and subscriptions. Tensions emerged and Paragon terminated the contract in 2003. ASC successfully sued Paragon in Ohio state court, obtaining a declaration that ASC was the sole owner of the SCDS. In federal court, ASC alleged copyright infringement, trademark infringement, breach of contract, conversion, tortious interference with a business relationship, unjust enrichment, and unfair competition based on Paragon’s alleged copying of the SCDS software to use in its DRACI software, developed in 2004 for another newspaper. After eight years of litigation, the district court granted summary judgment to Paragon on all claims. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, stating that ASC had never submitted any evidence identifying the unique protectable elements of SCDS, and that there was insufficient evidence to generate even an implication that DRACI is substantially similar to SCDS. View "Automated Solutions Corp. v. Paragon Data Sys., Inc." on Justia Law