The US Supreme Court has decided to provide a clear explanation of the timeframe in which individuals can seek compensation for copyright infringement. This decision comes after a Miami music producer sued Warner Music’s Atlantic Records label when hip-hop artist Flo Rida used a song from the 1980s that the producer claims to own.
The justices considered an appeal from two music publishing companies, Warner Music’s Warner Chappell and Artist Publishing Group. They were appealing a decision made by a lower court, which stated that defendants in copyright infringement cases could be held responsible for actions that happened before the three-year time limit for filing such lawsuits.
The two companies contested the ruling of the lower court that they may be responsible for paying copyright fees that accumulated more than three years before plaintiff Sherman Nealy filed a lawsuit against them.
Mr. Nealy claims that his music company, Music Specialist, holds the ownership of the 1984 track “Jam the Box” by Tony Butler, who also goes by the name Pretty Tony. Flo Rida, born Tramar Dillard, incorporated elements of “Jam the Box” in his 2008 single “In the Ayer.”
In 2018, Mr. Nealy filed a lawsuit against Atlantic Records, Warner Chappell, and Artist Publishing Group in Florida’s federal court. He claimed that these companies obtained unauthorized licenses to use his label’s music while he was in prison for a cocaine distribution conviction.
Mr. Nealy’s label ceased operations before he started serving a 20-year prison sentence in 1989. Mr. Nealy has said the licenses provided to the defendants in the case were invalid because Butler, his former business partner, did not have Mr. Nealy’s permission to grant them while he was in prison.
US District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz, located in Florida, has made a ruling in favor of Atlantic Records in regards to Mr. Nealy’s claim concerning the song “In the Ayer”. The judge also ruled in favor of the publishers on some of Mr. Nealy’s other claims. Currently, Mr. Nealy has submitted a motion for the judge to review and reconsider those decisions.
According to Ruiz, the time frame in which Mr. Nealy could seek compensation should be restricted to three years prior to filing the legal action.
Nealy stated that he was unaware of the purported copyright infringements until 2016. He sought compensation for the infringement, which he claimed had been ongoing since 2008. However, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed this decision in February 2023, stating that there was no limitation on damages in a timely legal action.
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The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has restricted the amount of damages that can be awarded for copyright infringement to the three years prior to the filing of a lawsuit.
The US Court of Appeals did not choose to set a specific time limit, an approach that the 11th Circuit adopted in the case of Nealy.
In May, the companies Mr. Nealy sued requested the Supreme Court to examine the case, arguing that the disagreement among lower courts is causing confusion for involved parties and promoting selective choice of court.
Music industry organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America and National Music Publishers’ Association have expressed interest in the case and have urged the court to consider it.
The court’s new term, which commenced on Monday, will include the hearing of this case.