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Hollywood Docket: Frank Ocean Sampling; 'Happy Birthday' Litigation; 'Hobbit' Settlement

New developments in entertainment law including Harper Lee's victory and a lawsuit against customized cheerleader mixtapes.

Frank Ocean Microphone - P 2012
Getty Images
Frank Ocean

TufAmerica has found another big name in the music industry to target over sampling.

The company has filed a copyright lawsuit that alleges that Frank Ocean's "Super Rich Kids" incorporates an improper sample of Mary J. Blige's "Real Love."

Interestingly, TufAmerica doesn't claim to own all of the Blige song. Just 3.15 percent of the copyright. And how? "As a consequence of a series of agreements relating to 'Impeach the President,' " says the plaintiff, referring to a 1973 song by The Honeydrippers.

In other words, Ocean's song is claimed to include a sample of a song that itself had a sample.

TufAmerica is suing Vivendi and Universal Music Group for this. "Defendants have failed and refused to secure a license from TufAmerica for its share of the rights to use 'Real Love' in 'Super Rich Kids,' " says the complaint filed in New York federal court.

The plaintiff has previously brought sampling lawsuits against the Beastie Boys and Jay Z, among others.

An update on other cases:

  • Last year, a filmmaker challenged whether Warner/Chappell Music really owned a copyright to "Happy Birthday to You," arguably the world's most famous song. The plaintiff attempts to make the case that the song is in the public domain. On Monday, the parties presented a joint report (read here) about how this case was proceeding, and maybe for the first time, Warner/Chappell rebutted the plaintiff's claim that a 1935 copyright registration only covered a piano arrangement. The defendant emphasizes that its certificate mentions "text" and "words," and so it's argued, "There is no text or words on which copyright could have been intended to be claimed other than those lyrics." Warner/Chappell says it is the plaintiffs' burden to disprove the validity of this copyright registration.
  • Sony Music is also up to something. On Monday, the major label filed a copyright lawsuit alleging that various defendants are violating rights by distributing customized "mixes" of popular sound recordings for use in cheerleading competitions. What makes a good, if maybe unlawful, cheerleader mix? The defendant is accused of selling songs including Christina Aguilera's "Army of Me," Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now," Mariah Carey's "Emotions," Kelly Clarkson's "Catch My Breath," Destiny's Child "Bug-a-Boo" and Pink's "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)." Plus, lots of Adele. Here's the complaint.
  • Not everyone is as great a writer as To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee. Last year, Lee sued a museum in her hometown of Monroe County, Ala., for allegedly exploiting her trademark and personality rights. The museum had advertised itself as the setting for the dramatic trial in To Kill a Mockingbird and sold merchandise. So Harper Lee went to court. In response, the museum's lawyer threw up all sorts of defenses including fair use and the first sale doctrine. Good luck understanding those arguments because the judge in the case couldn't. Here's the judge's ruling denying the museum's motion to dismiss in pretty much a slam of the museum's lawyer.
  • Mark your calendars. April 22, 2014. That's the day the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the TV broadcasters' dispute with Aereo.
  • Finally, the end to a lawsuit that got ample press when it was first filed. In September 2012, Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, MGM and producer Saul Zaentz sued over the low-budget movie Age of the Hobbits. In response to trademark claims, the mockbuster's producer Global Asylum claimed that the use of "Hobbits" was fair game because it referred to the real-life human subspecies, Homo Floresiensis, discovered in 2003 in Indonesia. That didn't stop a judge from issuing a restraining order and then a preliminary injunction. Then quietly, the lawsuit proceeded toward trial until last week when the parties announced a settlement. To end the case, Global Asylum has agreed to a permanent injunction against using "Hobbit," "Hobbits," "Tolkien" or any variation on its packaging. Here's the court document.

Twitter: @eriqgardner