Jay Z Beats Sound Engineer's Claim of Co-Ownership to Hit Songs

A judge rules that Chauncey Mahan should have taken a hint from copyright registration records, album notes and a lack of royalties — and sued sooner.
AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Jay Z and Roc Nation have prevailed in a lawsuit from Chauncey Mahan, a sound engineer who participated in the recording of Vol 3… The Life and Times of S. Carter, which produced hit tracks like "Big Pimpin," "Do it Again" and "Things That U Do."

Mahan's lawsuit came to a New York federal court in July 2014 after a dramatic episode.

After working with Jay Z in the late 1990s, classified as an independent contractor, Mahan kept masters, outtakes, and other unpublished material on his harddrive. Mahan says in 2000, he let executives at Roc-A-Fella know he was in possession of this material, but never received a response.

Then in 2014, Mahan claims he was told by Roc Nation to meet at his storage facility in Los Angeles. It turned out to be a "sting operation," said Mahan's lawsuit. Jay Z's reps allegedly cataloged the inventory and then called the Los Angeles Police Department to seize Mahan's chattel and accused him of being in possession of stolen property.

Mahan wasn't charged with a crime, but he would then hit back with a lawsuit that sought a declaratory judgment under the Copyright Act that thanks to his original contributions and particular work status, he should be deemed a co-owner on 41 sound recordings.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield came back with an analysis of those claims, determining that Mahan had come to court too late.

Schofield gave three reasons why Mahan was time-barred from pursuing co-ownership: Roc-A-Fella’s registrations with the United States Copyright Office, the Albums’ packaging, and the absence of royalties all gave Mahan constructive notice or a reason to know of his injury well before he filed a lawsuit.

"Plaintiff asserts that a reasonable person would not necessarily have reason to know that royalties were owed to him in this situation," writes the judge. "Considering the depth of Plaintiff’s experience in the music industry and the substantial commercial success of the Albums, this assertion strains credulity."

Mahan's argument that the statute of limitations only begins upon an express repudiation finds no favor with the judge nor the theory that the label's copyrights to the albums didn't necessarily mean it was the exclusive copyright holder for each and every song. Then, there's the unpublished material. "Roc-A-Fella correctly asserts... that it owns the copyrights to the unpublished works as 'derivative' or 'underlying' parts of the Albums," writes the judge.

Mahan also strikes out in an additional claim that Jay Z and his crew committed conversion and trespass to chattels — essentially stole — the masters, outtakes, and other unpublished material on his harddrive via the allegedly "sham" LAPD sting.

The judge finds that whatever Jay Z's reps told to the cops — true or not — the communications were privileged. The judge notes there are other remedies to filing a false police report such as criminal prosecution for perjury. Almost needless to say, the LAPD has made no noise that it's investigating the hip hop entrepreneur.

Mahan was represented by James Freeman. The defendants were repped by Andrew Bart at Jenner & Block.

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