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The real-life show choir that inspired Fox’s hit series Glee was handed a big win in court Thursday, but the suit that accuses it of stealing songs isn’t quite dead.
Tresona Multimedia in July sued Burbank High School Vocal Music Association, its board members and its director Brett Carroll for copyright infringement, claiming the show choir was using music without properly licensing it or paying for it. At issue were performances of “Magic,” “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” “Hotel California” and “Don’t Phunk With My Heart.”
In a motion for summary judgment, Carroll argued that he is protected by qualified immunity as a public employee and all of the actions at issue were taken in his capacity as a high school music teacher. He also argued that Tresona lacks standing with regard to three of the songs at issue and the claim regarding the fourth, “Magic,” is barred by the statute of limitations.
U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson sided with Carroll on two of the three arguments.
Before addressing whether Carroll has qualified immunity, Wilson examined whether the protection applies to copyright cases.
“There is no binding authority which applies the doctrine of qualified immunity to copyright law,” writes Wilson, noting that while courts have applied it there hasn’t been actual analysis of whether they should.
“This Court agrees that subjecting public officials to an extra lawyer of uncertainty — whether a federal court will find that their role in government or their governmental activities trigger the protections of qualified immunity in the first place — defeats the very policies that qualified immunity is intended to promote,” writes Wilson. “Thus, this Court finds that qualified immunity applies to suits for copyright infringement.”
The other half of the qualified immunity analysis centers on whether Carroll’s actions as director of the show choir fall under his capacity as a high school music teacher because the parties dispute if the Burbank High School Vocal Music Association is part of the school itself or is a separate nonprofit entity.
“[T]here is no evidence that Carroll acted beyond the scope of his duties as a teacher for Burbank High School,” Wilson writes. “The fact that a public employee’s job duties may entail being a liaison for a separate 501(c)(3) non-profit does not strip that employee of their status as a public official.”
Further, Wilson found the copyright laws Carroll allegedly violated were not clearly established and that his actions were objectively reasonable and granted summary judgment in Carroll’s favor on all counts.
Wilson also found that Tresona lacks standing to sue over the Dirty Dancing theme and the hits by the Eagles and The Black Eyed Peas because its rights in the works derive from fewer than 100 percent of the copyright owners’ and it does not have an “exclusive right” to them.
Wilson found a triable issue of fact exists as to whether Tresona should have known about the Burbank Show Choirs’ performance of “Magic” and denied summary judgment as to the statute of limitation defense. So that claim remains, but only against the other defendants, as Carroll is in the clear.
Carroll’s attorney Aaron Craig sent The Hollywood Reporter a statement Friday: “Tresona’s efforts to bully Brett Carroll and Burbank High School failed. This is an important victory for Mr. Carroll, Burbank Unified School District, and the entire show choir community.”
Tresona’s president Mark Greenburg also sent THR a statement. “In this case, the music director used a legal technicality to avoid liability — for now — for allowing songs to be copied and performed under his watch,” says Greenburg. “We will see if the court of appeals agrees with this ruling. But in the meantime, the director has left the parents, the arranger, and the school booster club to pay the price for the music that has been stolen. All these copyright violators could have easily paid for the music they’re using — for less than their costume budget each year! But they would rather pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawyers than be honest and pay to license music. That’s the wrong message to send to our music students.”
Both Carroll and the school’s vocal music booster club have filed third-party complaints against Squareplay Entertainment. According to the suit, the company was paid more than $100,000 to create arrangements for the school and it chose the songs at issue. Squareplay has denied responsibility and asserted a plethora of affirmative defenses.
Wilson’s full order is below.
Dec. 23, 9 p.m. Updated with a statement from Tresona Multimedia.
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