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Summit Entertainment, which distributes the hugely successful Twilight films, has been extremely aggressive in policing infringements of its copyrights and trademarks. But Summit might have gone too far earlier this year in knocking down a musician’s work said to be “inspired by the Twilight saga.”
After Summit got songwriter Matt Heart‘s “Eternal Knight” booted off of YouTube, iTunes, Amazon and other outlets, the singer sued. Last week, a federal judge in Ohio allowed parts of the lawsuit to survive despite Summit’s objections, finding that the singer has alleged a plausible claim that the studio knowingly misrepresented its copyrights when sending a takedown notice to various websites.
We first wrote about Matthew Heart (born Matthew Smith) in February. He created “Eternal Knight” in 2002, several years before the Twilight films and novels appeared in the marketplace. But late last year, Heart engineered a bold marketing campaign to make his music popular. He posted the song on YouTube and had it for sale in iTunes and other outlets. He paid to promote the song in movie theaters for 28 weeks and—perhaps most controversially—he commissioned CD cover art for the song that showed a moon similar to Twilight‘s logo with a note that the song had been inspired by the Twilight saga.
Summit’s lawyers seemed to think this was an attempt to trade off of its intellectual property in a brazen effort to reach Twilight fans, so they registered takedowns at various websites. The song was removed.
Heart then sued, claiming that he had a legitimately copyrighted song and Summit was committing fraud and misrepresentation and interfering with his relationships with vendors.
In a decision last week, Ohio federal judge James Carr dismissed Heart’s allegations that Summit committed fraud and induced emotional distress because Heart couldn’t sufficiently show a cause of action and enough specificity in his injury.
But Judge Carr allowed Heart’s main allegations to continue — that Summit sent a takedown notice even though it didn’t have any copyright interest in Heart’s song.
Summit tried to argue that it needed to do so because many websites only offer one kind of notice form — for copyright infringements. In other words, Heart may have violated the Twilight trade dress in his cover art and Summit took the easiest steps it could to have the infringements pulled. But Judge Carr says this if that’s a defense, it is not, during this phase of the case, a proper consideration.
The judge also sees some plausibility in Heart’s claims that by making an improper copyright claim, Summit may have interfered with Heart’s contractual relationship with iTunes and other distributors.
Summit has gone after fragrances, print-on-demand merchandising, a documentary, and more. But perhaps similar to the way that Stephanie Lenz got a court to declare that copyright holders must consider fair use before sending takedown notices, this lawsuit may signal that there are times when copyright holders can go too far in using the DMCA takedown process in policing for infringements.
“The whole purpose of a take down notice is to cause removal of infringing material from a website,” writes Judge Carr. “If the plaintiff can show that defendant knowingly falsely asserted such interest, he in all likelihood can also show that it knew that such false assertion, once made, would lead to removal of plaintiff’s song from the website. Given the contemporary importance to a creator of an artistic work of unimpeded website display, plaintiff’s claim of resulting damages is not implausible.”
Summit declined to comment on the ruling.
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