Judge Won't Rule Out Reputational Damage From Kendrick Lamar's 'All the Stars' Video

Kendrick Lamar Fire Dancers Performance - 2017 MTV Video Music Awards - Getty - H 2017
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A New York federal judge has rejected a motion for partial summary judgment in a copyright lawsuit brought by the artist Lina Iris Viktor over the video to the song, "All the Stars," from the Black Panther soundtrack.

Viktor is suing Universal, Kendrick Lamar, SZA and others affiliated with the song and video. The British-Liberian artist contends that 19 seconds in the video displayed her distinctive paintings, which included Egyptian and African symbolism and gold leaf and black paint. (See below.)

The ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Paul Engelmayer isn't any sort of determination about the merits of Viktor's claims. Rather, the decision addresses Viktor's damages demands.

Viktor isn't eligible for statutory damages under copyright law because her works weren't registered at the time of the alleged infringement. Instead, she's seeking actual damages and indirect profits. The defendants argued that she's not entitled to any profits from the album and single because she can't establish a causal nexus between those profits and the alleged use of her artwork.

Englemayer thinks it is "premature" to assume no nexus prior to any discovery.

Perhaps more provocatively is Viktor's demand for reputational damages from the use of her work. She's not asserting a claim under the Visual Artists Rights Act, which more directly deals with the integrity of works from visual artists. Instead, she seeks these damages under copyright law.

In the decision, Engelmayer notes that Viktor has offered only "limited authority for the theory that, if she is able to offer non-speculative evidence that her infringed works have been reputationally diminished, she will be able to recover actual damages for these injuries."

Nevertheless, Englemayer refuses to rule right now as a matter of law that she can't recover reputational damages from a copyright injury.

"The Court's judgment here, too, is to defer addressing this question until a full factual record has been developed in discovery," he writes.

As a result of the ruling, there could be experts put forward to assess whether a Pulitzer Prize-winning songwriter who showcases another artist's work in his own really hurts the esteem of that latter artist. 

Here's the full decision.