“Can’t Hold Us” Liable: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Win Affirmance in Copyright Suit
The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment on the issue of copyright infringement and an award of attorneys’ fees against the plaintiff under the Copyright Act. Although the Court noted that it lacked jurisdiction to review sanctions against the plaintiff’s attorney, it observed that counsel went beyond “vigorous representation.” Batiste v. Lewis, Case Nos. 19-30400, -30889 (5th Cir. Sept. 22, 2020) (Clement, J.).
Batiste, a local musician, sued Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, an internationally famous hip-hop duo, for copyright infringement. Batiste alleged that the duo sampled his songs without authorization. As support, Batiste submitted the expert report of a musicologist, Milton, but Milton later admitted that Batiste had conducted the analysis and written the report, and that Milton did not even have access to the necessary software. The district court excluded the report, which Batiste then sought leave to resubmit in his own name. The district court denied leave because Batiste had not disclosed himself as an expert and because the new report was untimely. The district court subsequently granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that Batiste had failed to submit sufficient evidence of Macklemore and Lewis’s alleged access to Batiste’s work or of probative similarity between Macklemore and Lewis’s works and Batiste’s. The district court then awarded fees to Macklemore and Lewis under the Copyright Act (17 USC § 505) and made Batiste’s attorney (Hayes) jointly and severally liable for the fees award as a sanction under 28 USC § 1987. Batiste appealed.
Addressing the district court’s summary judgment of no infringement, the Fifth Circuit considered Batiste’s proofs as to access and similarity.
Batiste tried to prove access through “widespread dissemination” and “chain of events” theories. The Court held that Batiste’s evidence of widespread dissemination was insufficient because it only established “quite limited” dissemination of Batiste’s music. Batiste’s chain of events theory—under which Macklemore and Lewis allegedly accessed Batiste’s work by playing a concert at a venue near a record store that sold Batiste’s music—raised only a “bare possibility” of access and was therefore also insufficient.
On the issue of similarity, the Court explained that because of Batiste’s failure to show access, he needed to show “striking similarity” to withstand summary judgment. The Court rejected Batiste’s argument that “overwhelming evidence of access” obviated any need for him to show similarity. The Court compared the allegedly infringing songs to Batiste’s and found them insufficiently similar for a jury to find striking similarity. The Court also rejected Batiste’s invitation to adopt the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in Bridgeport, which held a showing of similarity unnecessary in some circumstances. The Fifth Circuit noted that Bridgeport has been widely criticized, and pointed out that Bridgeport considered the issue of substantial similarity (which dictates whether factual copying, once established, is legally actionable), whereas the issue in this case was probative similarity (which raises an inference of factual copying).
Batiste challenged the award of attorneys’ fees as erroneous absent a finding of frivolousness or bad faith. The Court rejected Batiste’s argument as inconsistent with the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2016 decision in Kirtsaeng (citing and quoting its 1994 decision in Fogerty), which list frivolousness or bad faith among other non-controlling factors that district courts may consider in exercising discretion to award fees.
Finally, the Court noted that that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the sanction against Batiste’s attorney Hayes, because Hayes was not listed as a party on the notice of appeal. The Court nonetheless excoriated Hayes for his role in the submission of the Milton report and “remind[ed] Hayes of his ethical and professional obligations as a lawyer and advise[d] him to take those obligations seriously,” stating, “We certainly do.”