Jay Z's Big Copyright Win: If Someone Steals Your Music, Act Fast

Sometimes better later than never isn’t true at all. Jay Z had an appeals court affirm the dismissal of a “frivolous” copyright infringement and there are many lessons to be learned about the do’s and do not’s of copyright law in this case including what to do if someone steals your music.
Plaintiff, Chauncey Mahan, is a sound engineer and music programmer who was hired as an independent contractor by Roc-A-Fella records and Jay Z to create sound recordings. From 1999 to 2000, Mahan contributed to some 41 tracks including “Big Pimpin'” and is thanked on the albums for doing so and the relationship ended. Fast forward until 2014, Mahan had Jay Z’s record company over for a little visit to Mahan’s storage unit which contained unpublished sound recordings created during the collaboration period. Jay Z’s attorneys called the police and the L.A.P.D. seized items containing the works from Mahan’s storage. Mahan, not so happy about this, then filed suit and asserted, for the first time, that he was a joint copyright owner to all the songs.

Image of Jay Z teaching us what to do if someone steals your music
Jay Z has a lot to smile about in this big copyright win.

The statute of limitations for copyright infringement is three years from discovery and Mahan had full knowledge that the songs were published and did nothing to assert his rights earlier. Mahan argued that his three year clock didn’t being to run until he received “express repudiation” that he was a joint owner which didn’t happen until the L.A.P.D. seizure; the judge did not find this novel argument compelling.
Under the Copyright Act, the court can, in its discretion, award attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party. There is no precise rule when fees should be awarded but some of the factors include frivolousness and objective unreasonableness. Here, the judge held that Mahan’s conduct in waiting so long and then arguing that the three year statute of limitations didn’t run was objectively unreasonable. The judge awarded Jay Z $194,000 in damages and Roc Nation another $60,000.
To make matters worse, Mahan appealed the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In its ruling, the court upheld the lower court’s ruling but found this to be such a clear cut case that the appeal was frivolous. Because the court found the appeal so baseless, it remanded the case back to the district court for the purpose of determining additional attorneys’ fees to be awarded to Jay Z for being forced to participate in the appeal. Ouch.  Filing a brief for and appeal is a time-consuming and costly process so Mahan could be looking at another sizable bill.
Lessons to be taken from the case:

  • If someone steals your music (or anything else for that matter) or is not giving you credit as a creator, act fact. You have three years to bring a claim but better to do it sooner.
  • Be sure your music is being infringed before commencing a lawsuit. If you bring a frivolous copyright infringement case, you could be liable to pay the other side’s attorneys’ fees. 
  • If you lose a frivolous case, deal with it and don’t keep appealing or the fee award could get much higher.