Copyright in sound recordings and the importance of claiming copyright promptly

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The music industry is no stranger to cases of copyright infringement. Procol Harum’s seminal Whiter Shade of Pale was the subject of protracted court proceedings a few years ago. More recently, a dispute has arisen as to ownership of the rights in the no less anthemic Stairway to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin. Last month it was the turn of the rapper, Shawn Carter, more popularly known as Jay-Z, to face the music.

Jay-Z and the music label, Roc-A-Fella Records, faced a claim from a sound engineer that they had previously worked with, who claimed to be the joint copyright owner of three albums produced by the label. Specifically, the claimant maintained that he had worked on 41 recordings for the label between August 1999 and November 2000, which recordings were later used on albums produced by Jay-Z and also the musician, Beanie Sigel.

The claim was rejected last month on the basis that it was made out of time. Under US law, a copyright claim has to be filed within three years of the work being registered (copyright is registrable in the United States) provided there were reasonable grounds for a claimant to discover any alleged infringement.

The copyright in this case was first registered in 2000 and the claim was not brought until 2014 with the consequence that the claim was time barred. The judge said that the claimant would have a reasonable awareness of the injury suffered by him because all three albums were a “commercial success” and the absence of any royalties being paid to him should have given him reason to know of the any injury.

Time limitations can be a problem in claims of this nature as often it is only with the passage of time that the success of a recording becomes apparent, and therefore the claim worth making.