Articles Posted in Seventh Circuit

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Chicago, Illinois – One of the copyright lawsuits of Plaintiff Richard N. Bell of McCordsville, Indiana has been terminated by the trial court. Bell filed an appeal on multiple grounds with the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

This Indiana lawsuit alleged copyright infringement of a photo that Bell, an Indiana copyright lawyer and professional photographer, took and copyrighted. The photo, U.S. Copyright Registration No. VA0001785115, was of the Indianapolis skyline. Bell has sued numerous Defendants alleging copyright infringement of this photo. In this lawsuit, the Defendants were Cameron Taylor, Taylor Computer Solutions, Insurance Concepts, Fred O’Brien, and Shanna Cheatham, all of Indianapolis, Indiana.

On December 4, 2015, District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the Southern District of Indiana entered a final judgment in favor of all Defendants and terminated the case. Within days, Bell appealed to the Seventh Circuit. Bell contends that the district court acted improperly regarding:

• The district court’s opinion, order and final judgment granting summary judgment in favor of the Defendants;
• The denial of “Plaintiff’s Second Motion to Compel and sanctions against Defendants for failing to answer Interrogatories and product [sic] requested documents … on October 16, 2013″ as well as his “appeal to the District Judge” on June 9, 2014 regarding that motion;
• The denial of “Plaintiffs [sic] Motion for Leave to File Fourth Amended Complaint”;
• The denial of an additional motion to compel and for sanctions;
• The district court’s ruling on partial summary judgment;
• The district court’s ruling on “Bell’s Motion to Relieve Plaintiff from Orders of the Court”; and

• The district court’s entry of final judgment against Bell.

Practice Tip: This is not the first time Bell has appealed in this litigation. We blogged about a prior appeal to the Seventh Circuit wherein Bell, after appealing, then argued that his appeal was premature and should not yet be heard by the appellate court.

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Chicago, Illinois – The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denial of attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act by the District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

Plaintiff William Burford and Defendant Accounting Practice Sales, Inc. (“APS”) were parties to a contract under which Burford had agreed to market and facilitate the purchase and sale of accounting practices on behalf of APS. APS terminated the contract. Shortly thereafter, Burford started a competing business. For this business, Burford chose the name “American Accounting Practice Sales.” Burford also sued APS and Gary Holmes, the owner of APS, for breach of contract.

In response to Burford’s contract-claims lawsuit, APS filed a four-count counterclaim. Included in those counterclaims was an allegation that Burford had misappropriated APS’s trade name in violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1051 et seq. by using the business name “American Accounting Practice Sales.”

The district court held for APS on the contract claim, reasoning that the contract between the parties was of indefinite duration and was therefore terminable at will. After this ruling in favor of APS, but before the district court could consider the counterclaim, APS voluntarily dismissed its counterclaim under the Lanham Act with prejudice.

Burford then contended that, as the prevailing party on the Lanham Act claim, he was entitled to attorneys’ fees under 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a), asserting that APS’s pursuit of the Lanham Act claim was meritless and amounted to an abuse of process. The district court refused to grant attorneys’ fees on the theory that APS’s claim under the Lanham Act claim could have been pursued by a rational party seeking to protect its trademark.

Burford appealed. As part of his appeal, he asked the Seventh Circuit to reverse the district court’s denial of his request for attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act. Circuit Judges William J. Bauer and David F. Hamilton, and District Court Judge Sara L. Ellis, sitting by designation, heard the matter.

The Seventh Circuit first held that the district court had erred in holding that the contract had not been breached. While indefinite-term contracts are by default terminable at will, it noted that the parties had contracted around that general rule by providing that APS could terminate the contract only if Burford violated the terms of the contract. On this issue, the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court.

On the question of attorneys’ fees, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court. Under 15 U.S.C. § 1117(a)(3), district courts have the discretion to award attorneys’ fees to those prevailing under the Act in “exceptional cases.” Such an “exceptional case” within the meaning of the Lanham Act can be found in those cases where the district court determines that the decision to bring the claim could be called an abuse of process.

In turn, such an abuse of process can be discerned in cases where, for example, “a rational litigant would pursue [the claim] only because it would impose disproportionate costs on his opponent” or where there was evidence that the party advancing the Lanham Act claim had done so “to obtain an advantage unrelated to obtaining a favorable judgment.”

The Seventh Circuit noted that Burford had failed to persuade the district court that the pursuit of the claim was objectively unreasonable or was intended to harass or to obtain an advantage unrelated to winning a favorable judgment. Consequently, because decision whether to award attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act is left to the district court’s sound discretion, the lower court’s refusal to grant such fees was affirmed.

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Chicago, Illinois – The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has affirmed the judgment of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.   Copyright lawyers for Guy Hobbs of the United Kingdom had sued alleging copyright infringement by Elton John and Bernie Taupin of the United Kingdom of Hobbs’ copyrighted work “Natasha” which has been registered in the United Kingdom.  The district court dismissed the complaint and the appellate court affirmed.

While working on a Russian cruise ship, Hobbs composed a song entitled “Natasha” that was inspired by a brief love affair he had with a Russian waitress.  He tried to publish his song, but was unsuccessful.  A few years later, John and Taupin released a song entitled “Nikita” through a publishing company to which Hobbs had sent a copy of “Natasha.”  Believing that “Nikita” was based upon “Natasha,” Hobbs eventually demanded compensation from John and Taupin.  He ultimately filed suit asserting a copyright infringement claim and two related state-law claims.  The Defendants asked the district court to dismiss Hobbs’ complaint for failure to state a claim. 

In supporting his claim for copyright infringement in the district court, Hobbs asserted both traditional copyright infringement of individual elements of “Natasha” and also copyright infringement based upon “Natasha” as a combination of similar elements that would be unprotectable individually. 

After considering Hobbs’ first argument of copyright infringement, the district court concluded that the elements identified were not entitled to copyright protection when considered alone.  

Hobbs’ second legal theory to support a claim of copyright infringement was that the unique selection, arrangement, and combination of individually unprotectable elements in a song could be entitled to copyright protection.  The district court also rejected Hobbs’ “unique combination” argument because it interpreted the law, as stated in Peters v. West, 692 F.3d 629, 632 (7th Cir. 2012), to preclude Hobbs’ copyright infringement claim based upon a combination of similar elements that are unprotectable individually.  Despite rejecting Hobbs’ “unique combination” argument in this set of circumstances as an impermissible application of copyright law, the district court nevertheless considered the facts under this theory. 

In defending his “unique combination” theory, Hobbs identified a number of allegedly similar elements between the two songs.  He argued that his selection and combination of those elements in “Natasha” constituted a unique expression entitled to copyright protection, and that the Defendants’ similar use of those elements in “Nikita” supported a claim for copyright infringement.  Hobbs identified the following allegedly similar elements that are found in both songs:

·         A theme of impossible love between a Western man and a Communist woman during the Cold War;

·         References to events that never happened;

·         Descriptions of the beloved’s light eyes;

·         References to written correspondence to the beloved;

·         Repetition of the beloved’s name, the word “never,” the phrase “to hold you,” the phrase “I need you,” and some form of the phrase “you will never know”; and

·         A title which is a one-word, phonetically-similar title consisting of a three-syllable female Russian name, both beginning with the letter “N” and ending with the letter “A.”

The district court held that the similar elements, even when considered under the “unique combination” theory, still could not support a claim for copyright infringement.  It also concluded that the Copyright Act preempted Hobbs’ state-law claims.

The sole issue for appeal was Hobbs’ “unique combination” theory.  The Seventh Circuit held that Hobbs failed to state a claim for copyright infringement because, even when the allegedly similar elements between the songs were considered in combination, “Natasha” and “Nikita” did not share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another’s work.  It held that, although both songs contained the idea of an impossible love affair due to a conflict, each song expressed this general idea differently.  That is, “Natasha” and “Nikita” tell different stories about impossible romances during the Cold War.  Thus, as a matter of law, they were not substantially similar and the dismissal of Hobbs’ claim for copyright infringement was affirmed.

Practice Tip #1:

The Seventh Circuit declined to decide whether Hobbs was correct when he argued that a unique selection, arrangement, and combination of individually unprotectable elements in a song can support a copyright infringement claim.   Instead, careful review of both songs’ lyrics reveals that Hobbs’ first four allegedly similar elements are expressed differently in “Natasha” and “Nikita.”  The remaining similar elements were standard fare in popular love songs and, thus, could not serve to serve as evidence that infringement had occurred.

Practice Tip #2:

The Copyright Act does not protect general ideas, but only the particular expression of an idea.  Additionally, even at the level of particular expression, the Copyright Act does not protect incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.

However, there is a wealth of authority recognizing that, in certain situations, a unique arrangement of individually unprotectable elements can form an original expression entitled to copyright protection. See Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 362 (1991) (“The question that remains is whether [the plaintiff] selected, coordinated, or arranged these uncopyrightable facts in an original way.”); JCW Invs., Inc. v. Novelty, Inc., 482 F.3d 910, 917 (7th Cir. 2007) (“[T]he very combination of these [unprotectable] elements as well as the expression that is [the work itself] are creative.”); Bucklew v. Hawkins, Ash, Baptie & Co., 329 F.3d 923, 929 (7th Cir. 2003) (“[I]t is the combination of [unprotectable] elements, or particular novel twists given to them, that supply the minimal originality required for copyright protection.”); Roulo v. Russ Berrie & Co., 886 F.2d 931, 939 (7th Cir. 1989) (“While it is true that these elements are not individually capable of protection, just as individual words do not deserve copyright protection, it is the unique combination of these common elements which form the copyrighted material.”); see also Stava v. Lowry, 323 F.3d 805, 811 (9th Cir. 2003) (“It is true, of course, that a combination of unprotectable elements may qualify for copyright protection.”); Knitwaves, Inc. v. Lollytogs Ltd., 71 F.3d 996, 1003-04 (2d Cir. 1995) (“As the Supreme Court’s decision in [Feist] makes clear, a work may be copyrightable even though it is entirely a compilation of unprotectible elements.”).

Practice Tip #3:

Although Hobbs brought his action twenty-seven years after “Nikita” was authored and eleven years after Hobbs allegedly first encountered “Nikita,” the Defendants did not raise the three-year statute of limitations, see 17 U.S.C. § 507(b), as a defense in their motion to dismiss.

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