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VMG Salsoul, Ltd. Liab. Co. v. Ciccone - 824 F.3d 871 (9th Cir. 2016)

Rule:

The "de minimis" exception applies to infringement actions concerning copyrighted sound recordings, just as it applies to all other copyright infringement actions.

Facts:

In the early 1990s, pop star Madonna Louise Ciccone (popularly known as Madonna) released the song Vogue to great commercial success. In the present copyright infringement action, Plaintiff VMG Salsoul, LLC, alleged that the producer of Vogue, Shep Pettibone, copied a 0.23-second segment of horns from an earlier song, known as Love Break, and used a modified version of that snippet when recording Vogue. Plaintiff asserted that Defendants Madonna, Pettibone, and others thereby violated Plaintiff's copyrights to Love Break. The district court applied the longstanding legal rule that "de minimis" copying did not constitute infringement and held that, even if Plaintiff proved its allegations of actual copying, the claim failed because the copying (if it occurred) was trivial. The district court granted summary judgment to Defendants and awarded them attorney's fees under 17 U.S.C. § 505. Plaintiff timely appealed.

Issue:

1. Did the defendants violate Plaintiff’s copyrights to Love Break?

2. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees to defendants?

Answer:

1) No. 2) Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment, holding that any copying that occurred was “de minimis” and not an infringement of either the composition or the sound recording of Love Break. According to the Court, as a matter of law, a general audience would not recognize the brief snippet in Vogue as originating from Love Break. Moreover, the Court averred that Congress did not eliminate the de minimis exception to claims alleging infringement of a sound recording in 17 U.S.C. § 114(b). However, the Court held that the district court abused its discretion in granting attorneys' fees to the defendants under 17 U.S.C. § 505. The Court held that a claim premised on a legal theory adopted by the only circuit court to have addressed the issue was, as a matter of law, objectively reasonable.

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