The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a vocal music director at Burbank High School and others that a licensing company lacked standing to sue for copyright infringement for the use of copyrighted sheet music in arranging a show choir performance as to three of four works on the basis that the licensing company only held non-exclusive licenses to the work because it had only received the rights from some, but not all, of the co-owners of the copyrights. As for the fourth work, the Court ruled that the use was noninfringing on the basis that the educational purpose of the use was an enumerated fair use purpose under 17 U.S.C. § 107. The Court also found that the purpose and character of the use, which was transformative, weighed strongly in favor of a finding of fair use.
According to the Court’s synopsis, while the “nature of the copyrighted work” weighed against fair use because the original arrangement of the song was creative, neither (1) the amount and substantiality of the portion used nor (2) the effect upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work weighed against fair use, the Court wrote that “it was especially swayed by the limited and transformative nature of the use and the work’s nonprofit educational purposes in enhancing the educational experience of high school students.” The fact was that the music director used only a small portion of the song with portions of other songs to create sheet music for a new and different high school choir showpiece performance. Fair Use!
The Court sent the case back to the District Court to determine the amount of attorney’s fees the defendants should receive, finding that the District Court abused its discretion in denying defendants attorneys’ fees under 17 U.S.C. § 505 because defendants prevailed across the board in the district court and won a ruling on their fair use defense on appeal. Plaintiff’s arguments were deemed to have been “objectively unreasonable, and an award of fees would further the purposes of the Copyright Act.”
TRESÓNA MULTIMEDIA, LLC V. BURBANK HIGH SCH. VOCAL MUSIC ASS’N Opinion available here: https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2020/03/24/17-56006.pdf.