Jay-Z, Timbaland, and Numerous Record Labels Obtain a Technical Triumph in Copyright Suit

On April 16, 2020, Judge J. Paul Oetken of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, dismissed a musician’s lawsuit against artists Jay-Z and Timbaland for unlawfully using parts of the plaintiff’s soul song, finding fatal flaws in the complaint.

In the lawsuit filed on May 18, 2019, musician Ernie Hines alleged that Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) and Timothy Mosely (Timbaland), along with their record labels, Roc-A-Fella Records, Def Jam Recordings, UMG Recordings, and Sony Music, infringed upon the 1969 copyrighted jam, “Help Me Put Out the Flame (In My Heart).”

Hines’s lawsuit primarily centers around “sampling”—the practice of incorporating segments of older songs into new recordings. Specifically, Hines claimed that a sample from “Help Me” was incorporated into Jay-Z’s 1998 track, “Paper Chase,” and Timbaland’s 1999 song, “Toe 2 Toe,” without his permission.

In Judge Oetken’s April 2020 order, however, he dismissed the complaint against all defendants, citing different reasons for doing so; the court dismissed the case against Jay-Z and Timbaland for insufficient service of process and dismissed the case against the record labels for failure to state a claim.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, parties to a lawsuit must be served with the summons and complaint no later than 90 days after a complaint is first filed with the court. Hines filed his complaint on May 18, 2019, but failed to properly serve Jay-Z or Timbaland by the August 16, 2019 deadline. However, it stands to reason that it may be difficult to serve such A-list celebrities as Jay-Z and Timbaland. Although a court can grant an extension of the deadline, here, the court found that Hines—failing to provide a good cause for his delay—was not entitled to any additional time. Therefore, the court proceeded to drop the case against these two defendants.

Moreover, in granting the record labels’ motion to dismiss, the court explained that the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating, “with some degree of specificity,” that a defendant’s work is “substantially similar” to one’s own. Here, however, the court found that the complaint “entirely fails to identify which elements of ‘Help Me’ were infringed or which elements of ‘Paper Chase’ and ‘Toe 2 Toe’ are infringing.” Finding only “vague and general allegations of similarity,” the court thus dismissed Hines’s claims against the companies. This, though, seems outrageous. The conclusion means that lawsuits based on unauthorized music sampling necessitate a possibly expensive musicologist to attach a detailed report to the complaint.

Fortunately, the Judge granted Hines’s motion to amend and re-file his complaint, but the decision was conditioned upon Hines’s payment of costs and attorneys’ fees incurred by the opposing parties in filing and prosecuting their motions to dismiss. This last “condition”—more akin to an imposed punishment—is the consequence of a procedural error Hines committed in violation of the Court’s Individual Practices in Civil Cases; he improperly filed both a motion for leave to amend and an opposition to the motion to dismiss, which, the court concluded, resulted in unnecessary expenditures of resources. However, this is highly unfair and extremely unusual, requiring Hines to pay many tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket just to keep his lawsuit alive. It seems the Judge stacked the deck against him.

Hines is represented by Christopher Lloyd Brown of Brown & Rosen LLC.

Christine Lepera and Jeffrey M. Movit of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP.

The case is Hines v. Roc-A-Fella Records Inc. et al., case number 1:19-cv-04587, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

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