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Armour v. Knowles, et al., USCA Fifth Circuit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that plaintiff’s admissions identifying the dates that her manager gave copies of a demo tape to associates of defendant (late February or early March, 2003) were binding and precluded a finding of access because defendant had created allegedly infringing song by February 13, 2003.

Plaintiff, an aspiring singer/songwriter, sued Beyonce Knowles, her producers and record labels for copyright infringement, alleging that Beyonce’s song “Baby Boy” was substantially similar to a song plaintiff recorded on a demo tape in early 2003. In response to defendant’s request for admissions, plaintiff stated that her manager gave copies of the demo tape to associates of Knowles “in late February or early March, 2003.” Knowles stated that she recorded the allegedly infringing song by February 13, 2003.

The plaintiff explained during oral argument that the "late February or early March" date was a mistake and that subsequent discovery revealed the actual date to be the "end of January." However, the plaintiff did not move to amend her binding admission; instead, she sought to amend the date of "early March 2003" alleged in her third amended complaint, but the district court denied leave to amend.

The Fifth Circuit noted that the binding nature of judicial admissions conserves judicial resources “by avoiding the need for disputatious discovery on every conceivable question of fact. Once a fact is formally admitted and thereby set aside in the discovery process, the party requesting an admission is entitled to rely on the conclusiveness of it.”

Although the district court concluded that no reasonable jury could find the two songs substantially similar and granted summary judgment for the defendant on that ground, the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendant on the ground that defendant did not have access to plaintiff’s song. “The binding date of ‘late February or early March’ makes access impossible…. Because Beyonce created the allegedly infringing portion of ‘Baby Boy’ by February 13, Armour could not establish that Beyonce had access before February 13 to a demo tape that was not sent to her or her associates until ‘late February or early March.’”

The court also held that the plaintiff had failed to show that Beyonce had access to the demo tape through a “friend” identified only as T-Bone. The court noted that there was no affidavit from or deposition of T-Bone and that the plaintiff provided no information about the nature of his relationship with the defendant or the frequency of their contact. The fact that the defendant knew T-Bone was not “significantly probative of a reasonable opportunity for access.” The court also denied plaintiff’s appeal of the award of costs to defendant because the plaintiff failed to timely appeal the post-judgment award.