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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Johnson v. UMG Recordings, Inc.

Seventh Circuit holds musician Syl Johnson cannot bring copyright infringement claims based on alleged sampling of his 1967 song “Different Strokes” after settling similar action in 2015 and failing to reopen original case.

Musician Syl Johnson wrote and produced the song “Different Strokes” in 1967. He brought copyright infringement claims against more than 80 defendants in 2013, alleging that the sound recording of “Different Strokes” had been sampled in various other recordings. The parties settled and the district court dismissed the case in 2015. Johnson then commenced a new copyright infringement lawsuit against six of the original defendants. The district court presiding over Johnson’s new case dismissed it on the grounds that Johnson’s claims were precluded by the voluntary dismissal of his original suit. Johnson argued that his attorney — conspiring with the defendants — defrauded the original judge into believing the suit was settled. Instead of raising this argument before the original judge, as Johnson was instructed, however, he appealed.

The Seventh Circuit agreed that Johnson’s claims were precluded by the earlier litigation. Although “fraud is a basis for setting aside a judgment,” Johnson could do so only by way of a motion or proceeding in the district court presiding over his original case. “In federal courts, as in most states, a judgment in civil litigation is not subject to collateral attack,” it said. If Johnson could persuade the judge presiding over his original lawsuit to set aside the judgment, he could pursue his new claims.

The Seventh Circuit also rejected Johnson’s argument that the current suit seeks relief based on five songs that were not part of the 2013 suit. None of those recordings postdates the 2013 suit, so Johnson could have included those five songs in the 2013 suit. “Litigants are not entitled to split their claims into multiple pieces; the branch of preclusion that forbids this, known as merger and bar, requires litigants to raise in one suit all claims and theories that are part of the same transaction and could have been litigated at the same time,” the Seventh Circuit pointed out. Because the theory underlying both of Johnson’s suits was the same, it was incumbent on Johnson to litigate all of his claims in his original 2013 suit, it concluded.

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