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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Elliott v. Cartagena

District court grants summary judgment on copyright claims regarding authorship of Fat Joe hit “All the Way Up,” finding that plaintiff Fly Havana had assigned his rights in song to rapper Fat Joe, based on evidence of draft agreement admitted to establish terms of missing executed copy. 

Plaintiff Eric Elliott (professionally known by the stage name Fly Havana) claimed to be a co-author and co-owner of the Fat Joe song “All the Way Up.” Elliott sued Fat Joe, whose given name is Joseph Cartagena, and a number of related individuals and entities for alleged copyright infringement related to the song. In response, defendants claimed that in 2016, Elliott had signed a work-for-hire agreement (referred to by the parties as a “piece of paper”) that released all of Elliott’s claims to the song in exchange for $5,000. 

Complicating the matter, Cartagena was unable to produce the original signed agreement. It was undisputed that Elliott and Cartagena had discussions about ownership of the song, that the parties met in 2016, that Elliott signed the “piece of paper” and that Fat Joe paid him $5,000 by check with the memo line “write.” Based on affidavits from both Cartagena and his counsel, they performed an exhaustive search for the original agreement over the course of six months, including numerous failed attempts to serve a deposition subpoena on Cartagena’s former business manager, who was believed to have the executed copy, even obtaining leave of the court to pursue alternative service via certified mail, email and Facebook. 

In the absence of the agreement, the district court engaged in an extensive discussion of the treatment of lost or destroyed documents under the Federal Rules of Evidence before concluding that, under enumerated exceptions to the best evidence rule, including FRE 1003 and 1004, a copy of a draft agreement emailed by Cartagena’s counsel to Elliott and Cartagena the day before their meeting, and allegedly printed by Cartagena without alteration, was admissible to show the contents of the “piece of paper” that Elliott signed. 

Based on the draft agreement, the court concluded that any copyright claims should be decided in favor of Cartagena, as the agreement stated that Elliott assigned his rights in “All the Way Up” to Cartagena in perpetuity. The court also found that the admissibility of the draft contract satisfied the statute of frauds in the Copyright Act, as Elliott did not dispute that he had signed an agreement when he and Cartagena met in 2016. 

Elliott also argued that there was a lack of consideration for the assignment, but the court found that the agreement contained terms stating Elliott’s rights were being transferred in exchange for valuable consideration and that Elliott’s receipt of $5,000 at the 2016 meeting was undisputed. 

Further, Elliott claimed that he was fraudulently induced to sign the agreement because, on a prior telephone call, Cartagena had represented that Elliott would get the money up front, in addition to possible payments if the song were successful, plus an opportunity to work directly with Cartagena in the future. The court rejected this argument on the basis of the merger clause in the draft agreement, as well as an unambiguous clause that “no additional compensation (including mechanical royalty or any other payments) will be due to Elliott.”

Elliott also asserted a number of state law claims regarding his supposed fiduciary relationship with Cartegena and Cartegena’s subsequent breach. These claims failed as a matter of law. The court was unable to find any fiduciary relationship between the parties, both due to the terms of the agreement and because of a lack of support in case law for the proposition that co-authors or co-owners of a copyright owe fiduciary duties to one another. 

Summary prepared by Melanie Howard and Alex Inman 

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