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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Stillwater Ltd v. Antonia Basilotta

Ninth Circuit affirms trial court’s ruling that producer was not coauthor of singer Toni Basil’s first album.

Plaintiff Stillwater Ltd sued Antonia Basilotta, the singer professionally known as “Toni Basil,” for a declaratory judgment giving Stillwater joint ownership of copyrights in Basil’s 1981 debut album “Word of Mouth,” which included the hit song “Mickey.” Stillwater contended that one of its producers, Greg Mathieson, coauthored the recordings with Basil, which entitled Stillwater to joint copyright ownership of the works. As evidence, Stillwater offered testimony from the head of the recording company that hired Mathieson, who stated that Mathieson’s job was to “a) arrange and schedule meetings and recording sessions; … b) ensure that musicians and vocalists appeared as required; c) obtain the best possible performances from the vocalist and musicians; d) provide creative input; … and e) ensure that the sound recordings were technically satisfactory and commercially suitable.” Mathieson, however, did not provide any testimony. Additionally, Mathieson’s agreement with the recording company stated that any copyright interests to which Mathieson might be entitled were to be transferred to the company and that he was to be paid royalties based on the recordings’ sales—an arrangement similar to Basil’s. The trial court concluded that Stillwater had not proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the recordings constituted a “joint work,” which Stillwater appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Under the Copyright Act, “a ‘joint work’ is prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” An author is defined as the party who actually creates the work by translating an idea into a fixed, tangible expression. The Ninth Circuit evaluated three factors in determining whether a work is jointly authored: (1) whether the alleged author exerted control over the work; (2) whether the coauthors made objective manifestations of their intent to be coauthors; and (3) whether the audience appeal of the works relies on the contributions of each author.

The Ninth Circuit held that the first factor weighed in favor of Basil because there was little evidence that Mathieson exercised control. It found that Mathieson’s duties as described by the head of the recording company were too vague to show creative control over the recordings. The appellate court also noted that the head of the recording company’s testimony was not highly persuasive because he only witnessed Mathieson performing his duties occasionally. It also determined that Basil appeared to have primarily wielded creative control by selecting songs and instrumental musicians, devising the creative concepts for recordings and even helping Mathieson mix the master tapes.

The appellate court also held that the second factor weighed in favor of Basil because of the lack of evidence supporting Stillwater’s contention that the parties intended to be coauthors. Highlighting that there was no contract between Basil and Mathieson stating this intent, the Ninth Circuit then examined each party’s contract with the recording company. It noted that, although each party’s contract with the recording company contained similar language transferring copyright interests to the company and giving each party royalty rights, these contracts were insufficient to show an agreement between Basil and Mathieson. Finally, the court found highly persuasive testimony by the head of the recording company that the idea of coauthorship “never crossed his mind” when he signed Basil.

The Ninth Circuit determined that the third factor also weighed in Basil’s favor. The head of the recording company hired Basil specifically because of her unique music video aptitude, which indicated she was primarily responsible for how customers consumed the material. Moreover, the lack of Basil’s sales of her second album indicated that her performance was the main driver behind the success or failure of the works.

Finally, the appellate court addressed Stillwater’s contention that the relationship between producers is “a traditional form of collaboration” resulting in coauthorship, provided the producer completes their “traditional duties.” It found that, even if such a presumption existed, Mathieson was not entitled to it here. Stillwater did not produce any expert testimony as to what such traditional duties would entail or any specific evidence that Mathieson fulfilled such duties. The fact that Mathieson was not an experienced producer also weighed against application of a presumption that his contribution rose to the level of collaboration necessary to find coauthorship. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit upheld the trial court’s ruling in favor of Basil.

Summary prepared by Melanie Howard and Michael Segal.

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