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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Grigson v. Lopez

District court dismisses copyright claims alleging that Disney song “Some Things Never Change” from hit animated film Frozen II infringes copyright to sound recording allegedly owned by plaintiff, but grants leave to amend.

Songwriter and recording artist Daniel Grigson filed a copyright infringement action against The Walt Disney Company, related entities, and Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the writers of the song “Some Things Never Change” from Disney’s hit animated film Frozen II, claiming that Disney’s song infringed the copyrights to both the musical composition and sound recording of a 1999 song titled “That Girl” over which Grigson claimed copyright ownership. The complaint alleged that, after hearing “Some Things Never Change,” Grigson retained a musicologist, who found “striking” similarities in eight musical areas, including melody, lyrics and arrangement, that could only be explained by copying. On this basis, Grigson asserted claims that “Some Things Never Change” infringed both his musical composition and his sound recording.

Having answered the claims relating to his musical composition, defendants moved to dismiss the claims only with respect to plaintiff’s claimed sound recording, contending various independent grounds, including that plaintiff’s copyright registration was invalid and that plaintiff’s allegations did not suffice to support a claim for infringement of a sound recording.

With respect to plaintiff’s copyright registration, plaintiff alleged that he and another individual, Neal Bedford Bryant, were co-authors of “That Girl.” As defendants noted, plaintiff lost his copyright interest in the sound recording after failing to disclose his undivided one-half interest in a prior bankruptcy proceeding, and only acquired Bryant’s ownership interest by assignment four days after plaintiff submitted his application for copyright registration on Aug. 20, 2022, claiming copyright ownership at that time. Defendants argued that plaintiff’s submission of his application without disclosure of these facts invalidated his registration. The district court rejected this argument at the motion to dismiss stage, explaining that a registration certificate is valid even when it contains inaccurate information, unless the information was included in the application “with knowledge that it was inaccurate” and the inaccuracies would have caused the Register of Copyrights to refuse registration. The court concluded that it could not resolve these issues at the pleading stage.

The court agreed, however, with defendants’ argument that plaintiff’s allegations did not support a claim of infringement as to the sound recording. Pursuant to Section 114(b) of the Copyright Act, the rights protected by copyright to sound recordings “do not extend to making or duplication of another sound recording that consists entirely of an independent fixation of other sounds, even though such sounds imitate or simulate those in the copyrighted sound recording.” Accordingly, the court explained, a claim for infringement of a sound recording requires that “actual sounds” from the recording were “duplicated” in the allegedly infringing work. Plaintiff alleged, however, that “it is not known if the actual sounds from ‘That Girl’ are used,” and alleged only that defendants “re-recorded” or “re-played” certain sounds from his song in the Disney song.

The court concluded that these allegations were too vague and speculative to support a claim of infringement, failing to put defendants on notice of plaintiff’s theory of infringement of the sound recording. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that his other allegations, of similarities in “beat, rhythm, feel, theme,” and in the “structure and lyrics” could suffice, explaining that these “do not lead to an inference that Defendants used actual sounds from Plaintiff’s sound recording.” Accordingly, the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss. However, the court granted plaintiff leave to amend his complaint to cure these defects, noting that “Plaintiff could set forth facts to support a plausible inference of Defendants’ use of actual sounds from the sound recording.” 

Summary prepared by Wook Hwang and Kyle Petersen

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