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Poindexter v. Warner/Chappell Music Inc.

In this copyright action, pro se plaintiff Robert Poindexter, co-writer of several songs made popular in the 1970s by the music group The Persuaders, sought damages and an injunction against the defendant publishing company, which claimed a half-interest in the plaintiff’s songs. After converting defendant’s motion to dismiss into a summary judgment motion, the district court dismissed the plaintiff’s copyright claims as time barred.

In the 1970s, the plaintiff, along with his wife and brother, wrote several songs for the music group the Persuaders, including the song “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate” (“Thin Line”). The plaintiff registered the copyright for “Thin Line” in 1971. That same year, a corporation, Win or Lose Productions, Inc., entered into an agreement with Atlantic Recording Corporation under which Win or Lose transferred one-half interest in plaintiff’s songs to Cotillion Music, Inc, a publishing arm of Atlantic and the predecessor-in-interest to the defendant. In 1972, plaintiff Poindexter and others on behalf of Win or Lose entered into a contract with Atlantic. The plaintiff argued that the 1972 contract terminated the 1971 contract, while the defendant claimed that the 1972 contract ratified the 1971 agreement.

In 1988, Poindexter, through retained representation, wrote Atlantic a letter in which he denied the defendant’s half-interest in any of the plaintiff’s publishing rights. During the next few years, Poindexter and Atlantic held various settlement discussions relating to the ownership issue but ultimately did not resolve the dispute.

On June 17, 1991, Poindexter filed a summons for “illegal use of property and theft of royalty” in New York State court against Atlantic, which filed a Notice of Appearance but otherwise did not answer the summons. The plaintiff pursued no further activity in the state action, and no judgment was ever entered in that case.

In 1998, prior to the 1999 renewal registration of “Thin Line,” the plaintiff and the defendant exchanged several letters addressing the ownership dispute. The plaintiff continued to receive co-publishing royalties from the defendant from 1999 to 2003.

On December 22, 2004, the parties entered into an agreement to toll the statute of limitations regarding the plaintiff’s copyright claim to “Thin Line,” and on May 3, 2006, the plaintiff filed the instant action based on the theory that he had full ownership of the works at issue. The defendant responded that the 1971 and 1972 agreements clearly granted a one-half interest in the plaintiff’s songs and argued that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the three-year statute of limitations.

On summary judgment, the court held that the plaintiff’s ownership and copyright claims were time barred. A copyright claim accrues when the plaintiff “knows or has reason to know of the injury” upon which the claim is premised. Here, the court reasoned, the plaintiff and Atlantic were discussing Atlantic’s claimed half-interest as early as 1988, and thus the latest the plaintiff could have filed the action was 1991. Although the parties agreed to toll the statute of limitations in 2004, the court held that this did not affect the time preceding the agreement (i.e., from 1991 to 2004).

The court further declined to allow the plaintiff’s claims on grounds of equitable tolling or equitable estoppel. A court in its discretion may equitably toll a claim when the plaintiff was “justifiably ignorant of his cause of action.” In deciding this, a court considers whether the plaintiff “(1) has acted with reasonable diligence during the time period []he seeks to have tolled, and (2) has proved that the circumstances are so extraordinary that the doctrine should apply.” Under the related doctrine of equitable estoppel, the statute of limitations may be tolled in extraordinary circumstances where defendant’s misconduct caused him to delay bringing suit.

In examining these factors, the court stated that the plaintiff offered no evidence suggesting that he was justifiably ignorant of his right to bring suit during the time period 1991 to 2004. The court emphasized that there was no evidence of any activity in connection with his 1991 state law suit, and the fact that the summons referenced a state procedural rule allowing for a 60-day statute of limitations toll did not cure the plaintiff’s claims. Additionally, the court concluded that settlement discussions between parties during the applicable time are not the sort of “extraordinary circumstance” that justifies the plaintiff’s failure to timely bring suit or continue the 1991 state action. The court also noted that the plaintiff presented no evidence suggesting that the defendant engaged in any misconduct such that equitable estoppel should apply.

Finally, the court rejected as time barred the plaintiff’s copyright claim arising out of the 1999 copyright renewal of “Thin Line.” The court relied on the fact that the defendant had sent letters to the plaintiff unequivocally asserting its half-interest in any renewal of the “Thin Line” copyright. It held that the plaintiff was required to bring any claim based on renewal by 2002.