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Batiste v. Lewis

In copyright infringement lawsuit brought by jazz musician Paul Batiste against Grammy-winning hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, district court grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding no probative evidence that defendants copied any of Batiste’s musical compositions or sound recordings.

Paul Batiste, a New Orleans jazz musician, brought copyright infringement claims against Grammy-winning hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, along with their affiliated songwriters and publishing companies, alleging that the duo’s hit songs “Thrift Shop,” “Can’t Hold Us,” “Need to Know,” “Same Love” and “Neon Cathedral” used unauthorized samples and copied elements of 11 of Batiste’s original songs. The district court previously denied defendants’ motion to dismiss Batiste’s second amended complaint, holding that Batiste plausibly alleged the three elements required to establish a claim of copyright infringement in the Fifth Circuit: (1) ownership of a valid copyright; (2) factual copying (through a showing of either access and probative similarity between the works, or striking similarity); and (3) substantial similarity. On the element of factual copying, however, the district court ruled that because Batiste had failed to plead sufficient facts showing that defendants had access to his songs, he needed to show that his works and defendants’ works were strikingly similar. (Read our summary of the district court’s decision here.)

On defendants’ motion for summary judgment, defendants argued that Batiste’s copyright infringement claims failed as a matter of law because Batiste could not prove copyright ownership, factual copying (either through a showing of striking similarity, or access and probative similarity), or substantial similarity. The district court granted defendants’ motion in its entirety.

Reiterating its prior ruling that Batiste had to demonstrate striking similarity in order to prove factual copying, the court observed that Batiste had “ignore[d]” the court’s instruction to establish a factual dispute regarding striking similarity. The court nonetheless considered whether Batiste had demonstrated factual copying through access and probative similarity, the other means by which factual copying can be established. On the issue of access, the court found that Batiste had failed to present any evidence that was “significantly probative of a reasonable opportunity for access.” Batiste’s theory that defendants had accessed his works because they had performed in New Orleans “not too far” from a store in which Batiste’s records are sold created, at best, “a hope for a ‘bare possibility of access,’” which the court deemed insufficient. Moreover, Batiste had failed to show that his works are widely disseminated; there was no evidence of “‘awards, billboard charts, or royalty revenues’ that would implicate a factual dispute that defendants had heard his songs before releasing their own.” 

The district court then assessed whether Batiste’s works and defendants’ works were “strikingly similar,” such that any similarities between the works “can only be explained by copying, rather than by coincidence, independent creation, or prior common source.” In evaluating Batiste’s sampling claims, the court noted Batiste’s contention that defendants copied his sound recordings and then manipulated them, and that, “[i]n so arguing, he appear[ed] to suggest that a lay listener would not be able to recognize the similarities in the works.” Considering the parties’ submissions, the court found no probative evidence that defendants had sampled Batiste’s songs. Finding no evidence of sampling, the district court had “no option but to listen to the works themselves to determine whether the defendants reproduced the plaintiffs’ [sic] song recordings.” After performing a listening comparison of each pair of allegedly infringed and infringing songs, aided by the analysis of defendants’ expert musicologists, the court concluded that Batiste had failed to demonstrate “striking similarity” or any instances of sampling for the song pairings identified in the second amended complaint. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment, dismissing all of Batiste’s claims of infringement with prejudice.

Summary prepared by Wook Hwang and Sara Slavin