Circuit Court Revives “KC and The Sunshine Band” Copyright Case

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court’s decision barring the heirs of a former member of KC and the Sunshine Band from bringing a copyright suit over royalties for the song “Spank.”

The case was filed in Florida by the heirs of late band member Ronnie Smith.  Smith died in 2012, and his estate claimed that Harry Wayne Casey, the founder and front man for the Sunshine Band, had failed to make royalty payments due to Smith.  The plaintiffs sought over $250,000 in damages.

The lower court had dismissed the case, on the grounds that Smith’s record label registered the copyright for him and thus that Smith (and therefor his heirs) lacked standing to sue for copyright infringement.

The Circuit Court said that Congress intended for composers of works owned by third parties to be able to sue for infringement, even if the third parties filed the copyright applications.

Under US copyright law, the author of a work such as a song may transfer some rights to a copyright owner (such as an employer or record label) while retaining a “reversionary interest” in the copyright.  Thus, an author can be the “legal” owner of a copyright while a third party can be the “beneficial” owner of the same right.

According to the 11th Circuit,

Were we to … hold otherwise, redundant registrations would be necessary for statutory standing purposes every time legal and beneficial ownership of the same exclusive right rested with two distinct parties, even if they joined together in filing suit against an alleged infringer.

The case will now go back to the lower court for a decision on whether the additional royalties are due to Smith’s estate.

Stay up-to-date on the latest Intellectual Property Law news from Sheldon Mak & Anderson.

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