Oct 3, 2023 2 min read

Supreme Court to consider impact of statute of limitations rule in US copyright law

The US Supreme Court will consider how the statute of limitations in copyright law should impact on damages claims as part of an ongoing dispute over a Flo Rida sample

Supreme Court to consider impact of statute of limitations rule in US copyright law

The US Supreme Court has agreed to review a case involving a Flo Rida sample in order to consider how the statute of limitations in American copyright law should be applied to damages.

Specifically, America's top court will ask "whether, under the discovery accrual rule applied by the circuit courts and the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations for civil actions, a copyright plaintiff can recover damages for acts that allegedly occurred more than three years before the filing of a lawsuit".

The sample at the heart of this dispute comes from 1984 song 'Jam The Box' by Tony Butler, aka Pretty Tony, and appears in Flo Rida's 2008 track 'In The Ayer'. Butler seemingly licensed the use of his song in the Flo Rida track, but - plaintiff Sherman Nealy claims - the artist didn't actually have the right to issue any such licence.

Because, Nealy says, he owns the copyright in the original recording, having signed Butler to his Miami-based label Music Specialist back in the 1980s. However, in 1989 Nealy was sentenced to 20 years in jail after being convicted of cocaine distribution, with his label ceasing operations even before his conviction.

Nevertheless, Nealy reckons he still owns the copyright in 'Jam The Box', meaning Butler could not license any sample. And, he also claims, Flo Rida's label and publisher should have done the necessary due diligence and figured that out before releasing 'In The Ayer'.

So, that's the dispute. Though it's the timing of Nealy's lawsuit that is relevant to the Supreme Court. He sued in 2018, ten years after the release of Flo Rida's track.

There is a three year statute of limitations on copyright infringement cases in the US. Though - if the discovery rule is applied - that means the owner of an infringed copyright must file legal proceedings within three years of discovering that an alleged infringement has occurred, and not necessarily within three years of the infringement itself.

But, where that is the case, and if the infringement lawsuit is successful, how far back can the plaintiff claim damages? Three years before the lawsuit is filed or all the way back to when the infringement occurred? It’s currently unclear.

The judge in the Florida court where Nealy filed his lawsuit initially found in favour of Flo Rida's label and publisher, though Nealy has filed a motion seeking a reversal of that decision.

Concurrent to that, the judge also ruled that - if Nealy was successful - he would only be able to claim damages for the three years prior to filing his lawsuit. Which would mean he couldn't claim any cut of monies generated by 'In The Ayer' in the years after its release.

That latter decision was then overturned by the Eleventh Circuit Appeals Court, which concluded that there is "no bar to damages in a timely action". However - the defendants quickly noted - different appeals courts around the US have been inconsistent on this point.

Which is why they asked the Supreme Court to intervene, seeking clarity on the matter, and to stop plaintiffs in copyright cases from "forum shopping", ie filing lawsuits in states where relevant appeal courts have previously said there is no time limit on damages.

We now await to see how the Supreme Court rules.

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