The issue of intellectual property used within video games is in the news again. If you haven’t already heard, wildly popular video game Fortnite features a dance called “Swipe It” that is the center of a pending lawsuit. Brooklyn-based rapper 2 Milly is claiming he created the dance in 2015 and the game’s creators swiped it from him. 2 Milly, whose real name is Terrence Ferguson, filed the lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, alleging copyright infringement, right of publicity, and unfair competition claims.  Additionally, the lawsuit accuses Epic Games of appropriating several dances in Fortnite (“emotes”) without permission, including Alfonso Ribeiro’s “Carlton Dance” from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (renamed Fresh), Snoop Dogg’s 2004 dance from “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (retitled “Tidy”), and Donald Faison’s dance from the TV show “Scrubs,” (renamed “Dance Moves”).

2 Milly’s dance, dubbed the “Milly Rock,” consists of a left arm swing, a right arm swing, a circular motion of both arms, and simultaneous alternative hip swings – repeated over and over again.  But is it copyrightable?  To successfully state a copyright infringement claim and collect damages, 2 Milly will generally have to show that he owns a valid copyright to the dance and that Epic Games copied constituent elements of the dance that are original. There is also the question of whether Fortnite’s Swipe It dance infringes on 2 Milly’s brand as an artist. After all, 2 Milly became known and recognized for his Milly Rock dance and gained fame and popularity for it on a viral level. While the Fortnite avatars participating in the dances do not use 2 Milly’s name and do not appear to look like 2 Milly, there could be an argument that the use of Swipe It infringes on the rapper’s likeness and persona as an artist, who is particularly known for a particular dance. On top of all of this, Epic Games gains a commercial advantage by its use of Swipe It since gamers are prompted to pay approximately $9.50 to “unlock” the Swipe It emote on Fortnite.

While a dispute over the ownership of a dance move portrayed in a video game may seem novel, it is part of a long trend of similar past – and most likely future – disputes. Indeed, the 2 Milly lawsuit was followed shortly thereafter by a lawsuit from Alfonso Ribeiro. Copyright infringement lawsuits have been filed and some are currently pending from tattoo artists against video game studios over the reproduction of players’ tattoos in games. College athletes have battled over the unpaid use of their likenesses in college sports video games. Even Lindsay Lohan tried to sue Rockstar Games over the use of a character she says was based on her likeness.

As video games become more realistic and more intertwined with popular culture (and social media), the issues of intellectual property being used within other intellectual property will show their face again and again. This is especially true as game studios push virtual reality and as consumers expect to see their real worlds reproduced faithfully in video game format. Intellectual property licensing has been a part of the video game world for a long time. But as the content being incorporated into those games transitions from traditional properties like music and brands to more nebulous properties like dance moves and personal likenesses, creators on both sides of the divide need to be aware of their rights and need to be aware of where their properties are being used. In many circumstances, the law is unsettled or there are issues of first impression. Creators who sleep on their rights may miss out on potential revenue streams or may risk the loss of their rights to the public domain. Creators who utilize third-party works may face disruptions or event litigation as works they thought were in the public domain are claimed by their creators. Intellectual property licensing is here to stay in the video game world, and those who are aware of this fact and use it to their advantage are more likely to find themselves in the winner’s circle.

 

On October 11, 2018, President Trump signed into law the long-anticipated Music Modernization Act (“MMA”), legislation focused on shepherding the existing music licensing system into the digital age.  Among the highlights, the MMA provides for blanket mechanical licensing and a licensing collective charged with managing mechanical license royalty payments to composers and publishers. The MMA is divided into three major titles, each focused on addressing certain perceived gaps in the existing structure.  Some highlights are discussed below.

Title I of the MMA (Music Licensing Modernization) establishes a blanket, statutory mechanical license for digital music providers to be administered by a non-profit organization called the Mechanical Licensing Collective (the “MLC”).  The MLC is charged with establishing  a publicly accessible database of copyright ownership information for musical compositions.  A digital music provider wishing to obtain a blanket mechanical license must file a notice of license with the MLC specifying, among other things, the covered activities.  The MLC will have 30 calendar days to review that notice, and a provider whose application for a license is rejected will have an opportunity to cure or seek further review in federal district court

Title II of the MMA (Classics Protection and Access) extends federal copyright protection to pre-1972 sound recordings previously excluded from the copyright protection.  The duration of protection for such works is set as follows:

  • For recordings published before 1923, the term of protection ends on December 31, 2021;
  • For recordings published between 1923 and 1946, the term of protection continues until December 31 of the year 100 years after publication;
  • For recordings published between 1947 and 1956, the term of protection continues until December 31 of the year 110 years after publication; and
  • For all other recordings (including unpublished recordings and ones published after 1956), the term of protection ends on February 15, 2067.

Title III of the MMA (Allocation for Music Producers) grants music producers a share of royalties collected when their sound recordings are played through online and satellite radio providers.  Such producer payments are to be allocated from the share of streaming royalties allocated to recording artists under the current statutory scheme.

The U.S. Copyright Act permits, but does not require, registration of copyright-protected works with the U.S. Copyright Office.  Nevertheless, under the U.S. Copyright Act, registration by the Copyright Office (or ruling by the Copyright Office refusing to register) is, among other things, a prerequisite to bringing a copyright infringement action.  The federal courts have long disagreed about whether an application for registration satisfies the rule.  In other words, does the copyright owner have to wait for the Copyright Office to rule on the registration application before suing?

The United States Supreme Court has now agreed to hear a case that could resolve this long-disputed issue.  Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v. Wall-Street.com, LLC., Case No. 17-571.  The appeal is from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which held – recognizing the disagreement among the courts – that a registration application is insufficient to sue.

Whichever way the Supreme Court rules, early registration has distinct advantages for the copyright owner.  Advantages includes easier proofs at trial on liability and damages and the possibility of collecting attorneys’ fees for registration applications filed before infringement begins or, for published works, within three months of publication.

In 2015, a California jury decided that the mega-hit “Blurred Lines” by Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and Clifford Harris (a/k/a “T.I.”) infringed the copyright in Marvin Gaye’s song, “Got To Give It Up.”  The jury awarded Gaye’s heirs $7.4 million.  Last week, a panel of the federal court of appeals in San Francisco affirmed the judgment in 2-1 split decision.  Williams v. Gaye, No. 15-56880 (9th Cir. March 21, 2018).

The appeals court decision confirmed what this blog argued just after the 2015 jury verdict:  that the most significant part of the “Blurred Lines” case is that a jury – not a judge – made the call.

That is somewhat unusual in a copyright case, especially a case involving music.  In copyright law, the question whether one work infringes another often turns on whether the allegedly infringing work is “substantially similar” to the previous work.  Courts often view the “substantial similarity” question as so clear or one-sided that there is no need for a jury to decide the issue (for our lawyer-readers:  i.e., summary judgment).  The main question in Williams v. Gaye was whether “Blurred Lines” was “substantially similar” to “Got To Give It Up.”  Unusually, the trial judge held a jury trial where the jury was presented with audio and expert testimony concerning the purported similarities/dissimilarities between the two works.  The jury ruled for the Gayes.

Courts hesitate to overturn jury verdicts, and this case proved no exception: the appeals court deferred to the jury’s findings without stating its own opinion whether “Blurred Lines” actually infringed Gaye’s composition, while providing little new legal guidance on the question of infringement of musical works.

This decision may not be the end of the case.  A strident dissenting opinion believed the case never should have gone to a jury and that the Gayes’ claim should have been rejected as a legal matter, and it is possible the entire court of appeals or the Supreme Court could review the case.  Failing further review, however, the “Blurred Lines” case heralds more jury decision-making in these “blurry” disputes.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) affords an invaluable safe harbor to online “service providers” (as that term is very broadly defined in the DMCA) for copyright infringement claims arising from user-generated content posted to a service provider’s website.  To be eligible, service providers must satisfy several criteria.  For example, service providers must implement a policy for the termination of repeat infringers and comply with certain “standard technical measures” used by copyright owners to identify or protect copyrighted works.   Service providers must also designate an agent to receive notice of claimed infringement.  Although service providers wishing to take advantage of this safe harbor have traditionally designated their agents through a written submission to the United States Copyright Office, in May 2017, the Copyright Office issued a final rule requiring service providers to register their designated agents (or in the case of those already registered, re-register) through a new online system.  The deadline to register with the new online system is December 31, 2017.  The final rule also requires the designation be renewed every three years.  Failure to register and renew will result in a loss of eligibility for the DMCA safe harbor, a risk no service provider should take.