U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear Warner Chappell Music vs. Nealy — And Potentially Resolve Statute of Limitations Concerns Surrounding Copyright Infringement

Supreme Court to hear Warner Chappell Music vs. Nealy
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Supreme Court to hear Warner Chappell Music vs. Nealy
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Photo Credit: Ian Hutchinson

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the Warner Chappell Music vs. Nealy case, clarifying the statute of limitations on recovering damages from copyright infringement.

The case involves Miami music producer Sherman Nealy who sued Warner Music’s label Atlantic Records. Hip-hop artist Flo Rida interpolated musical elements of the 1984 song, “Jam the Box” by Tony Butler into his 2008 song, “In the Ayer.”

Nealy argues that his Miami record label Music Specialist owns the rights to the 1980s work and sued Atlantic Records, Flo Rida’s label, and Warner Chappell Music and Artist Publishing Group. Nealy argued in that 2018 suit that both businesses received invalid licenses to use his label’s music while he was in prison on cocaine distribution charges.

The Music Specialist label ceased operations before he started his 20-year sentence in 1989. Nealy argues that the licenses granted by his business partner were invalid because he did not have Nealy’s permission to grant them.

A Florida-based U.S. District Judge Rodolfo Ruiz ruled in favor of Atlantic Records as related to “In the Ayer” and in the publishers favor on other claims. The Florida judge also set a limitation of three years before he filed the lawsuit for recovering damages from copyright infringement.

Meanwhile Nealy says he was unaware of the copyright violations until 2016 and requested damages for copyright infringement that started as soon as 2008. Lower courts have reached contradictory conclusions on the statute of limitations for copyright damages, so Warner Chappell and the other defendants asked the Supreme Court in May to review the case.

On September 29, the Court granted the petition to hear the case, limited to the following question, “Whether under the discovery accrual rule applied by the circuit courts and the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations for civil actions, 17 U. S. C. §507(b), a copyright plaintiff can recover damages for acts that allegedly occurred more than three years before the filing of a lawsuit.”