Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair” Not a Copyright Violation
By Jia Ryu – Edited by Anthony Kammer
Jones v. Blige
United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, March 9, 2009
On March 9, 2009, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a Michigan district court’s grant of summary judgment for defendant, Mary J. Blige in a copyright infringement case. Plaintiffs Leonard Jones and James E. White had filed suit against Defendants Mary J. Blige, Andre Young (aka “Dr. Dre”), Universal Music Group (“UMG”), and others for copyright infringement.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision, holding that the songs were not substantially similar and that the Plaintiffs had not provided sufficient evidence to establish Defendants’ access to their work under the “corporate receipt” doctrine. Exclusive Rights offers commentary, focusing on the distinction made in this case between the corporate receipt doctrine and “bare corporate receipt.” The Michigan Messenger briefly summarized the opinion here.
Music producers Leonard Jones and James White claimed that the Mary J. Blige’s 2001 hit song “Family Affair” infringed on their own work “Party Ain’t Crunk.” “Family Affair” was released in August 2001 as the second song in Blige’s album, No More Drama, which sold over two million copies. Blige wrote the lyrics with her brother and a team of writers and recorded her vocals over music created by Dr. Dre. “Party Ain’t Crunk” was created by Jones and White and recorded by an aspiring rap artist named Tim Acker (aka “Benevolence”). White submitted the CD to several companies, including Blige’s publisher, UMG. Andy Mckaie, Senior Vice President of Artists and Repertoire for Universal Music Enterprises, allegedly received the package, decided to pass on the CD, and returned the contents to White. When White heard Mary J. Blige’s song “Family Affair” on the radio, he believed that it infringed his own song “Party Ain’t Crunk” and filed this lawsuit.
In 2006, the district court held that there was no infringement because the Plaintiffs failed to show that Blige had access to “Party Ain’t Crunk.” The district court also concluded that the melodies were not so similar that they were necessarily copied. They also held that no reasonable jury could find that the lyrics in the two songs were similar.
Judge R. Guy Cole wrote the opinion for the Court of Appeals. The opinion began with the basic legal standard for copyright infringement, which requires that the plaintiff has proof of ownership of a valid copyright and proof that the defendant copied original elements of the allegedly infringed work.
White’s ownership of the copyright was undisputed, and therefore the main dispute was whether there was any evidence that Blige had copied the song. The court found no direct evidence of copying, and noted that when there is no such evidence a plaintiff may “establish an inference of copying by showing (1) access to the allegedly–infringed work by the defendant(s) and (2) a substantial similarity between the two works at issue.”
Arguing that Blige and Dr. Dre had access to their work, Jones and White relied on the “corporate receipt” doctrine, under which “possession of a work by one employee of a corporation implies possession by another corporate employee who allegedly infringed the work.” Jones and White asserted that because they had delivered a demo CD of “Party Ain’t Crunk” to McKaie prior to the release of “Family Affair,” under the doctrine, it could be inferred that the creators of “Family Affair” had access to their work. The court rejected this argument, stating that such “bare corporate receipt” was not sufficient proof of access. The court itself had not previously ruled on the matter, but it cited opinions from other circuits requiring plaintiffs to introduce evidence that there was a “close relationship” through which the infringers had a “reasonable possibility” of viewing the allegedly infringed work. Jones and White did not show that Mary J. Blige or Dr. Dre knew McKaie or worked with him, or that their relationships with Universal employees supported an inference that McKaie transferred the CD to them through intermediaries.
The court noted that the failure to offer proof of access can be excused if the two works are so strikingly similar that there is no possibility of independent creation. The melodies and beats bore a “passing resemblance” to each other, but court held that the similarity was not so striking as to excuse Plaintiffs from failure to prove access. Furthermore, Dr. Dre offered sufficient evidence showing that he and Mary J. Blige had independently created “Family Affair” before “Party Ain’t Crunk” was in Universal’s possession.