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Hip Hop Artist's Copyright Ownership Claim Time Barred

By Barry Werbin

Hip hop artist Tyrone Simmons could not rap his way out of his delay in pursuing a claim of ownership of exclusive copyright licensing rights against hip hop producer William C. Stanberry, Jr., rapper 50 Cent, and several entities that had been involved with producing and distributing a song called "I Get Money" that was released in 2007. On January 15, 2016, the Second Circuit held (per curium) in Simmons v. Stanberry, that Simmons' claim was time-barred under the Copyright Act's three year statute of limitations because he became aware of Stanberry's repudiation of his license rights and release of the song more than three years before suit was filed.(2d Cir. 1/15/2016)

The Court applied its prior decision on copyright ownership in Kwan v. Schlein (634 F.3d 224 (2d Cir. 2011)), where it held that where a claim for ownership was time-barred, so too were any attendant infringement claims. The Court held that the exclusive license allegedly held by Simmons was legally equivalent to copyright ownership because Section 101 of the Copyright Act "recognizes that an exclusive license is effectively a transfer of ownership over the rights licensed. The Act includes exclusive licenses among the list of transactions that can effect a "transfer of copyright ownership...."

The case reinforces the risk of delay in pursuing claims of copyright ownership in the face of an express repudiation of rights. It further highlights the distinction as to how the Copyright Act's three year statute of limitations is applied differently with respect to ownership claims versus infringement claims. With respect to infringement claims where ownership is not in issue, the three year limitations period only bars damages going back more than three years preceding the filing of the complaint, where an infringement is ongoing.

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