Court overturns dismissal of horn player estate’s copyright case

Many Los Angeles musicians know protection of a copyright involves more than a handshake and a simple contract with a record company. Intellectual property abuses occur when artists don’t understand the music rights they have.

A lawsuit accuses KC & the Sunshine Band and affiliated defendants with copyright infringement. The son of a now-deceased member of the famous 70’s disco band claims his father’s music rights to solo work were trampled.

Initially, a federal court threw out the complaint claiming the horn player’s son had no right to make the claim. A second court reversed that decision and ordered the infringement case to be heard.

“Ronnie” Smith was part of KC & the Sunshine Band when the group charted its biggest dance hits. The horn player wrote an independent song called “Spank,” which was recorded and released in late 70’s by another artist, named among the defendants. Smith also released a solo album around the same time.

The copyright lawsuit alleges the musician never signed a songwriter’s agreement with Sunshine Records transferring the rights to “Spank” for royalties. Smith apparently did sign a release, when he parted ways with the record company in 1980, which did not address copyright ownership of the song.

The complaint said publisher Harrick Music, a Sunshine Records associate, registered a “Spank” copyright. In the copyright application, Harrick Music noted the song was composed by Smith but not as a “work for hire.” A work made for hire allows an employer to claim authorship of a work, rather than the employee-artist who created it.

The second court decided the musician’s estate, as the copyright’s “beneficial owner,” did have the statutory standing to move forward with the case.

Artists often don’t realize the legal protection they have or how rights can be lost through hastily-signed contracts. An attorney can make sure a musician doesn’t give up valuable rights for work he or she has worked so hard to create.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “KC & the Sunshine Band Rights Dispute Revived” Jeff D. Gorman, Jan. 24, 2014