23 December 2021


In this issue of ZOOM-IN brief, Cher is in court to protect her rights; Abramovich settles Putin’s People defamation suit; Countdown’s Rachel Riley wins £10,000 damages in libel action; Carole Baskin drops her Tiger King 2 fight with Netflix; whilst a US court refuses Taylor Swift’s attempt to dismiss “Shake it off” copyright infringement claim.

Editorial credit: Tinseltown/ Shutterstock.com
Editorial credit: Tinseltown/ Shutterstock.com

Copyright (US) – Mary Bono seeks to dismiss Cher’s lawsuit

In the latest salvo in a dispute over the copyright ownership of Sonny and Cher hits such as ‘I’ve Got You Babe’ and ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’, Sonny’s widow, former Republican California congresswoman Mary Bono, is seeking to dismiss a lawsuit brought by living legend, Cher.

The superstar brought the legal action in California after receiving notice from the Bono Collection Trust, of which Mary Bono is chair, that it was seeking to terminate her rights and would stop paying her royalties. The Trust and Mary Bono are relying on the US federal Copyright Act, which allows authors of copyright works, or their heirs, to terminate transfers of copyright and reclaim their rights after 35 years. A number of artists have recently sought to exercise their termination rights against record companies which had control of their works. Sonny Bono tragically died in a skiing accident in South Lake Tahoe California in 1998, leaving his fourth wife Mary and his children as his heirs.

Sonny and Cher agreed to an equal division of their property when they divorced in 1978, as part of which Sonny assigned to Cher 50% of the rights in their musical composition and record royalties throughout the world and in perpetuity. Cher’s position is that this takes them outside the scope of the Copyright Act, and in seeking to terminate Cher’s rights Mary Bono is in breach of contract.

Mary Bono is seeking to dismiss Cher’s claim, arguing that the contractual arrangement after Sonny and Cher’s divorce does not trump the federal Copyright Act. Whilst Sonny could assign his rights in 1978, they say ‘Sonny could not, however, have signed away his heirs’ future rights of termination.’ Mary Bono’s legal motion also says that Cher will need to name as defendants and sue Sonny’s other heirs, his children Chesare, Chianna, Christy and Chaz. Chaz is Sonny and Cher’s only child together.

The court will need to decide whether the post-divorce contractual settlement or the Copyright Act apply. The royalties in play are said to amount to £1 million so far.

Defamation – Roman Abramovich settles ‘Putin’s People’ libel claim

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, HarperCollins and journalist Catherine Belton have settled their libel dispute over the book “Putin’s People”.

As previously reported in ZOOM-IN, HarperCollins faced a series of claims by Russian businessmen and companies over its contents, including Abramovich. In a High Court ruling in November, the court found that Belton’s book contained a number of statements which were defamatory of Abramovich.

Agreeing to amend parts of Putin’s People and pay an undisclosed amount to charity, HarperCollins have made an apology, available on their website, which includes the statement, “HarperCollins and the author apologise that [these] aspects of the book were not as clear as they would have liked them to have been and are happy to have now clarified the text.”

One of the contested allegations was that Abramovich bought Chelsea FC on the orders of Vladimir Putin. The amended book will omit several of the previously published statements, will make it clear that such allegations have since been discredited – and that “there is no evidence, beyond the statements of the individuals themselves” relating to the purchase. The new copy will also include a more detailed explanation as to the reasons why Abramovich bought Chelsea FC.

In a statement released to the PA News Agency, Abramovich’s spokesperson said: “We are pleased that HarperCollins and the author have apologised to Mr Abramovich and amended the book, removing several false claims about him.”

Defamation - Rachel Riley wins £10,000 damages in Twitter libel row

Countdown star, Rachel Riley, has been awarded £10,000 in damages in the High Court in a libel action against Laura Murray, former Stakeholder Manager for then Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn MP.

The claim concerned a series of Tweets in 2019, which began in January of that year with the Guardian journalist Owen Jones Tweeting a reference to an egg which had been thrown at the former leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, which said: “I think sound life advice is, if you don’t want eggs thrown at you, don’t be a Nazi.” In an unrelated incident on 3 March 2019, Jeremy Corbyn MP was egged whilst visiting a mosque in Finsbury Park. That same day, Riley re-posted Jones’ January Tweet, saying “Good advice” followed by two emojis: a red rose and an egg.

Murray’s initial response was directed at Riley’s Tweet stating that it encouraged “violent attacks” and she subsequently Tweeted: “Today Jeremy Corbyn went to his local mosque for Visit My Mosque Day, and was attacked by a Brexiteer. Rachel Riley tweets that Corbyn deserves to be violently attacked because he is a Nazi. This woman is as dangerous as she is stupid. Nobody should engage with her. Ever.”

Riley brought defamation proceedings in May 2019. In April 2020 the Court found that parts of Murray’s Tweet were defamatory. On 20 December 2021, several issues were considered, including whether or not Murray’s Tweet caused serious harm to Riley’s reputation and whether Murray could successfully argue the defences of ‘truth’, ‘honest opinion’, or ‘public interest’.

Riley, who had become a vocal critic of antisemitism, argued that her Tweet was sarcastic and that she did not call Corbyn a Nazi. Denying that she had defamed Riley, Murray contended that her Tweet was true and an honestly held opinion and that her Tweet had concerned a matter of public interest. The Court held, however, that Murray’s Tweet had caused serious harm to Riley’s reputation.

It was found that Riley’s “Good Advice” Tweet could have been interpreted in at least two ways, and that the words Riley used required interpretation by the reader. On the contrary, Murray’s Tweet was found to have been posted as a statement of fact in which she had misinterpreted Riley. On this basis, Murray failed to establish the defence of truth. While the Judge accepted that Murray had not been motivated by any “improper purpose”, Murray was also unsuccessful in defending the claim based on honest opinion. Her public interest defence was not considered to be reasonable.

In awarding damages, Mr Justice Nicklin acknowledged that Riley’s original Tweet could be “characterised as provocative, even mischievous” and that she must have “readily appreciated” that the meaning was ambiguous, adding further that Riley “can hardly be surprised – and she can hardly complain” – that the Tweet provoked the reaction that it did. In summary he said: “The Good Advice Tweet was ambiguous. The Defendant’s Tweet misrepresented it. This judgment, and the reporting of it, rather than reports of a simple figure of compensation, will make clear the vindication to which the Claimant is entitled”.

Following the judgment, Riley has Tweeted several times, saying that the case “has been a very draining process” and that she is “relieved to finally have vindication”. Warning others of the potential perils of social media, she added, “I hope this serves as a reminder that you can’t defame people without consequence, even on Twitter”.

A further hearing has been set for the week commencing 10 January 2022 for any remaining matters in this case.

US - Carole Baskin drops action against Tiger King 2 producers

Following a failed attempt to obtain an injunction to stop use of interview footage of them being used in Tiger King 2, that is beyond the first season of Tiger King, Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin and her husband Howard Baskin have decided to drop their lawsuit against Netflix and Royal Goode Productions LLC.

After initially seeking a jury trial and at least $100,000 in damages, in a statement on their website entitled “Terminating Netflix Lawsuit”, the Baskins claim that the “lawsuit was never about money damages … rather than suing those who produce salacious lies, our time should be spent working on meaningful productions”.

As well as taking a swipe at the producers, the Baskins contrasted the performance of Tiger King 2 with their series, Carole Baskin’s Cage Fight, currently being streamed on discovery+, and documentary The Conservation Game, stating that they had “… received very strong positive reviews in contrast to Tiger King Season 2.”

US judge refuses to dismiss ‘Shake it off’ copyright claim

The US District Court has refused Taylor Swift’s latest attempt to dismiss a copyright claim brought by Sean Hall and Nathan Butler over her biggest selling single, ‘Shake it Off’. Hall and Butler claim that Swift copied the lyrics to her 2014 hit from ‘Playas Gon Play’, a song they wrote in 2001 for the female R&B band 3LW.

This long-running claim (filed in 2017) was first dismissed by the US District Court in 2018 following a successful motion by Swift’s legal team. Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald had ruled that Hall and Butler’s lyrics were “too brief, unoriginal, and uncreative to warrant protection under the Copyright Act”.

Hall and Butler appealed and, in 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the ruling on the basis that the complaint “plausibly alleged originality” and that the court had erred in constituting itself as the final judge of the worth of an expressive work – a matter of fact which should be left to a jury.

The case was therefore remanded to the US District Court, where Swift made a further application for summary judgment. In dismissing this application on 9 December, Judge Fitzgerald held that Swift’s team had failed to show a change in circumstances since the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and that “even though there are some noticeable differences between the works, there are also significant similarities in word usage and sequence/structure”.

The claim will now proceed to trial, where a jury will be asked to consider whether lyrics including the phrases “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate” meet the threshold for copyright infringement.

This case will be closely watched by the IP industry, as a win by Hall and Butler could lead to a slew of claims which, until now, might have been considered hopeless.

Lawyers for Hall and Butler welcomed the decision, telling the BBC that the court “did the right thing”. Swift has not spoken publicly about the latest ruling, but her lawyers previously described the claim as “ridiculous” and “nothing more than a money grab”, according to People Magazine. Swift previously “shook off” a copyright claim by Jesse Graham, which alleged that she stole the phrase “haters gon hate” from Graham’s 2013 song ‘Haters Gone Hate’.


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