A federal court in California agreed to remove the two songwriters of the Disney animated film Frozen from a copyright infringement lawsuit, for now. The lawsuit claims that the hit song “Let It Go” was copied from a Chilean song called “Volar,” and that the two songs are so strikingly similar that Disney could not claim its song was independently created.
The plaintiff, Jamie Ciero, originally filed the lawsuit in November 2017 wherein he alleged that the songwriters, Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, copied “quantitatively and qualitatively distinct, important, and recognizable portions of his song.” This included note combinations, hooks, and melodies that are, according to Ciero, almost identical to those in his song.
Copyright infringement occurs when someone uses a copyrighted work without permission of the copyright holder. A copyright holder has certain exclusive rights to his or her work, including the right to reproduce, distribute, display, or perform the protected work, as well as the right to make any derivative works (like sequels or spin-offs) from the original. A copyright owner’s rights are limited, however, by the doctrine of fair use, which allows copying for purposes of education, journalism, commentary, and criticism.
According to the Copyright Act, a copyright owner has three years from the date of to bring suit assuming the owner knew or should have known about the infringement. Evaluation of when an owner’s claim arises for purposes of the three-year statute of limitations is often a complicated process and very fact sensitive.
Attorneys for the Frozen team argued that the clock had already run out on any copyright infringement lawsuit, as the film had been released in November of 2013 and Ciero waited four years to bring suit. The court agreed, and removed the songwriters from the suit, observing that Ciero should have “known about ‘Let It Go’ prior to November 23, 2014,” as the song had been a smash hit and even won an Academy Award for Best Original song.
The fight might not be over just yet. According to the Supreme Court in Petrella v. MGM, 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014), a copyright owner who is aware of an infringed can sit back and wait for years until the infringer’s profits justify the cost and effort of suing and then bring the lawsuit. In that case, the copyright owner will only be able to collect damages for the three years prior to suit. As such, every separate act of infringement gives rise to a separate cause of action, and is subject to a separate statute of limitations clock.
The California court has given Ciero the opportunity to amend its complaint to take another shot at the dismissed defendants. This time, he should include “all factual allegations supporting his claims . . . because that opportunity to amend his complaint might be his last,” according to the court.