In 2017, a New Orleans Jazz Musician, Paul Batiste’s (“Batiste”), sued the world-renowned duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (“Macklemore”) alleging the duo copied eleven of his songs. Batiste v. Lewis, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69130, 2019 WL 1790454 (E.D. La., Apr. 23, 2019). Batiste claimed Macklemore had, without permission, digitally sampled Batiste’s songs, and as a result, Macklemore’s hits, “Can’t Hold Us,” “Thrift Shop,” “Neon Cathedral,” “Same Love,” and “Need to Know” were based on or derivatives of Batiste’s copyrighted musical works. The district court disagreed after finding Batiste failed to sufficiently prove Macklemore had “access” to Batiste’s music and that Macklemore’s songs were strikingly similar to Batiste’s. Additionally, the district court held Batiste liable to pay Macklemore’s attorney fees pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 505.
Batiste appealed and on September 22, 2020, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. See Batiste v. Lewis, Nos. 19-30400, 19-30889, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 30346 (5th Cir. Sep. 22, 2020). The Fifth Circuit agreed Batiste did not sufficiently prove Macklemore had access to Batiste’s works and failed to show substantial similarity between the competing works. Furthermore, the Fifth Circuit upheld the attorneys’ fees award, to the tune of $125,000, in favor of Macklemore.
Batiste argued Macklemore must have had access as a result of Batiste’s songs being “widely disseminated” through radio stations, record stores, and live performances at local nightclubs. Citing to evidence of “meager sales in only a handful of local stores” and “sparse” streaming and downloads, the court disagreed with Batiste and found the dissemination of his music was “quite limited.” The court further noted that Batiste’s songs did not become available to stream until after Macklemore had released most of their hit songs. Because Batiste failed to prove Macklemore had actual or constructive access, he was then tasked with proving “strikingly similarity” in order to prevail on his infringement claim since a “probative similarity can make up for a lesser showing of access.” In that regard, the Court found Batiste fell flat and did not “even try to meet the striking-similarity standard.”
Considering the objective unreasonableness of Batiste’s claims, his history of litigation misconduct, and his pattern of filing pugnacious copyright infringement actions, the court upheld the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees to Macklemore.
Accordingly, copyright infringement plaintiffs should think twice before filing suit capriciously and without first objectively evaluating the strength of their “access” and “similarity” proofs. The more access a defendant had to plaintiff’s copyrighted works the less similarity is required for a finding of infringement, and vice-versa, however, proof of both is ideal.