Andre Romelle Young, a.k.a Dr. Dre, was awarded partial summary judgement after a Kentucky federal judge found the hip-hop mogul and NWA member not liable for copyright infringement of plaintiff’s sound recording. Leroy Phillip Mitchell, a Louisville singer and songwriter, sued Dr. Dre in February 2015, claiming he unlawfully used copyrighted materials from his 1977 track, “Star in the Ghetto.” Capitol Records was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Plaintiff alleged his song was sampled in the NWA song, “If It Ain’t Ruff,” featured on the band’s seminal album, “Straight Outta Compton.” Mitchell claimed his track was used without his permission or knowledge and that he never received credit or financial compensation for its use. But, U.S. District Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr. ruled that Mitchell only holds a copyright for the musical composition, not the sound recording. The sound recording is the “aggregation of the sounds captured in the recording, while the song or tangible medium of expression embodied in the recording is the musical composition,” the ruling explains. In granting defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment, the judge relied on defendant’s evidence establishing Atlantic Records as owner of the sound recording. Further, Dr. Dre and Capitol Records presented a certificate of registration listing Mitchell as author of both the words and music, but not the recording. Consequently, Mitchell can only pursue his claim for infringement of the copyright to the musical composition.
You might be wondering why Mitchell took so long to file this lawsuit. In Sixth Circuit copyright cases, a claim accrues when a copyright owner “knows of the potential violation or is charged with such knowledge,” not when the infringement occurred. The judge, relying on U.S. Supreme Court case Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, et al., 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014), found that Plaintiff “presented evidence that his claims did not accrue until May 2014” and therefore, his suit was timely filed within the three year statute of limitations. Moreover, the judge endorsed Petrella for its holding that the equitable defense of laches (a.k.a. unreasonable delay) is not available to bar copyright infringement claims falling within the Copyright Act’s statute of limitations.
The case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky under the caption, Mitchell v. Capitol Records LLC et al., case number 3:15-cv-00174.