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Copyrights Entertainment and Sports Law Litigation

Federal Appeals Courts Weight in On Accruals for Copyright Infringement vs. Ownership Claims

The U.S. Copyright Act states that a civil copyright action must be filed within three years of its accrual. How this applies to copyright infringement and to copyright ownership claims, including in the same case, isn’t always clear. But two recent federal appeals courts decisions have provided guidance on the differences in accrual for each of these copyright claims.

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The U.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §507(b), states that a civil copyright action must be filed within three years of its accrual. How this applies to copyright infringement and to copyright ownership claims, including in the same case, isn’t always clear. But two recent federal appeals courts decisions, one from the Eleventh Circuit and one from the Second Circuit, have provided guidance on the differences in accrual for each of these copyright claims. Webster v. Dean’s Guitars, 19-10013 (11th Cir. 2020), presented a case of first impression to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. In the 1980s, Buddy Webster (p/k/a Buddy Blaze) presented a Dean guitar he had rigged with a lightning storm visual to Darrell Abbott, who became a legendary guitarist for heavy metal group Pantera. In 2004, Abbott, who dubbed the guitar “The Dean from Hell” (DFH) agreed to endorse Dean guitars. When Abbott died later that year, Dean began reissuing copies of Abbott’s guitar featuring the lightning graphic — without Webster’s permission. Webster knew in December 2004 of the guitar reissue as well as Dean’s sale of subsequent editions of the guitar, but didn’t file suit until 2017 — not long after Webster federally registered the copyright in the lightning graphic. His complaint alleging copyright infringement, among other things, was litigated in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, where the district court dismissed the action as a time-barred copyright ownership claim.

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