Thursday, July 12, 2001
Lawyers Dispute Before Ninth Circuit Who Owns Country Icon’s Song
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Lawyers for a songwriter and a music publisher sparred before a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel yesterday as to who owns the copyright on a Patsy Cline song that wasn’t released until after her death.
Cline, 30 years old when she was killed in a 1963 plane crash, was a country music “icon” whose previously unreleased works achieved success after her death, along with the songs that were released during her lifetime, Glendale lawyer Dennis Moss told the panel.
Moss represents songwriter Hal Winn and the estate of the late songwriter/producer Guy Hemric. His clients are suing Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., the famed country music publisher now owned by Gaylord Entertainment Company of Nashville.
Acuff-Rose says it is the sole owner of Cline’s “The Heart You Break May Be Your Own,” recorded by Cline in the 1950s.
But Winn and the Hemric estate say the song, on which Winn and Hemric registered a copyright in 1957—renewing it in 1984—is theirs and that Acuff-Rose infringed the copyright.
Acuff-Rose claims the song—which Cline first recorded in Nashville in 1956—was written in 1955 by Tiny Colbert and Bob Geesling, both of whom are now deceased, and that it has been paying royalties to them and their estates for years. Acuff-Rose contends that the song is among properties it acquired when it bought out 4 Star Records, for which Cline originally recorded the song.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter granted Acuff-Rose’s motion for summary judgment, which was based on laches and the three-year statute of limitations for copyright infringement.
But Moss said that his clients are entitled to damages for infringements during the period beginning three years prior to their filing suit.
The assertion that Geesling and Colbert wrote the song is a “lie’ and the copyright registration on which Acuff-Rose is relying a “phony,” Moss told the judges. The composition they claim is theirs, he argued, is word-for-word the song that Hemric and Winn wrote.
But Judge William Fletcher questioned why Moss’ clients, despite “periodic threats” to sue, waited decades to do so.
Moss said Hemric and Winn were songwriters, not businessmen. Their lack of sophistication led them to rely on their publisher, who “dropped the ball”—and is now being sued by them in state court as a result—he said.
The final impetus for the suit, he added, was the release in the 1990s of a boxed set of Cline recordings, including “The Heart You Break.…”
Robert Osterberg, a New York lawyer representing Acuff-Rose, argued that the suit is “completely barred by the principles of laches.” His client, he said, would be subject to “immutable prejudice” if it has to defend itself from a lawsuit regarding events as to which all of the witnesses except Winn are dead and “all of the business records are gone.”
The panel was made up of Fletcher, Judge Procter Hug Jr., and Judge Susan Graber.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company