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Intellectual Property Copyright – Civil Practice – Declaratory Judgment – Trusts & Estates – James Brown Compositions

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//September 25, 2019

Intellectual Property Copyright – Civil Practice – Declaratory Judgment – Trusts & Estates – James Brown Compositions

By: S.C. Lawyers Weekly staff//September 25, 2019

Plaintiffs allege that defendant Hynie has entered into an agreement which violates provisions of the Copyright Act, circumventing plaintiffs’ statutory interests while enhancing Hynie’s compensation. Plaintiffs’ allegations are sufficient to state a claim for a declaratory judgment.

Defendants’ motion to dismiss is denied.


Defendant Hynie was married to the late singer, James Brown. Defendant James Brown II is their son. As legal heirs to James Brown, plaintiffs allege that defendants have conspired to usurp their rights and interests in his compositions. Plaintiffs seek a declaration that a “Settlement Agreement” or any “Concealed Terms” amongst defendants is void and unenforceable.

Declaratory Judgment

The Fourth Circuit has identified three elements to determine whether a plaintiff has stated a claim under the Declaratory Judgment Act. First, the complaint must allege “an actual controversy” between the parties’ ‘of sufficient reality to warrant issuance of a declaratory judgment.’” Volvo Const. Equip. North America, Inc. v. CLM Equip. Co., 386 F.3d 581 (4th Cir. 2004). Second, there must be an independent basis for jurisdiction. Third, the court cannot abuse its discretion in exercising jurisdiction.

This court has previously ruled that there is an independent basis for jurisdiction under the Copyright Act and 28 U.S.C. § 1338(a) because “Plaintiffs’ Complaint requires a construction of the Copyright Act and because distinctive federal policies control the disposition of the action.”

Actual Controversy

Plaintiffs clearly allege adverse legal interests in terms of both termination interests granted by the Copyright Act and financial proceeds flowing from their proportionate ownership of copyright interests under state and federal law, as legal heirs to James Brown.

By purporting to have their termination rights adversely affected by defendants’ actions, in violation of § 203 of the Copyright Act, which defendants have repudiated, plaintiffs have created a controversy as to whether plaintiffs will be entitled to their full share of “the future rights … upon termination of the grant,” as provided by the statute. 17 U.S.C. § 203(b)(2). This controversy is therefore non-speculative, and actual.

Similarly, plaintiffs have demonstrated that the controversy is of sufficient immediacy and reality to survive defendants’ motions to dismiss, and to sustain their declaratory judgment action. Indeed, plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that defendants have already engaged in unlawful agreements under the Copyright Act and defendant Hymie has already engaged in statutory terminations, which may have deprived them of proceeds. The court notes that defendants have never denied the existence of these alleged secret agreements, which directly undermines any argument that plaintiffs’ claims are conjectural or hypothetical.

Abuse of Discretion

Plaintiffs’ action for a declaratory judgment clearly serves a useful purpose in clarifying legal relations in issue.

Plaintiffs allege that they are entitled to proceeds from James Brown’s copyright grants, they allege that they have been deprived of possible proceeds, and a declaration would return those proceeds to them and clarify the allocation of their termination rights.

Likewise, plaintiffs’ complaint requests a declaration invalidating the alleged, secret agreements that impact their termination interests or any proceeds therefrom. Such a declaration would provide clarity surrounding questions related to the proceeds of which they are, or were, allegedly deprived. This would also allow for efficient litigation.

Plaintiffs have stated a claim for relief under the Declaratory Judgment Act.

Motion denied.

Brown-Thomas v. Hynie (Lawyers Weekly No. 002-044-19, 18 pp.) (J. Michelle Childs, J.) 1:18-cv-02191. Alyson Smith Podris, Robert Byrd, Douglas Fretty and Marc Toberoff for plaintiffs; Arnold Samuel Goodstein, Robert Neil Rosen, S. Alan Medlin, Susan Corner Rosen, Howard Bryant Stravitz, Thomas Andrew Haffey, Albert Peter Shahid, Stephen Slotchiver, J. David Black, John Fisher Beach and Lyndey Ritz Zwing Bryant for defendants. D.S.C.

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