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11th Circuit overturns $1.4 million award for rapper in copyright battle

The case will head back to Georgia federal court due to rapper Rackboy Cam’s failure to serve a music producer in the second round of a clash over copyright infringement of his song “Everything Be Lit.”

ATLANTA (CN) — A Georgia federal judge’s award of $1.4 million to rapper Rackboy Cam in a lawsuit accusing a music producer of infringing on the copyright to the 2015 song “Everything Be Lit” was tossed out by a panel of the 11th Circuit on Wednesday.

Citing a legal error concerning service of the lawsuit, a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court unanimously overturned a judgment in favor of the New Jersey rapper, whose real name is Anthony Campbell, and sent the case back down to the lower court for further proceedings.

Campbell filed suit in 2018 against music producer June James, Rayshawn Lamar Bennett also known as YFN Lucci, Rakin Hasheem Allen aka “PnB Rock” and Think It’s a Game Records. He claimed their 2016 song “Everyday We Lit” had similar lyrics and hooks to the song he wrote and recorded the previous year.

According to the panel’s decision, a representative of Think It’s a Game Records acknowledged that the songs sounded similar when contacted by Campbell. The label continued to distribute “Everyday We Lit” anyway.

Campbell’s original lawsuit ended in 2018 with the entry of a default judgment against James and Allen due to their failure to respond. In an amended complaint filed one month later, Campbell requested an actual damages award for the first time in the form of all profits derived from the infringing work.

In 2021, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pannell found in favor of Campbell and prohibited the defendants from publicly performing or distributing their song, which by then had already peaked at number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 and been certified gold.

Pannell awarded Campbell $1.4 million in profits, prejudgment interest and a perpetual 50% running royalty against future infringement. James appealed the judgment, arguing that it unfairly found he was in partnership with Allen.

In an 11-page decision, the 11th Circuit vacated Pannell’s decision based on Campbell’s failure to serve the amended complaint on James.

The panel sided with arguments presented by James' attorney at a hearing last month, agreeing that the producer was not on notice of the possibility that he could face joint and several liability for the damages request.

The judges objected to Pannell’s finding that the amended complaint was “virtually identical” to the original lawsuit. Pannell wrongly found that Campbell did not have to serve the amended complaint on James, the ruling explains.

The panel found that while the Copyright Act put James on notice that he could be subject to joint and several liability, it did not put him on notice that liability was possible as to actual damages and profits.

“Campbell’s claim for actual damages plus profits, jointly and severally, constituted a new claim for relief. Therefore, under Rule 5, the amended complaint needed to be served on James even though he was in default,” U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote on behalf of the panel.

U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, a fellow Trump appointee, wrote separately to concur with the majority opinion and to advise the district court on its next steps.

Lagoa counseled the lower court to reconsider whether awarding both a permanent injunction against future infringement and a running royalty is appropriate.

An attorney for James said she and her client were pleased with the decision.

“We believe the court’s findings are accurate and in accordance with case law and the procedural rules.  We are looking forward to the next phase of the litigation process,” attorney Dana Stith-Gray said.

Branch and Lagoa were joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, a Bill Clinton appointee.

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