Copyright Ownership Takes Center Stage In Battle Over Mahalia Jackson’s Life and Legacy

     ATLANTA (CN) – A man who claims to have exclusive rights to late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s name and life story must prove he owns a valid copyright before he can sue the author of a musical that allegedly lifted portions of Jackson’s protected biography, a federal judge ruled.
     The plaintiff, Bishop Frank E. Lott-Johnson, had claimed an exclusive copyright to the book “Just Mahalia, Baby”, a biography about Mahalia Jackson. Written by Jackson’s close friend and biographer Lorraine Goreau, the book follows the evolution of gospel in the early 20th century and Jackson’s central role in the movement. Jackson rose out of an impoverished New Orleans neighborhood to become one of the most influential gospel artists in the world.
     Lott-Johnson claimed to be the sole owner of Jackson’s name and all the “plots, setting and characters” in the biography. He sued Tom Stolz, the author of a play called “Mahalia: A Gospel Musical”, and its distributor, Samuel French Inc., alleging that the musical violated his copyright by using Jackson’s name without his permission.
     In his Aug. 8 ruling, U.S. District Judge William Duffey Jr. found that Lott-Johnson’s complaint was unclear about which copyrighted work the defendants had allegedly infringed.
     “Plaintiff’s copyright registration points to an assignment of copyright interests in 65 titles,” Duffey wrote. “Two of those titles are ‘Just Halia, Baby’ and ‘Just Mahalia, Baby’, but the registration does not reference any underlying copyright ownership of those two titles.”
     The court also found that the copyright registration number provided by Lott-Johnson was not associated with Goreau’s book “Just Mahalia, Baby”, which has a copyright that is registered to another (nonparty) individual.
     In order to prove copyright infringement, Lott-Johnson must establish he owns a valid copyright and indicate the exact protected work in which he claims a copyright interest, the order states.
     Lott-Johnson had argued that the defendants’ musical used characters, images and songs from over 612 pages of his copyrighted materials.
     But the court noted that biographical facts, which are part of the public domain, cannot be copyrighted, and thus Lott-Johnson cannot base his claim on his incorrect belief that he owns exclusive rights to Jackson’s name and life story.
     Moreover, “the factual allegation that a musical could lift verbatim quotes from 612 pages of plaintiff’s protected work is highly implausible,” Duffey wrote.
     In addition to clarifying which protected materials the musical had allegedly infringed, the court also asked Lott-Johnson to specify which portions of the musical allegedly infringed the protected work.
     Duffey dismissed Lott-Johnson’s trademark infringement and deceptive trade practices claims as frivolous, because he had not alleged to have a trademark for Jackson’s name. He also denied a request for a permanent injunction against the defendants, finding Lott-Johnson’s copyright claims too vague and possibly frivolous.

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