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Judge Tosses Copyright Claim Against Osteens

HOUSTON (CN) - The copyright owners' allegations were insufficient to show that megachurch co-pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen infringed on the rights to the song "Signaling Through the Flames," a federal judge ruled.

Composers Richard Cupolo and John Emanuele and their record label, Yesh Music, sued the Osteens and Lakewood Church for direct and contributory copyright infringement in August 2011.

In their lawsuit the copyright holders contended that the Osteens and their Houston church went beyond the limits of their licensing agreement in their use of the composition in television broadcasts and advertisements, as well as on their websites.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison applied British Columbian law, a move supported by the parties and specified in their licensing agreement.

"After considering the licensing agreement as a whole, as the court is required to do, it is clear that there is only one reasonable interpretation," Ellison wrote. "Specifically, the licensing agreement unambiguously limits perpetual-use Internet rights to those productions created or revised prior to the agreement's expiration."

The Osteens and Lakewood contended that their licensing agreement automatically renewed. But according to the copyright owners, the agreement stated otherwise - no license fee, no automatic renewal - an argument that the judge accepted.

Ellison did, however, toss the claims against the Osteens, finding that "most of plaintiffs' allegations are generically about 'defendants.'"

"Plaintiffs only specifically refer to the Osteens to (1) clarify that they are the directors of Lakewood, and (2) explain that they appeared in television advertisements marketing their DVD 'Supernatural,'" Ellison said in his 20-page order. "Plaintiffs do not allege facts showing that the Osteens had a financial stake in the infringing activity and personally supervised the infringing conduct."

The copyright owners have 14 days to amend their claims against the pastors.

Ellison refrained from dismissing the extraterritorial infringement claims. "At the summary judgment stage, evidence may show that the international copyright infringement did not originate in or even occur partially in the United States, therefore meriting judgment in favor of defendants," Ellison wrote. "Yet plaintiffs' original complaint states sufficient facts to survive the motion to dismiss."

The copyright owners seek actual damages of $3 million. They cannot sue for punitive damages under the Copyright Act, according to Ellison.

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