CINCINNATI (CN) – The estate of “King of the Road” singer Roger Miller cannot keep a $900,000 verdict against Sony for copyright infringement, the 6th Circuit ruled.
Sony Publishing still owns the copyrights to Miller’s country-western music because it applied for the copyrights before Miller’s death.
Sony was named assignee of Roger Miller copyrights in the 1960s and applied to renew those copyrights in early 1992. Miller’s greatest hit, “King of the Road,” is one of about two dozen 1964 songs in dispute.
The renewal term of Miller’s songs began in January 1993, but Miller died months earlier in October 1992. His widow, Mary Miller, claimed that copyright law dictates they she was sole owner of the copyrights following the musician’s death.
Roger Miller Music Inc. sued Sony in December 2004 over the song rights, and a federal judge in Nashville eventually ordered the recording studio to pay Miller’s company more than $903,300 in infringement damages. The court said Sony did not own the renewal copyrights to the 1964 songs because Miller had died prior to the vesting of those rights and a list of statutory successors did not include assignees.
On appeal, however, a three-judge panel concluded otherwise.
“Miller’s assignment of the renewal copyright would indisputably have been made effective if he had still been living at the commencement of the renewal term on January 1, 1993,” Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the court. “Equally indisputable is that the assignment would have been rendered ineffective if Miller had died before 1992. … RMMI contends that Miller must have been living at the start of the renewal term to effectuate his assignment to Sony, but Sony contends that Miller needed to survive only until that time at which the application was filed. Sony is correct that the Copyright Act supports the effectiveness of assignments in such circumstances.”
“The renewal copyright vests in any party entitled to it ‘at the time the application is made,'” Moore added. “The author (and therefore any of his assignees) thus secures an interest in the renewal copyrights so long as he is still living at the time of application for renewal at the Copyright Office. … The House Judiciary Committee Report for the 1992 Copyright Act confirms this reading, explaining that ‘[r]egistration during the final year would assure the author or other claimant that his or her right to the renewal term vested on registration, even if he or she died later that year.'”
Moore rejected claims that Miller’s widow could hold simultaneous interest in the copyrights with Sony until the commencement of the renewal term under precedent set in the case seven years earlier when it was captioned Broadcast Music v. RMMI.
“The statement in Broadcast Music that ‘renewal copyright interests can be held simultaneously by numerous parties’ was made in the context of a dispute between an author’s widow and child, both of whom occupy the same tier in the statutory successor hierarchy,” Moore wrote.