(CN) – A popular Venezuelan folk song belongs to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the 1st Circuit ruled, because the music association had terminated a contract transferring rights to the song more than 20 years ago.
The song, “Caballo Viejo” (“Old Horse”), was written by Venezuelan folk singer Simón Díaz for his 1980 album of the same name. It has since become a classic and has been recorded by such Latin American music luminaries as Celia Cruz, Julio Iglesias, Placido Domingo and the Gypsy Kings.
The Latin American Music Company and the Asociación de Compositores y Editores de Música Latino Americana sued the ASCAP in Puerto Rico district court over the performance rights to the song, but a jury found for the ASCAP. The jury found that in 1982, West Side Music Publishing, which later became part of the ASCAP, legally canceled a contract transferring rights to the song to the plaintiffs.
The Latin music companies appealed, objecting to instructions given to the jury about the manner in which such a contract could be terminated. They argued that the agreement was governed by the federal Copyright Act, which requires termination to be put down in writing.
The ASCAP insisted that New York law, not federal law, governed the termination, and required only “reasonable notice,” which West Side’s former president said he gave verbally in 1982.
The three-judge appeals panel in Boston agreed with the ASCAP.
“Ordinarily, unless a contract provides otherwise, it is governed by the law of the state in which it was formed,” Judge Jeffrey Howard wrote. “Here, the contract was formed in New York and is silent with respect to termination. Under New York law, such a contract remains in force for a reasonable time and is subject to termination upon reasonable notice.”
The Latin music companies argued that because state law and the Copyright Act conflict, the Act’s termination criteria should prevail.
But the circuit could not identify a conflict and found the argument unconvincing.
The section of the Act that requires a signed document “applies to the transfer or grant of copyright ownership, not to the termination of such a transfer or grant,” Howard wrote.