(CN) - The owner of Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles must pay some $200,000 for playing eight copyrighted songs at a lounge in Long Beach, Calif., the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
For years the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) had urged chain owners Herbert Hudson and East Coast Foods to purchase a license to perform music by its members at Roscoe's Long Beach location and the attached Sea Bird Jazz Lounge.
Hudson steadfastly refused, so the group sent in a private investigator.
Veteran ASCAP investigator Scott Greene visited the lounge one night in 2008. There he heard a live act, Azar Lawrence & the L.A. Legends, playing copyrighted John Coltrane numbers. He also heard several Hiroshima songs played over the venue's stereo system, the titles of which he gleaned by sneaking up to the CD player and transcribing the songs directly from a jewel case.
The music companies that own the copyrights to the songs subsequently sued East Coast and Hudson for eight counts of copyright infringement. East Coast and Hudson counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment, stating that they had not committed the infringements.
A Los Angeles District Court ruled for the music companies, however, granting them summary judgment and $4,500 in damages for each of the eight infringed works, totaling $36,000. The court also ordered the defendants to pay $162,728 in attorneys' fees and costs.
On appeal in the 9th Circuit, Hudson argued, among other things, that the private investigator's testimony, which served as the music companies' primary proof of wrongdoing, should have been excluded because Greene was a layman and not an expert.
A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court disagreed in a short ruling published Thursday from Pasadena.
"Identifying popular songs does not require 'scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge,'" Judge Richard Paez wrote for the unanimous panel. "On the contrary, identifying music is a reflexive daily process for millions of radio listeners, amateur karaoke singers, and fans of Name That Tune reruns. Moreover, many of Greene's identifications did not even require him to tax his memory: the live band announced the titles of several of the compositions they covered, and Greene transcribed other titles directly from a CD jewel case. Clearly, the District Court correctly determined that Greene's evidence was admissible."
The panel concluded that East Coast and Hudson were liable for copyright infringement, and that the rather high fees and costs that they will have to pay were largely "occasioned by East Coast's and Hudson's obfuscation of the corporate structure of Roscoe's."
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