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Spanish Broadcasting System keeps $800k fee win in music copyright case

A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday said radio-station owner Spanish Broadcasting System Inc was entitled to $845,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs it spent in defending itself against copyright claims brought by Latin American Music Company Inc (LAMCO), whose only evidence of infringement was testimony that its president was “basically making up” as he went along.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said LAMCO also failed to prove that its previous attorneys were responsible for the misconduct that led to the fee award.

SBS’ attorney James Sammataro of Pryor Cashman said in an email that with copyright claims of questionable merit at an all-time high, the court’s ruling “validates the decision for all those defendants who refuse to bow to nuisance-value pragmatism.”

LAMCO’s attorney Steven Storch of Storch Byrne didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

LAMCO, a Puerto Rican performance rights organization that said it administers thousands of music copyrights, sued SBS in 2013 in Manhattan federal court, alleging SBS’ stations in San Juan and New York played several songs it has copyright interests in without a license.

Then-U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan in Manhattan ruled for SBS after a bench trial, and Sullivan, now on the 2nd Circuit, ordered LAMCO last year to pay $845,000 of SBS’ attorneys’ fees and costs. Sullivan said the case justified fees because LAMCO’s president, Luis Raul Bernard, admitted his sister-in-law, not LAMCO, owned the songs, and he failed to produce any evidence of copying, among other things.

LAMCO argued on appeal that it had rights to the songs through licenses, that it reasonably believed it had a case based on advice from its previous attorneys, Jose Luis Torres and Kelly Talcott, and that they failed to produce recordings of infringing radio broadcasts that LAMCO gave them that would have supported its case.

Torres and Talcott didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Tuesday’s opinion, U.S. Circuit Judges John Walker, William Nardini and Steven Menashi, in an unsigned opinion, said LAMCO gave no reason to disturb Sullivan’s conclusions.

Under copyright law, factors used to determine whether attorneys’ fees are justified include whether the claims were frivolous, objectively unreasonable and brought with an improper motivation.

The court noted that LAMCO “forged ahead” to trial despite Sullivan’s warning that he likely wouldn’t credit Bernard’s testimony unless Bernard “demonstrates savant-like abilities of recall.”

It also rejected LAMCO’s argument that its claims were reasonable based on its recordings.

LAMCO’s “post hoc explanations based largely on evidence that was never properly presented in the district court” didn’t make the claims “objectively reasonable or non-frivolous at the time they were filed and litigated,” the appeals court said.

The court also denied LAMCO’s attempt to pass the blame on to its former attorneys, crediting Sullivan’s findings that LAMCO had a “litigation strategy designed to extract settlements by imposing costs and litigation risks on defendants,” and had been forced to pay attorneys’ fees by other courts for bringing similar claims, regardless of the attorneys’ conduct.

The case is Latin American Music Company Inc v. Spanish Broadcasting System Inc, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-2332. Reuters

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