Major Sony Music Copyright Infringement Case Re-opened

By: Ronald Bienstock

In what might go down as a landmark decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reopened a major Sony Music copyright infringement case – the suit between the composer of the “Iron Man Theme” song and rapper Ghostface Killah and Sony Music.

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According to Courthouse News, in reviving the suit that dated back to 2011, the Second Circuit claimed that the plaintiff, Jack Urbont, had presented enough compelling evidence to take the case to trial. Urbont claims that a portion of the music on Ghostface Killah’s album, “Supreme Clientele,” featured the “Iron Man Theme” without the composer’s permission.

“The case could have significant ramifications on music ownership.”

This is a major case because it has the potential to have significant ramifications on the ownership of copyrighted music in entertainment – particularly with compositions featured in television and movies, but more importantly, reawaken artist and producers as to the hazards of sampling without legal clearance. It could also have important ramifications as to what constitutes a “work-for-hire.”

The background of the case

Urbont was the composer of “The Marvel Super Heroes”, a television show that ran throughout the 1960s. While he created music specifically for the show, he also maintained ownership of the compositions. One of those songs composed for the show was the “Iron Man Theme.”

Years later, Ghostface Killah sampled the “Iron Man Theme” in 2000 for his album, Supreme Clientele. This led to a copyright infringement lawsuit incited by Urbont, but a district court initially decided in favor of Sony Music and Ghostface Killah, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The court disputed Urbont’s ownership of the music because the song was part of work made for hire or what we refer to as “work-for-hire”.

This was a significant decision at the time because Marvel had faced a rash of lawsuits from former employees surrounding the ownership of intellectual property created for the company. However, the case had an interesting twist: Marvel did not dispute Urbont’s ownership of the song. That meant that while Sony Music disputed Urbont’s ownership of the composition, Marvel did not, which made it the first case of its kind at the time.

Sony Music Copyright Infringement Case

The Court of Appeals reopens the case

The Second Circuit disagreed with the previous district court decision in that the song in question was definitively made as a work-for-hire. The Consumerist reported this was evidenced with a 1966 copyright registration that listed Urbont as the author of the song, with a subsequent renewal of the copyright in 1995.

Furthermore, Urbont also testified in the previous case that Stan Lee, former president and chairman of Marvel Comics, did not have the right to modify the “Iron Man Theme”, he could only accept or reject the song. While that does not prove Urbont’s definitive ownership of the song, it also does not mean that it was a work for hire either. Therefore, the court believes that the case should be sent to trial.

The significance of the trial

The decision in this trial will come down to whether the court deems that Urbont’s settlement agreement allows for him to maintain ownership of the song, or if that is preempted by the Copyright Act.

Previously, courts have asserted that recordings made before 1972 were placed into the public domain, which makes the impact of this decision potentially massive for older recordings. Specifically, it could change the manner in which future decisions view these recordings of theme songs for television and film with respect to sampling by musical artists.

Sony Music’s argument also holds some precedential value because its claim is that Urbont never independently released the recording of the “Iron Man Theme”, which does not expose it to any copyright infringement. The company also claims that since Urbont created the song for a show, the composition itself did not include a visual component – thus, Ghostface Killah did not infringe on any audiovisual copyright infringement.

Are you currently dealing with a copyright infringement suit? Would you like to discuss this case further? Please contact me, Ron Bienstock.


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Ronald Bienstock

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