Too Late Blues for Guitar Maker’s Copyright Ownership Claims

In Webster v. Dean Guitars, 2020 WL 1887783 (11th Cir. Apr. 16, 2020), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for a guitar manufacturer in a copyright dispute over the lightning storm graphic on “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott’s iconic guitar, known as “The Dean from Hell.”  The district court properly determined that the gravamen of the copyright infringement claim was a dispute over copyright ownership, and that Webster’s claims accrued as early as 2004 and as late as 2007, meaning that his 2017 suit was time-barred because it fell outside of the three-year statute of limitations for copyright claims.

Webster was a successful guitar maker and technician who designed Abbott’s guitar, a modified Dean ML guitar, in the mid-1980s that included a lightning storm graphic that Webster commissioned.  Abbott went on to achieve fame as a guitarist for the heavy-metal band Pantera and entered into an endorsement contract with Dean Guitars in 2004.  Abbott was tragically shot to death on stage by a deranged fan later that year.

Dean Guitars started selling reissues of The Dean from Hell guitar around the time of Abbott’s death in 2004, and then sold a cheaper, imported version of the guitar in 2006.  Webster, aware of these guitar sales, expressed his displeasure to Dean Guitars’ CEO that the guitars were being reproduced without Webster’s permission.  In April 2007, Dean Guitars’ CEO informed Webster that the general consensus regarding the lightning storm graphic was that Abbott’s Estate was the legal owner, and that Webster should sue the estate if he was upset that the guitars were being reproduced without his permission.

The district court awarded summary judgment to the defendants on all counts and noted that the Eleventh Circuit had not defined the point of accrual for a copyright ownership claim.  The district court examined the two tests employed by other circuits—one where a claim accrues when ownership is repudiated to the claimant, and the other when the plaintiff learns, or should as a reasonable person learn, that the defendant is violating his rights—and determined Webster’s claim was time-barred under either test.

On appeal, Webster argued (1) that the district court erred that the gravamen of his copyright claim was ownership; (2) that copyright ownership claims do not have a different date of accrual than copyright infringement claims; and (3) that a copyright infringement claim survives even if an ownership claim is time barred.

In an opinion by Judge Chuck Wilson, the Eleventh Circuit determined that since Webster’s main argument was that he owned the lightning storm graphic and it was reproduced without his consent, and the parties agreed that the graphic was reproduced without Webster’s consent, that ownership of the copyright was the only disputed issue.  Further, because Webster’s copyright registration was filed 30 years after publication of the graphic, and only registrations that are made within five years of publication are considered prima facie valid, his copyright claim was not entitled to a presumption of validity.

The court then decided that copyright ownership claims have a different accrual standard that copyright infringement claims because a claim for ownership only accrues once, unlike copyright infringement, which accrues for each infringing act.  The court adopted the approach used by the First, Second, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits—that an ownership claim accrues when the plaintiff learns, or should as a reasonable person have learned, that the defendant was violating his ownership rights—because it was most consistent with Eleventh Circuit precedent.

It followed that because Abbott’s ownership claim arose as early as 2004 when Dean Guitars began production of guitars with Webster’s claimed design, and as late as 2007 when Webster was informed of the consensus that Abbott’s estate owned the rights to the design, that it was time-barred.  Because Webster’s copyright ownership claim failed, all claims logically following therefrom, like copyright infringement, were also barred.

Posted by Cameron Murphy.

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