Case Summary: The Sixth Circuit Embraces Copyright's 'Complete Preemption'

Kid Rock knocked a 4-year-old lawsuit out of a Michigan court Jan. 11 and set some legal precedent along the way.

Kid Rock knocked a 4-year-old lawsuit out of a Michigan court Jan. 11 and set some legal precedent along the way.

Promoter Alvin Williams and his associates claimed they entered into a series of contracts, including a partnership agreement, in 1989 with Robert Ritchie, aka Kid Rock. The following year, the artist wrote a letter to Williams and his associates, making it clear that he regarded the songs he had written as his own and that he did not intend to work with the Williams group in any areas of his entertainment career.

Kid Rock hit it big after the 1998 release of his fourth album. Three years later, the Williams group sued him in state court under various contract and tort theories.

Ritchie's lawyers conducted discovery and determined that the contracts were essentially designed to control the ownership, rights and exploitation of Kid Rock's songs and recordings. These rights are governed by copyright law.

They successfully removed the case to federal court, and then moved for summary judgment claiming the suit was barred by the statute of limitations, among other things.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan agreed. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Detroit affirmed.

In reaching its opinion, the court considered the "complete preemption" doctrine. It noted the importance of uniformly enforcing in every state federal laws in certain fields, such as labor management collective bargaining and banking.

Although only two of the 12 federal circuits have held that this doctrine applies to the Copyright Act, this court in the Sixth Circuit, which covers Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, decided to join the Second Circuit (N.Y., Conn., Vt.) and the Fourth Circuit (Md., N.C., S.C., Va., W.Va.).

As a result, all of the contract and tort claims based on Michigan rights that were equivalent to rights under copyright law were automatically converted into copyright claims.

The court then determined that the three-year statute of limitations period commenced when Kid Rock sent the 1990 letter claiming all rights in his songs, not during the years when he performed the songs.

Although the Williams group argued that Ritchie continued to infringe their rights, the court refused to toll the statute.

It held that the continuing-infringement theory did not apply since the parties' dispute revolved around copyright ownership; the statute began to run when Ritchie repudiated ownership in his 1990 letter.

The remaining claims were also thrown out on other grounds.

Case: Robert Ritchie a.k.a. Kid Rock, Top Dog Records Inc., Kid Rock Superstores Inc. vs. Alvin B. Williams, EB-Bran Productions Inc., Bow-Wow Publishing Inc. and Top Dog Publishing
Court: Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Detroit, Mich.; Decided and Filed Jan. 11, 2005
Counsel for Ritchie et al.: William Horton and Christopher Nelson, Cox, Hodgman & Giarmarco in Troy, Mich.
Counsel for Williams et al.: Stephanie L. Hammonds, Law Office of Stephanie L. Hammonds, Detroit, Mich.; Gregory J. Reed, Gergory J. Reed & Associates, Detroit, Mich.; Robert S. Nolan, Cantor Colburn, Troy, Mich.