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Estate of Chatmon v. Warner Music Group Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

June 27, 2018

WARNER MUSIC GROUP CORP., et al., Defendants.



         The Estate of Armetia Chatmon (the “Estate”) filed this action against Eric Clapton, among others, alleging Clapton violated one of Chatmon's copyrights. (Doc. No. 90.) All defendants except Clapton have been voluntarily dismissed from this action. (Doc. Nos. 47; 116; 125; 137.) Now Clapton moves to dismiss the remaining claims for lack of personal jurisdiction. (Doc. No. 104.) For the following reasons, the motion to dismiss is granted.


         The Estate alleges that it owns Chatmon's copyright in his musical composition called “Corrine, Corrina” (“The Original Song”). (Doc. No. 90 at 7.) In 1992, Clapton, a resident of England who owns property in Ohio (Id. at 6), recorded an episode of the “MTV Unplugged Series” in London, during which he performed The Original Song, which he called “Alberta, Alberta.” (Id. at 10.) The recording aired that year on the television station “MTV.” (Id.) Later that year, Clapton released his “Clapton Unplugged Album, ” featuring his Unplugged Performance of The Original Song, which sold millions of copies worldwide. (Id. at 11.) Clapton received six Grammy Awards for the album, including Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Rock Male Vocal Performance, and Best Rock Song. (Id.)

         In 2011, Clapton performed a derivative version of The Original Song with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center. (Id. at 12.) Warner Music Group later released a recording of this derivative song called “Marsalis & Clapton play the blues.” (Id.) In 2012, Universal Music Group released five editions of a remastered version of Clapton's 1977 album “Slowhand.” Three of the five editions contain an unreleased recording of “Alberta, ” originally recorded in 1977, which allegedly infringed on Chatmon's copyright. (Id.) In 2013, Clapton's “Unplugged” album was remastered and rereleased as a “Deluxe Edition” by Warner Music, which also featured a remastered version of The Original Song. (Id. at 12-13.) It also included video footage of Clapton's 1992 Unplugged Performance on “MTV.” (Id. at 13.) In 2014, Hal Leonard licensed sheet music and published it in the “Eric Clapton-Unplugged-Deluxe Edition Songbook, ” which sold in Tennessee and elsewhere. (Id.)

         The Estate's attorney, Barry Shrum, filed a Declaration that sets forth five specific facts to prove Clapton's connection with Tennessee: (1) the 2013 re-release of Clapton's Unplugged album, containing the infringing song, is available for purchase at a store in Nashville; (2) the Unplugged Deluxe Edition album, containing the infringing song, is available for purchase in Brentwood, Tennessee; (3) Clapton's website sells and ships copies of albums containing the infringing song to Tennessee; (4) Clapton performed in Tennessee in 2013 and 2014, and each time albums containing the infringing song were “offered for sale to concert goers in the State of Tennessee”; and (5) Clapton likely had at least some control over the geographic distribution of his musical compositions. (Doc. No. 81-1 at 2.) He declares that he has knowledge of the first four items based on his “significant independent research with regard to Mr. Clapton and his contact with, and targeted business in, the State of Tennessee.” (Id.) He declares the fifth item is “standard practice in the music industry.” (Id.)


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) allows a defendant to file a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. “In a diversity action, the law of the forum state dictates whether personal jurisdiction exists, subject to constitutional limitations.” Intera Corp. v. Henderson, 428 F.3d 605, 615 (6th Cir. 2005). Tennessee's long-arm statute, Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-2- 214, provides that a Tennessee court may exercise jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant on “[a]ny basis not inconsistent with the constitution of this state or of the United States.” Id. at (6). Accordingly, the long-arm statute has been consistently construed to extend to the limits of federal due process. Gordon v. Greenview Hosp., Inc., 300 S.W.3d 635, 645 (Tenn. 2009).

         The Estate has the burden of showing personal jurisdiction but “that burden is ‘relatively slight' where, as here, the . . . court rules without conducting an evidentiary hearing.” MAG IAS Holdings, Inc. v. Schmuckle, 854 F.3d 894, 899 (6th Cir. 2017) (citing Air Prods. & Controls Inc. v. Safetech Int'1 Inc., 503 F.3d 544, 549 (6th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted)). “To defeat dismissal in this context, [the Estate] need make only a prima facie showing that personal jurisdiction exists.” Id. Nevertheless, “[i]n response to a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff may not stand on his pleadings, but must show the specific facts demonstrating that the court has jurisdiction.” Miller v. AXA Winterthur Ins. Co., 694 F.3d 675, 678 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing Theunissen v. Matthews, 935 F.2d 1454, 1458 (6th Cir. 1991)). Because the Court did not hold an evidentiary hearing, it may not weigh Clapton's Declaration (Doc. No. 80) in its analysis. Compuserve, Inc. v. Patterson, 89 F.3d 1257, 1263 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing Theunissen, 935 F.2d at 1459).


         Clapton argues that he does not have sufficient minimal contacts with the State of Tennessee to be subjected to suit in this Court. (Doc. No. 105.) The Estate counters that the Court has specific personal jurisdiction over Clapton. (Doc. No. 107.) Even if the Court did not have personal jurisdiction under traditional due process considerations, the Estate also contends that the Court has jurisdiction over this case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(k)(2).


         For a court to exercise specific jurisdiction over a defendant, the plaintiff must prove: (1) the defendant purposefully availed himself of the privilege of acting in the forum state or causing a consequence in the forum state; (2) the cause of action must arise from the defendant's activities there; and (3) “the acts of the defendant or consequences caused by the defendant must have a substantial enough connection with the forum state to make the exercise of jurisdiction over the defendant reasonable.” S. Mach. Co. v. Mohasco Indus., Inc., 401 F.2d 374, 381 (6th Cir. 1968). The key question is whether the defendant purposefully availed himself. Air Prods. & Controls, Inc, 503 F.3d at 550-51. A defendant “purposefully avails” himself “by engaging in activity that should provide ‘fair warning' that he may have to defend a lawsuit there.” Youn v. Track, Inc., 324 F.3d 409, 418 (2003) (quoting World-Wide Volkswagon Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980)).

         The Estate argues that Clapton purposefully availed himself of the privilege of acting in Tennessee by placing the infringing song in the stream of commerce, which ended up in Tennessee, and entering distribution agreements to ensure that the music would reach Tennessee.[1] (Doc. No. 107.) Clapton argues that any allegation by the Estate ...

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