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for the Southern District of New York

Court Awards Ownership of Copyrights in Four Songs to Estate of Oscar Peterson

In a January 29, 2014 ruling, Judge Jed S. Rakoff, after a three day bench trial, awarded co-ownership of four song recordings by legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson to his estate and to Jayarvee, Inc., the owner and operator of the Birdland jazz club in New York City. The four recordings were duets, with Peterson on the piano, and jazz singer Hilary Kolodin, who is known professionally as Hilary Kole, as the singer. At the time of the recordings, Kole and the principal of Jayarvee, John Valenti, were in a relationship. After the relationship ended, Kole disputed ownership of the recordings.

The central issue in the case was the validity of an assignment of the recordings that was inarguably signed by Kole, although the assignee was not specifically identified. Valenti testified that the assignment, which was produced in the lawsuit from his possession, was intended to assign the recordings from Kole to Jayarvee. Kole testified that the assignment was meaningless, and that she filled it out and executed it merely to show another musician how to fill out such a form. Judge Rakoff, with some seeming dismay about Kole’s testimony, credited Valenti’s testimony and declined to credit Kole’s. The Court thus concluded that “any copyright interest Kole may have had in any of the Recordings was transferred to Jayarvee through the” assignment.

Judge Rakoff also found that “there is a threat of infringement of that ownership interest sufficient to support plaintiffs’ request for a permanent injunction” because Kole attempted to register her own copyrights in slightly modified recordings, and also caused one of the songs to be played on an Internet website. So the Court concluded that “plaintiffs are entitled both to a declaration that they are owners of the copyrights in all versions of the Recordings and to an injunction permanently barring Kole from any sale, distribution, or other public use of the recordings.” Judge Rakoff denied an award of fees, though, finding that in the circumstances of the case, “an award of fees would be excessive.”
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