Yes, another copyright case involving Prince (of Paisley Park, not of Wales). (But not the biggie.)

And another case dealing with the fallout of a collaboration that went south. (Here are here are others we have covered recently.)

In the late 1970s into the early ’80s, plaintiff Allen Beaulieu took some truly extraordinary and iconic photographs of Prince. (This is my favorite.) In 2014, Beaulieu began working on a book about his years at the side of the High Priest of Pop. He teamed up with the defendants to (among other things) assist with writing the book and scanning and storing digital copies of his photos. After Prince’s untimely death in 2016, one of the defendants sent an MP4 slideshow and press release that included a number of Beaulieu’s photos to about a dozen people in an effort to get investors for the book project. Sometime thereafter, the collaboration fell apart. (The opinion is silent as to what happened. Why do they always leave out the good bits?) Beaulieu eventually published a book, without the defendants.

Beaulieu sued his former collaborators (and a potential investor) for (among other things) copyright infringement based on the unauthorized inclusion of his photos in the slide show. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding that Beaulieu had granted defendants an implied license to create and distribute the slideshow. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

While the Copyright Act requires that a transfer of copyright ownership or an exclusive license be in writing, a non-exclusive license can be granted verbally or inferred through conduct. See 17 U.S.C. § 204(a) (a “transfer of copyright ownership … is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed”); 17 U.S.C. § 101 (“transfer of copyright ownership” defined to exclude non-exclusive licenses).

Here, although the written contract between the collaborators did not expressly permit the creation of the slide show, it included provisions that envisioned promotion of the book. The defendants kept Beaulieu informed of their marketing plans for the project. Several emails sent to Beaulieu included a copy of the slideshow; one included a list of potential contacts. Rather than object, Beaulieu instead requested that additional publishers be contacted on his behalf. And there was no evidence in the record that the defendants sent the slideshow to anyone after the project fell apart.

All of this was sufficient to give rise to an implied license authorizing the defendants to include the photo in the slideshow to promote the project. As the court put it:

“According to the record, any use of the photographs was to promote the book they were working on together. Beaulieu’s silence, coupled with continued and normal interactions between him and the collaborators, implied his approval of the marketing plan and the corresponding distribution of his images, and thus showed an implied license.”

Beaulieu v. Stockwell, 2022 WL 3725228 __ F.4th __ (8th Cir. Aug. 30, 2022)