In Buddy Webster v. Dean Guitars, the 11th Circuit held that unlike an ordinary copyright infringement claim, which accrues for each infringing act, a claim concerning ownership accrues only once. Under the Copyright Act, a civil copyright action must be brought within three years after the claim accrues. 17 U.S.C. § 507.
This case centered on the late-guitarist Darrell Abbott of the famous heavy-metal band Pantera, and importantly, the lightning storm graphic on his “Dean from Hell” (“DHF”) guitar. Buddy Webster, a successful guitar maker, designed the DHF guitar and commissioned someone to paint the lightning storm graphic on the guitar, which was subsequently given to Abbot in 1987.
In 2004, the late Abbott entered into an endorsement-type contract with Dean Guitars, which started reproducing and selling reissues of the DHF guitar with the lightning storm graphic without Webster’s consent. In 2007, Abbott’s estate claimed sole ownership of the lightning storm graphic. After over a decade of displeasure, Webster filed suit in 2017, alleging copyright infringement based on Dean’s sale of the DHF reissues.
The district court concluded that Webster’s copyright claim was time-barred because the claim accrued more than three years before Webster filed suit, noting that the “gravamen” of Webster’s claim of copyright infringement was ownership. Webster’s main argument was that he owns the lightning storm graphic and that Dean Guitars reproduced the graphic without his consent. Because the parties agreed that Dean reproduced the graphic on the Dean reissue guitar models, the essence of the dispute hinged on ownership.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit noted two different standards for the accrual of copyright ownership claims: (1) the First, Second, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits have held that copyright ownerships claims accrue when the plaintiff learns, or should as a reasonable person have learned, that the defendant was violating his rights; (2) the Sixth and Ninth Circuits have held that copyright ownership claims accrue when there is a plain and express repudiation of co-ownership by one party as against the other.
The 11th Circuit reasoned that Webster’s copyright ownership claim was time-barred under either standard. First, Webster had reason to know his alleged ownership rights were being violated as early as 2004, when he first learned that Dean Guitars was reproducing the DHF reissues. Second, Webster learned in 2007 that Abbott’s estate claimed sole ownership of the lightning storm graphic, an express repudiation of co-ownership. Therefore, Webster’s claim accrued in 2007 at the latest, and the three-year limitation period expired years prior to his copyright action in 2017.
The 11th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, and for the first time, it held that unlike ordinary copyright infringement claims, which accrue for each infringing act, a claim concerning mainly ownership accrues only once. Furthermore, any copyright infringement claims flowing from a time-barred ownership claim, were also barred.
For further information, the Court’s opinion can be found below: