6th Circuit Rules on Federal Question Jurisdiction, Copyright Act Preemption, and Complete Preemption Doctrine

January 11, 2005. The U.S. Court of Appeals (6thCir) issued its opinion [7 pages in PDF] in Ritchie v. Williams, a case regarding 17 U.S.C. § 301 and the doctrine of complete preemption.

Basically, state courts can hear suits involving either state or federal claims. Federal courts can hear only claims arising under federal laws, and diversity suits. Under the well pleaded complaint rule, whether a case is one arising under the Constitution or a law or treaty of the United States is determined from what appears in the plaintiff’s complaint. For example, federal defenses or counterclaims cannot serve as the basis for federal question jurisdiction.

In the present case, one party filed a complaint in state court that stated only state law claims. Nevertheless, the other party removed the case to federal court, and the District Court and Court of Appeals both found that there is federal jurisdiction. The courts applied the Copyright Act's preemption section, and the doctrine of complete preemption.

Robert Ritchie is a long time singer and songwriter of trailer trash rap. Devotees of the genre know him as Kid Rock. Ritchie entered into a series of contracts with Alvin Williams and others that were were designed to control the ownership, performance rights and exploitation of copyrights on songs written by Ritchie. These contracts were signed in 1989. Ritchie wrote a letter to Williams in 1990 stating he did not intend to work with the parties to the 1989 contracts with respect to the publishing, production or performance of his songs. He asserted ownership of the songs that he wrote.

The statute of limitations for a copyright infringement action is three years. Williams filed a complaint, ten years later, in state court in Michigan against Ritchie alleging only state law causes of action, including breach of contract, unjust enrichment, misrepresentation, conversion, and injunctive relief. Although, the claims related to ownership of songs. Ritchie removed the action to the U.S. District Court (EDMich).

The District Court held that the state court action is preempted by the Copyright Act under the doctrine of complete preemption, and hence, is removable to the federal court as presenting federal copyright issues rather than state claims. The District Court also held that the state claims are foreclosed under the three year statute of limitations for copyright claims.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Section 301 provides, in part, that "all legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright as specified by section 106 in works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression and come within the subject matter of copyright as specified by sections 102 and 103, whether created before or after that date and whether published or unpublished, are governed exclusively by this title. Thereafter, no person is entitled to any such right or equivalent right in any such work under the common law or statutes of any State."

First, the Court of Appeals noted that Section 301 is particularly strict. It provides that copyright infringement actions under 17 U.S.C. § 106 can only be brought in federal court. They cannot also be brought in state court. Also, it provides that actions that "are equivalent to" actions for copyright infringement can only be brought in federal court.

Next, the Court reviewed the doctrine of complete preemption. The Supreme Court briefly articulated the complete preemption doctrine in 1987 in Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, an ERISA case. The doctrine provides that an action that pleads a state law cause of action may be converted into a federal cause of action for the purposes of the well pleaded complaint rule, for the purposes of determining the jurisdiction of the federal court. The doctrine permits the court to recharacterize the plaintiff's state claims as federal claims so that removal to federal court is proper.

The Court of Appeals then concluded that the doctrine of complete preemption does apply to the Copyright Act, and that most of Williams' state laws claims must be recharacterized as copyright infringement and copyright ownership claims.

Then, the Court concluded that since most of the state claims must be recharacterized as copyright claims, and there is three year statute of limitations on copyright claims, these claims are precluded.

This case is Robert Ritchie, et al. v. Alvin Williams, et al., U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, App. Ct. No. 03-1279, an appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, at Detroit, D.C. No. 01-71712, Judge Nancy Edmunds presiding. Judge Merritt wrote the opinion of the Court of Appeals, in which Judges Gilman and Hood joined.

Meanwhile, the American Family Association (AFA) and similar groups successfully pressured the presidential inauguration organizers not to invite Ritchie to perform at an inauguration event later this month. The AFA states in its web site that it "believes that the entertainment industry, through its various products, has played a major role in the decline of those values on which our country was founded and which keep a society and its families strong and healthy." See also, Ritchie's CD titled "Devil Without A Cause" [Amazon], and lyrics to the title song.