Even an incarcerated felon has the right to try to protect their intellectual property, as “Tiger King” Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, is demonstrating with his latest legal filing.
The suit, filed in Florida Northern District Court, asserts that former music collaborator Vince Johnson infringed Exotic’s copyright by rerecording and using five songs that were originally written with Exotic, who is currently serving a 21-year prison sentence for his role in a murder-for-hire scheme against animal welfare activist Carole Baskin.
Wait—felons can defend their intellectual property?
In the United States of America, anyone can sue anyone for any reason, at any time. I’ve commented before that it is technically possible to sue someone because you want to give them a million dollars and they refuse to accept it. It sounds a little nuts to non-attorneys, but there it is. While felons lose a huge degree of freedom behind bars, their basic Constitutional rights are still in play, including the right to defend their intellectual property from infringement or misuse. Just because Exotic is locked up doesn’t mean he forfeits all his legal protections. If that were the case, prisons would be far worse places than they are for everyone who resides and works there (which admittedly isn’t saying much)!
So how does Joe Exotic fit into this?
Exotic asserts that the five songs at issue were compiled for his own personal use in collaboration with Johnson, who Exotic claims also violated confidentiality agreements signed with Exotic in service of producing the songs in question. The tracks were later used in the Tiger King miniseries on Netflix, which chronicled the rise and fall of Exotic from flamboyant and notorious Oklahoma zookeeper, through the arc of the plot to murder Carole Baskin, to his conviction for his role in the attempt on her life.
Johnson, meanwhile, was later signed to talent management powerhouse BMG Rights Management LLC, who boasts a client roster that reads like a Who’s Who of Modern Music, including legendary names like Tina Turner, Ringo Starr, Lenny Kravitz, and Avril Lavigne. Aligning himself with Create Music Group Inc., a company that assists artists in claiming the rights to their works in streaming media and which is currently listed as #2 on the Fortune 5000. Exotic’s suit calls out Johnson, BMG, Create Music Group, and others not mentioned herein.
Exotic’s claims seem to hinge on two points:
1) That the songs in question were coauthored by him and Johnson under confidentiality agreements
2) That Johnson subsequently rerecorded the songs in question and presented them as his own creations, which led to Johnson signing with BMG and Create Music Group.
Can Joe Exotic do this?
Again, just because he’s now a convicted felon who appears likely to expire in a Florida penitentiary doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the same rights as anyone else concerning his intellectual property. The difficulty will be proving his case and claims to the satisfaction of the courts. To do this, Exotic will have to be able to conclusively demonstrate that agreements rising to the level of a legal contractor existed between himself and Johnson, and that Johnson fraudulently claimed the works in question as his own in defiance of such agreements. However, a ”back of the napkin” agreement or even an email probably won’t cut it as proof—only as supporting evidence. Likewise, an oral agreement may be enforceable under Florida state law, but Exotic would have to be able to prove the existence of such an agreement and that Johnson’s actions did in fact violate such agreement in a way that caused harm to Exotic.
Does Exotic’s case have claws?
If Exotic can prove to the satisfaction of the courts that Johnson did in fact violate lawfully existing agreements concerning the pieces involved, including confidentiality agreements, then the Tiger King stands a very good chance of prevailing in this action.
Some ways he could do this include providing copies of properly executed contracts and confidentiality agreements, notated sheet music with dates and both participants’ handwriting present, audio recordings with both Exotic’s and Johnson’s voices present, telephone call logs, emails, and text messages relevant to the pieces in question. If Exotic and Johnson filed for a copyright on the disputed material in tandem, then this case becomes an almost certain slam dunk for Exotic.
However, Exotic probably shouldn’t expect to have this case all his own way either. BMG is not exactly renowned for standing by passively when one of its artists is accused of IP malfeasance. Exotic’s criminal history would certainly be picked apart in court by the defense, especially given that Exotic claims to have an aggressive form of cancer and has petitioned for leniency, a retrial, and/or early release from prison on that basis. How much weight Exotic’s record may pull in that situation is an open question, and Exotic would have to bring a preponderance of evidence to the table that would, if necessary, convince both a judge and a jury that Exotic’s record is not relevant to the action against Johnson.
If, however, Johnson can demonstrate that the pieces are his own original compositions, ideally through the documentation listed above and backed by an awarded copyright, then Exotic’s case is unlikely to go anywhere. Also, if Johnson can show that Exotic waived or signed away his rights and considerations in the pieces, then Exotic’s case will probably end up dead in the water because the period of rescission for Exotic to change his mind would long since have expired in just about any state in the Union. This would render the whole matter little more than a publicity stunt, and judges tend to be notoriously cranky when they and their offices are used by parties in a suit in that way.
Supposing Exotic loses because of any or all the mechanisms mentioned above, he is, of course, free to appeal, provided the action is dismissed without prejudice and that his available funds will support such actions.
But if Exotic can’t produce documentary evidence to confirm his argument that he was part of the pieces’ creation and is therefore entitled to compensation for their use, then I think it’s safe to say this is one tiger that has no teeth.
ABOUT JOHN RIZVI, ESQ.
John Rizvi is a Registered and Board Certified Patent Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Intellectual Property Law, best-selling author, and featured speaker on topics of interest to inventors and entrepreneurs (including TEDx).
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