Case Study

The Isley Brothers, one of this country’s most well-known rhythm
and blues groups, have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They helped define the soul sound of the 1960s with songs such as “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” and “This Old Heart of Mine,” and they mastered the funky beats of the 1970s with songs such as “Who’s That Lady,” “Fight the Power,” and “It’s Your Thing.” In 1964, the Isley Brothers wrote and recorded “Love is a Wonderful Thing” for United Artists. The Isley Brothers received a copyright for “Love is a Wonderful Thing” from the Register of Copyrights on February 6, 1964. The following year, they switched to the famous Motown label and had three top-100 hits including “This Old Heart of Mine.”

Hoping to benefit from the Isley Brothers’ Motown success, United Artists released “Love is a Wonderful Thing” in 1966. The song was not released on an album, only on a 45-record as a single. Several industry publications predicted that “Love is a Wonderful Thing” would be a hit – “Cash Box” on August 27, 1966, “Gavin Report” on August 26, 1966, and “Billboard” on September 10, 1966. On September 17, 1966, Billboard listed “Love is a Wonderful Thing” at number 110 in a chart titled “Bubbling Under the Hot 100.” The song was never listed on any other Top 100 charts. In 1991, the Isley Brothers’ “Love is a Wonderful Thing” was released on compact disc.

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Michael Bolton is a singer/songwriter who gained popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s by reviving the soul sound of the 1960s. Bolton has orchestrated this soul-music revival in part by covering old songs such as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Love a Woman” and Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.” Bolton also has written his own hit songs. In early 1990, Bolton and Goldmark wrote a song called “Love Is a Wonderful Thing.” Bolton released it as a single in April 1991, and as part of Bolton’s album, “Time, Love and Tenderness.” Bolton’s “Love Is a Wonderful Thing” finished 1991 at number 49 on Billboard’s year-end pop chart.

On February 24, 1992, Three Boys Music Corporation filed a copyright infringement action for damages against the appellants under 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq. (1988). The parties agreed to a trifurcated trial. On April 25, 1994, in the first phase, the jury determined that the appellants had infringed the Isley Brothers’ copyright. At the end of the second phase five days later, the jury decided that Bolton’s “Love Is a Wonderful Thing” accounted for 28 percent of the profits from “Time, Love and Tenderness.” The jury also found that 66 percent of the profits from commercial uses of the song could be attributed to the inclusion of infringing elements. On May 9, 1994, the district court entered judgment in favor of the Isley Brothers based on the first two phases.

On December 5, 1996, the district court adopted the findings of the Special Master’s Amended Report about the allocation of damages (third phase). In the final judgment entered against the appellants, the district court ordered Sony Music to pay $ 4,218,838; Bolton to pay $ 932,924; Goldmark to pay $ 220,785, and their music publishing companies to pay $ 75,900. They timely appealed.

Discuss the legal questions in this case and the rules of law that should apply. Who should win? Why?


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