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Greenberg Traurig Team Obtains Appellate Victory in Copyright Case Involving Tejano Music

HOUSTON - Dec. 30, 2015 – Global law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP has successfully won a unanimous appellate court victory in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Corpus Christi record label and recording studio, Hacienda Records and Recording Studio, among others, regarding a copyright infringement lawsuit over a Tejano song. Roland Garcia, a litigation shareholder in the firm’s Houston office, led the legal team in the trial court victory, and was lead counsel in the appellate court victory as well.

Hacienda Records was sued for copyright infringement over the song “Triste Aventurera” (“Sad Adventurer”), composed and recorded by the plaintiff in the early 1970s. Hacienda Records recorded and released a song called “Cartas de Amor” (“Love Letters”), performed by the Hometown Boys of Lubbock in 1990. The plaintiff sought actual and statutory damages of $1.2 million. Following a bench trial, Judge Gregg Costa, sitting as District Court Judge in the Southern District of Texas, Victoria Division, found that the two songs, like many Tejano songs, have similar lyrical themes, rhythms, and instrumental accompaniment, but were not unique or complex songs. He ruled that the two songs were not “strikingly similar,” and thus the plaintiff was required to prove that Hacienda Records had a reasonable possibility of access to the plaintiff’s song before Hacienda Records released “Cartas de Amor.” The plaintiff argued that his song was regularly played on the radio and was performed in clubs in the Corpus Christi area to such a degree that Hacienda had access to his song. Hacienda argued it was not aware of the plaintiff’s song prior to the release of “Cartas de Amor.” The judge ruled that Hacienda Records did not have access to the plaintiff’s song, specifically ruling that the plaintiff had not shown that Hacienda Records knew of “Triste Aventurera” when Hacienda Records released “Cartas de Amor” at least a decade later.

On appeal, the plaintiff advanced three arguments: (1) that the District Court erred in determining that evidence of the radio play and live performances “Triste Aventurera” was insufficient to establish that Hacienda had access to “Triste Aventurera” before Hacienda released “Cartas de Amor”; (2) that the District Court erred in its striking similarity analysis by comparing the entirety of the songs rather than the "virtually identical" opening lyrics; and (3) that the songs were sufficiently similar such that the District Court should have relaxed the plaintiff’s burden to show access under a "sliding scale" analysis.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court's finding that there was no corroborating evidence that “Triste Aventurera” was played "thousands" of times on radio stations from 1974 until 1990 as argued by the plaintiff—which would have proven Hacienda had access to the song. The Fifth Circuit also ruled that the plaintiff did not prove the songs were "strikingly similar" even though the first phrase of lyrics in the two songs are nearly identical. The Fifth Circuit noted there were other differences in the songs including melodic contour, filler music, key, tempo, length, and chord structures.

"Absent evidence of uniqueness or complexity, and in light of the expert testimony at trial describing differences in the lyrics and music of the songs, the district court's finding that ‘Cartas’ and ‘Triste’ are not strikingly similar was not clearly erroneous," concluded Carl Stewart, Chief Judge of the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit also declined to adopt a new test for access, and affirmed the District Court’s ruling that Hacienda Records did not violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

"The Fifth Circuit ruled that you don't just look at the lyrics, you look at the totality of the songs to determine substantial similarity," Garcia explained.

“This was a hard-fought case,” commented Rick Garcia, executive vice president of Hacienda Records, “and we are extremely pleased with this successful result.”

Garcia has tried lawsuits in state and federal trial courts, and has argued appeals in state and federal appellate courts. He has handled many high profile cases and has been quoted by The National Law Journal, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Austin-American Statesman, Corpus Christi Caller Times, Texas Lawyer, and others.

Garcia has handled a wide range of copyright infringement and commercial litigation cases and appeals. Additionally, he has considerable experience in local, state, and national governmental relations and political matters, and in government contracts, grants, procurement, concessions, open records and public information act demands, and due process challenges. He was named a Super Lawyer by Texas Super Lawyers Magazine and one of the top 25 Latino Lawyers by Latino Leaders Magazine.

Garcia was the first minority to be elected president of the Houston Bar Association, the fifth largest voluntary bar association in the country, with more than 11,000 members. He also served as president of the Texas Young Lawyers Association, an elected position of the 22,000 member statewide lawyers’ organization. Garcia was president of the Hispanic Bar Association and president of the Dispute Resolution Center. He was also an elected director of the State Bar of Texas, and was a trustee of the Texas Bar Foundation.