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Copyright Blog

What Do a Negligence Claim and a Copyright Infringement Claim Have in Common?

Former student alleges copying by a professor; lawsuit removed to federal court.

In mid-December 2019, student Abraham Best ("Best") filed suit in Tennessee state court against Visible Music College ("Visible"). In his complaint, Best alleges a number of claims, including breach of contract, negligence, fraud, unjust enrichment, defamation, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In late January 2020, Visible filed a Notice of Removal of the case to federal court, claiming the language of the negligence claim is prototypical of a copyright claim, and thus the suit should be adjudicated by a federal court.

Best alleges that while attending Visible, he became aware that a professor was instructing students to copy from Best’s essays and papers in order to incorporate them into a book the professor was writing. At least two students were instructed by the professor to do the copying. Best asserts that when he brought this to the attention of college administrators, the administrators requested Best not to pursue the issues raised. Best pursued the issues against their request.

Best claims that after an investigation, Visible characterized the student’s copying of Best’s papers for the professor as “mishandling” and Visible told Best the professor was instructed to stop. Best alleges that Visible instructed him not to repeat what he knew to anyone. According to Best, Visible expelled him when it discovered Best was asked about the situation. Best’s expulsion is what lead to the present lawsuit.

Although Best did not bring a copyright infringement claim, Visible purports that Best's negligence claim is actually an infringement claim. The essence of Best’s negligence claim against Visible is that Visible improperly allowed Best’s works to be used without his permission, even condoning the conduct.

In its Notice of Removal, Visible asserts that the language of Best's negligence claim is prototypical of a copyright claim. Specifically, Visible relies on the language “caused and assisted in Plaintiff’s work being used improperly,” “used without his permission”, “exploited,” and “used improperly” from Best’s complaint to come to its conclusion. Visible alleges that even though Best did not explicitly cite to the Copyright Act, removal cannot be defeated. Best is seeking $1.6 million in compensatory and punitive damages.