Smith v. Thomas, No. 18-3380 (6th Cir. 2018)Annotate this Case
In 2012, Smith, a recording artist called Bigg Robb, wrote and recorded “Looking for a Country Girl” and registered his copyright. Thomas, called Bishop Bullwinkle, another Southern Soul musician, used the first 12 seconds of "Looking" as the beat for a new song, Hell 2 Da Naw Naw, without Smith’s permission or giving Smith credit. When the two were performing at the same venue, Smith, in his dressing room, “heard one of [his] songs playing” and rushed out to see Thomas performing Hell 2. Smith confronted Thomas, who admitted to sampling. As the two negotiated, Hell 2 went viral. Thomas uploaded a music video, which got millions of views, and articles were written about his “meteoric rise.” Eventually, Thomas stopped acknowledging Smith’s contribution. He publicly accused Smith of being a liar. Smith sued. Both parties represented themselves. Thomas did not appear at trial: he only filed a two-page answer to Smith’s complaint and two short conclusory letters. He ignored discovery requests. Smith gave a thorough presentation with supporting exhibits and played both songs. Smith explained that he had only a “guesstimation” of damages based on Hell 2’s YouTube views and Thomas’s public performances. The court awarded him 50% ownership rights in Hell 2 (and any derivatives) and enjoined Thomas from further infringement; found that Smith had not presented sufficient evidence to show actual damages but had “elected” statutory damages, 17 U.S.C. 504(c), and awarded Smith $30,000, substantially less than he requested. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Smith made multiple statements that clearly indicated his intent to seek statutory damages.