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Adventures in the Law: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Signatures!

Norm Tabler


  • Rapper Fly Havana sues Fat Joe over song rights; Fat Joe claims a $5,000 deal.
  • Fat Joe lacks signed contract but presents draft agreement, accepted as valid duplicate.
  • The Court allows secondary evidence, ruling Fly Havana signed away rights to the song.
Adventures in the Law: We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Signatures!

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In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a gang of armed bandits approaches Fred C. Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart), claiming to be federales. When Dobbs demands to see their badges, their leader memorably responds, Badges? We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges! He’s right. He has the men and guns to prevail without any badges.

There was a parallel exchange in the Federal Court for the Southern District of New York, when Cuban American rapper Fly Havana sued fellow rapper Fat Joe for a share of the proceeds of Fat Joe’s triple-platinum megahit song All the Way Up.

Fat Joe didn’t deny that Fly had contributed to the creation of All the Way Up. Instead, his defense was that Fly had signed away all his rights for $5,000. In Fat Joe’s version of events, he and Fly met at a Miami IHOP, where Fly signed a “piece of paper” relinquishing all rights in the song in return for $5,000.

Fly didn’t deny meeting Fat Joe in the IHOP, signing a “piece of paper,” or receiving a $5,000 check. But he denied that the paper contained a relinquishment of all rights in the song. In response to Fat Joe’s claim that it did, Fly invoked the Copyright Act’s statute of frauds, which states that a transfer of rights is not valid unless evidenced in a writing “signed by the owner of the rights.” Playing the Fred C. Dobbs card, Fly demanded, Show me the signature!

Fat Joe couldn’t do it. He didn’t have a signed contract or even a copy of one. He claimed to have lost the contract and been unable to find it despite a months-long exhaustive search, including inquiries of everyone in his circle of acquaintances and four subpoenas of his former manager, with eleven attempts to serve him.

What did he have? Two things. First, he had an unsigned document that his attorney testified was a draft agreement she had prepared, at Fat Joe’s request, to resolve Fly’s claims to All the Way Up. And that document did, in fact, recite a release of all Fly’s rights. Fat Joe testified that he had printed his attorney’s document without making any changes whatever and that he and Fly had signed the document he had printed.

Second, Fat Joe had a cancelled check for $5,000 that he had given Fly. The check had the word “write” entered in the memo line. Fly didn’t deny receiving and depositing the check.

Fat Joe’s evidence was compelling, but what about the Copywrite Act’s requirement that a transfer of rights be signed by the owner˗˗Fly in this case? The court used a two-step analysis to conclude that Fat Joe had overcome that obstacle.

First, the court ruled that because the original signed contract had been lost and could not be found after exhaustive search, the draft agreement could be admitted as a “duplicate” of the document that Fat Joe presented at the IHOP meeting. It’s important to note that the draft agreement was ruled a duplicate of the unsigned contract. It could not be considered a duplicate of the signed instrument because, of course, it bore no signatures.

Second, having admitted the draft document as a duplicate of the unsigned agreement, the court considered whether it evidenced the contents of the agreement allegedly signed by the parties. The court had no trouble ruling that the answer was yes, based on the well-recognized exception to the best evidence rule allowing secondary evidence when the original has been lost.

Thus, Fat Joe proved that Fly Havana had signed away all rights in All the Way Up. And he didn’t need no stinkin’ signatures!