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Defamation Claim Fails Against Truthful Copyright Infringement Allegations Made on Social Media

In Johnson v. Rakhmanova, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice allowed a Defendant’s motion to dismiss a defamation claim on the basis that the claim was frivolous and lacking merit. The Plaintiff’s claim was based on comments made by the Defendant on social media alleging copyright infringement by the Plaintiff.

The Defendant, Ms. Rakhmanova is a songwriter. In 2012 she collaborated with the Plaintiff, Mr. Johnson, a music producer, to create three songs. Their first collaboration was a song that became known as “Sweet Angel,” in which Ms. Rakhmanova recorded herself singing her lyrics and melody over electronic beats that Mr. Johnson had created. Both Ms. Rakhmanova and Mr. Johnson met and together mixed and mastered the final recording of “Sweet Angel” and the other two songs.

As “Sweet Angel” was being completed, Ms. Rakhmanova asked Mr. Johnson to sign a joint publishing and master recording contract in recognition of their joint role as authors. Despite repeated requests, Mr. Johnson failed to sign the joint publishing contract, and proceeded to release “Sweet Angel.” After it was released, Ms. Rakhmanova withdrew her consent as to the use of her three music melodies and recording of her singing the three songs.

Without notice to or consent of Ms. Rakhmanova, Mr. Johnson personally obtained a  copyright registration in US for “Sweet Angel” and a company he owned, Kaje Entertainment Inc., obtained a copyright registration for “Sweet Angel” in Canada.

Mr. Johnson later produced and released a new rendition of “Sweet Angel” using a different instrumental recording over which he digitally laid Ms. Rahkmanova’s original recording with voice, lyrics and melody. Mr. Johnson did not identify Ms. Rakhmanova as the performing vocal artist in the name or text of this subsequent recording (“Recording 2”). Upon becoming aware of Recording 2, Ms. Rakhmanova took to various social media platforms posting that Mr. Johnson violated her copyright and requesting that he take down Recording 2.

Mr. Johnson then sued Ms. Rakhmanova alleging that her social media posts and various email correspondence she sent to different music publishers were defamatory. His company, Kaje Entertainment, was not named as plaintiff in the defamation suit against Ms Rakhmanova.

Justice Kane applied the test for defamation set out in Grant v. Torstar Corp., and found that the words complained of were defamatory. However, he held that most of the allegedly defamatory statements she made were in fact truthful and therefore justified, providing her with a complete defence to defamation. For the remaining allegedly defamatory statements, Justice Kane held that the appropriate forum for determining defamatory character was in the United States, where Kaje Entertainment Inc. was the registered copyright holder of the original version of “Sweet Angel”.

The Court awarded Ms. Rakhmanova her costs on the basis of her material success on her motion and the failure of Mr. Johnson on two occasions to attend in court, as ordered.

A copy of the decision may be found here.