By Ray O’Hanlon
Not all roads lead to Britannia, according to a Manhattan federal judge who has ruled that the case pitting Irish-American rap singer Chris Byrne against the British Broadcasting Corporation must be heard in the Big Apple
Byrne, a co-founder of the group Black 47 and current leader of the band Seanchaí and the Unity Squad, is suing the BBC for $5 million over the use of his song "Fenians" in a TV documentary that focused on last year’s Florida gun-running case.
Byrne brought his case against the BBC in Federal District Court in Manhattan a year ago. Lawyers for the BBC subsequently attempted to have the case heard in London, where the corporation is based.
In their motion for either dismissal or transfer of the case, The BBC’s attorneys concluded by quoting a line from a 1987 case in federal court in which a judge remarked that "all roads lead to Britannia."
However, U.S. District Court Judge Henry H. Stein denied the motion to dismiss last week and additionally directed that a path be beaten to the New York courts.
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In his 18-page ruling, Stein commented that the BBC, while "waxing creative," had claimed that all roads led to Britannia. The BBC, however, had failed to show that this was the case, Stein concluded.
A conference for attorneys representing both sides in the case is now set for federal court this week.
"As of now this case is going to trial. There are no settlement talks," said Byrne’s attorney, Russell Smith.
The case stems from a broadcasting of the BBC Northern Ireland "Spotlight" news documentary program in October 1999.
At one point in the program, Byrne’s "Fenians" was played for three minutes over a series of images of New York.
Byrne alleges that the BBC misappropriated his copyrighted musical recording without license or permission.
Byrne has been a consistent critic of the British presence and policies in Northern Ireland. "Fenians," which opens with the line "Pump ya fist if ya love freedom," also includes the chorus line "unrepentant Fenian bastard."
Byrne, who also goes by the hip-hop stage name of Seanchaí, has accused the BBC of waging a "long propaganda war" against those who opposed British policy in Northern Ireland.
"The BBC stole both my work and my reputation to service their theory that Irish republicans are fundamentally dishonest. My work has always had at its core the belief that the Irish people have the right to self-determination and independence from British interference," Byrne, who is a former officer with the NYPD, stated at the time that he initiated proceedings.
Byrne’s suit accuses the BBC of supporting a British government policy that is allegedly fighting "not just a military war but a propaganda war" in Northern Ireland.
The suit also accuses the BBC of "consciously" ignoring Catholic grievances in the North "throughout the conflict" and states that the BBC "lied to the world" about the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings in Derry.
The "Spotlight" program was aired Oct. 5, 1999. Byrne’s suit alleges that it was designed to show that the alleged gun-running activities of a group of Irish nationals in Florida was proof that the present IRA cease-fire was bogus. The Florida case ultimately resulted in several convictions.
Byrne’s suit further alleges that the "Spotlight" broadcast occurred at a time when extremely delicate peace talks were under way in Northern Ireland and that the program "bolstered" the demands of "pro-British politicians" that Irish republicans be excluded from those negotiations.
Byrne’s music was synchronized over a series of images of New York landmarks with a view to enhancing the show’s composition and message, Byrne’s attorneys have contended.
The suit alleges violation of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, in addition to several foreign and international copyright statutes, including the United Kingdom’s Copyright, Design and Patent Act of 1988, the Universal Copyright Convention, and the Berne Convention for the protection of Literary and Artistic Works.
In his ruling, Judge Stein stated that the BBC’s conduct was a "prima facie violation of the Copyright Act."
The BBC had argued that the use of Byrne’s "Fenians" in a news program amounted to "news reporting," an activity that is covered by "fair use" legal rules.
The song was specifically used in a sequence filmed in New York that partly featured the WBAI Radio show "Radio Free Eireann."
The BBC argued that the song was used in an effort "to explore how the Irish-American media was reacting" to the Florida case.
Stein wrote in his ruling, however, that there was "ample evidence" that a reasonable jury could infer the BBC’s intent was to make its story more entertaining to viewers.
"In sum, the purpose and character of the use is a disputed issue of fact. At the summary judgment stage, therefore, this factor favors Byrne, the non-moving party," Stein ruled.
"At the summary judgment stage, the Court draws the inference that no part of the recording of the song was necessary to the BBC’s asserted news reporting purpose."