How The Sirius XM Ruling Upsets Decades Of Copyright Law Consensus
from the activist-judges... dept
We recently wrote about district court judge Philip Gutierrez ruling against Sirius XM on the issue of streaming pre-1972 recordings. As we noted at the time, the ruling appeared to upset what was considered more or less a settled issue. Pre-1972 sound recordings are not covered by federal copyright laws, but rather by a hodgepodge of state laws (and common law), but those have been entirely focused on reproduction/distribution and not on public performance. But this ruling changed all that. Sirius XM, of course, has already made it clear that it’s appealing the ruling, and on the other side, the victors in last week’s ruling, Flo & Eddie, have already moved to sue Pandora as well.
While I tried to express how much this ruling upsets what had been considered pretty much solid law, law professor Tyler Ochoa does an astounding job actually detailing the history and just what a big change this ruling is, calling it a “seismic” ruling on the scale of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Here’s just a snippet, though you really ought to read the whole thing, detailing historical case law that this ruling totally upends:
…in the early days of radio, sound recording copyright owners also tried to use state law to restrict unauthorized broadcasts of sound recordings (which, as explained above, were not eligible for federal copyright). In 1937, in Waring v. WDAS Broadcasting Station, 194 A. 631 (1937), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that state common law prevented the unauthorized broadcast of phonograph records (when the legend ?Not Licensed for Radio Broadcast? was printed on the records); but in 1940, in RCA Mfg. Co. v. Whiteman, 114 F.2d 86 (2d Cir. 1940), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Learned Hand, held that common-law copyright prevented only the duplication of a sound recording, and that sale of phonograph records exhausted any common-law property right to prevent the unauthorized broadcast of the recording (notwithstanding the same restrictive legend). The Supreme Court denied certiorari, which effectively meant that broadcasters did not have to pay royalties to sound recording copyright owners to play their records on the radio. (Broadcasters still had to pay royalties to musical work copyright owners, under federal copyright law.)
… when sound recordings were added to the federal copyright act in 1972, Congress likewise limited the exclusive rights that were provided to sound recording copyright owners. Authors of most copyrightable works receive five exclusive rights: the right to reproduce the work, to adapt or prepare derivative works based on the work, to publicly distribute copies of the work, to publicly perform the work, and to publicly display the work. But broadcasters had enough lobbying power to block any action in Congress if it required them to pay more royalties. As a result, Congress gave sound recording copyright owners only the right to reproduce and distribute copies of the sound recording, and to prepare derivative works (by electronic manipulation of the sounds recorded, not by imitation or simulation). Congress did not give sound recording copyright owners any right to publicly perform their works. (The policy argument was that radio airplay served as free advertising for the sale of phonograph records.)
In other words, contrary to what you’ll hear today from the record labels and copyright maximalists, this ruling was not obvious or about Sirius XM, Pandora and others ripping off artists. This was actually about them upending what had been considered completely settled law. It was only in 1995 that Congress first established that copyright had any sort of “public performance” exclusivity — and then only for post-1972 recordings (remember, the recording industry itself has fought quite hard to exempt pre-1972 sound recordings from other aspects of federal copyright law) and only on digital streaming. So, to argue that pre-1972 state and common law somehow was intended to cover such a public performance right is almost impossible to fathom. Yet that’s what the court ruled.
And the impact could be immense. Beyond just Sirius and Pandora, it could hit a lot of others as well. In a big way, in part by undermining the very foundations of the DMCA safe harbors.
The ruling is a huge victory for sound recording copyright owners, which can use the ruling not only to negotiate higher negotiated rates for public performance of pre-February 15, 1972 sound recordings, but may also use such older recordings as leverage for negotiating higher rates for post-February 15, 1972 sound recordings. (Such negotiation tactics might be deemed to be copyright misuse, but it is unclear whether state law will recognize this federally-recognized defense.) Moreover, nothing in the decision limits the state-law violations to public performance by means of digital audio transmission, so the decision gives sound recording copyright owners the general public performance right in pre-February 15, 1972 sound recordings that they have always craved, but that was previously denied to them under federal law (and was assumed not to exist in state law under Whiteman). That means that traditional AM/FM broadcasters and television broadcasters, who are expressly exempt under federal law with respect to post-February 15, 1972 sound recordings, can expect to be sued next.
Sound recording copyright owners can also use the ruling to go after internet service providers. Section 512 of the federal Copyright Act provides that internet service providers are not liable for infringements committed by their users, so long as the service provider promptly complies with the ?notice-and-takedown? provisions of that section. But because Section 301(c) states that pre-February 15, 1972 sound recording copyrights are not preempted by the federal act, sound recording copyright owners have been suing internet service providers under state law, arguing that service providers are liable for reproduction and electronic distribution of pre-February 15, 1972 recordings under state law, and that the limitation of liability provided by federal law does not apply. Existing court decisions so far are split, with the New York Appellate Division holding that Section 512 does not apply to pre-February 15, 1972 sound recordings, because of the express terms of Section 301(c); while the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has held that Section 512 does apply to pre-February 15, 1972 sound recordings, notwithstanding Section 301(c).
In the meantime, Ochoa notes, expect “oldies” to start disappearing from lots of different services as companies seek to limit their liability. Funny how yet another copyright ruling is likely to make music even more scarce.