SiriusXM Loses For A Third Time On Public Performance Of Pre-1972 Works, This Time In New York
from the a-big-shakeup dept
A year ago, a bunch of folks in the recording industry hit on its latest strategy to squeeze more money out of services playing music: upset decades of settled copyright law, and pretend that pre-1972 works were subject to public performance rights. Suddenly lawsuits started flying like crazy, most directed at Sirius XM, with a few directed at Pandora. The key issue is the fact that pre-1972 sound recordings are not covered by federal copyright law, but a patchwork of (very messy) state laws and common law. Those state laws were never considered to have included public performance rights, but now people are going back to pretend they did. Of course, there would be a simple way to deal with this: just make those recordings subject to federal copyright laws, but the RIAA has fought hard against this.
In September, a judge ruled against Sirius XM and in favor of Flo & Eddie, the company that owns the rights to the music of the band The Turtles. In October, another California court agreed with the first (despite initially leaning in the other direction). Both of those were specific to California state law, however. But now, another month has gone by and Flo & Eddie has another big victory over Sirius XM, this time under New York’s law. You can read the ruling.
The judge, Colleen McMahon, acknowledges that this ruling completely upsets decades of accepted practice, but doesn’t seem too bothered by it all:
Of course, the conspicuous lack of any jurisprudential history confirms that not paying royalties for public performances of sound recordings was an accepted fact of life in the broadcasting industry for the last century. So does certain testimony cited by Sirius from record industry executives, artists and others, who argued vociferously before Congress that it was unfair for them to operate in an environment in which they were paid nothing when their sound recordings were publicly performed…. That they were paid no royalties was a matter of statutory exemption under federal law; that they demanded no royalties under the common law when their product as ineligible for federal copyright protection is, in many ways, inexplicable.
But acquiescence by participants in the recording industry in a status quo where recording artists and producers were not paid royalties while songwriters were does not show that they lacked an enforceable right under the common law – only that they failed to act on it.
Instead, she notes that the reason this is only coming up now is because Congress only created a performance right for digital music recently. That doesn’t really make much sense when you think about it. If the industry was really sitting on this potential goldmine of performance royalties for decades, wouldn’t it have made use of it before now?
Instead, the judge defaults to a purely maximalist approach, saying that absent any specific exemptions, we should assume that common law copyright in New York covers just about every damn thing.
Modern federal law supports the notion that an express carve-out is required in order to circumscribe the bundle of rights appurtenant to copyright
That should raise some serious First Amendment questions. In federal copyright law, the Supreme Court has argued that the First Amendment conflict is generally resolved through exceptions to copyright — including those established in common law, like fair use. Yet here, the court is basically saying, unless an exemption is clearly stated, everything is covered. That’s very troubling.
Of course, it’s likely that this, like the California cases, will be appealed, and it will all eventually end up before the Supreme Court. But, in the interim, don’t be surprised if “golden oldies,” including pretty much all music from pre-1972, start disappearing from a variety of services. Good job, recording industry, you may succeed in driving the classics into total obscurity.