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2019 LEGAL ROUND-UP – AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE MUSIC INDUSTRY IN 2020

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Categories: Articles, Business, Legal Disputes, Legal Issues, Music Industry, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

By:  Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.

 

This article was originally published on Synchtank’s Synchblog.

 

It’s been an interesting year in the music legal field. Some outcomes were positive steps forward for the music industry, and some, well, not so much. Here’s a recap of some of the most talked-about legal happenings of 2019, and what they could mean for 2020.


Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” Infringement Lawsuit

Background: Christian rapper Marcus Gray, professionally known as “Flame”, sued Katy Perry and her collaborators stating that Perry’s song “Dark Horse” infringed on his song, “Joyful Noise”. Perry and her team testified that they had never heard “Joyful Noise” and therefore could not have copied a song of which they had no knowledge. The actual musical evidence was lacking in similarity as well.  However, the jury decided against Perry and her team because (1) the songs have a similar sound repeated in them, (2) “Joyful Noise” had been nominated for a Grammy in the Christian music category, and (3) Katy Perry had once been a Christian artist before she hit pop superstardom. Perry has appealed the lawsuit and the appeal is currently pending.

What it Means: Copyright infringement lawsuits require two elements to be proved, substantial similarity and access. The two works must show enough similarity that one could attest one creator had copied the other, and the infringing party must have had access to, i.e. heard, the allegedly infringed song. Access is often proven by performance of the infringed song on the radio, a producer who worked with the both artists or their team sharing music with the infringing artist, or other similar manner of delivery. Perry and her team were found guilty of infringement despite a lack of compelling evidence for both elements.

Copyright law also allows for independent creation, meaning that two people can write songs that sound similar, despite never having heard each other’s songs. However, it seems this tenant has been forgotten in this and many other recent infringement cases.

What to Look for in 2020: While there are definitely legitimate cases of infringement, verdicts like this will encourage the filing of more frivolous cases. Many artists are already afraid that anything they create will be taken advantage of by opportunistic people looking to boost their own fame by capitalizing on the publicity of someone else’s creation. Hopefully, we will see this verdict overturned on appeal.

 

Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” Copyright Lawsuit

Background: The trustee for Randy California, the late lead singer of the band Spirit, sued Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, saying “Stairway to Heaven” infringed on Spirit’s composition, “Taurus”. Despite the fact both of these songs are decades old, the case went to trial.  In this case, there was access (Spirit had toured with Led Zeppelin in the late 1960s) and some similarity, but no infringement was found. The lawyer for California’s estate appealed, and the new decision is currently pending.

What It Means: Those in the music industry agree this verdict was correct. While California could have sued during his lifetime, he chose not to do so, and the evidence here was not compelling enough to prove the infringement claim.

What to Look for in 2020: Hopefully, the original decision will be upheld. The industry needs some precedent for correct rulings in copyright infringement cases.

 

Spotify’s Appeal of the Mechanical Royalty Rate Increase

Background: Last year, the Copyright Royalty Board (“CRB”) judges decided that music publishers and songwriters will get an increase on their mechanical royalty rates. The timing of this proceeding happened to coincide with the efforts of the music industry to pass the Music Modernization Act (the “MMA”). The digital service providers (“DSPs”), including Spotify, Pandora, Google, Apple, etc. rallied in cooperation with the music industry to pass the MMA. After the MMA was passed, the DSPs (except Apple) appealed the CRB’s decision to increase mechanical royalties.  The appeal is pending.

What It Means: The CRB decision provides for a 44% increase in mechanical royalties to songwriters and music publishers, with incremental raises from the current rates until the 44% is reached in 2022. The DSPs supported the passage of the MMA to gain immunity for being sued for copyright infringement for failure to license and pay for all of the music streamed on their services. Once achieving that immunity, they appealed the CRB decision to try to avoid paying fair rates to songwriters.

What to Look for in 2020: CRB decisions are historically difficult to overturn, so hopefully the music industry will receive the new rates it was promised. Despite the goliath size and bank accounts of the DSPs, they need to realize they cannot push the music industry around and must pay fairly for the content on which many of the them have built their businesses.

 

Passage of the Music Modernization Act

Background: The Music Modernization Act passed in October of 2018, which promised more streamlined licensing procedures for music on streaming services, a new, centralized registration database, and hopefully a better system for creators and rights owners to be paid streaming royalties. 2019 has been all about actually turning these promises into reality. The Music Licensing Collective board was elected to oversee the operations of this new structure, they negotiated the funding for the database with the DSPs, and choose a vendor to build the infrastructure and supply the data (recently revealed to be The Harry Fox Agency).

What It Means: There will be a lot of changes in data practice, and a lot of work for creators and rights’ owners to learn a new system and register their works with the new database.

What to Look for in 2020: The database is slated to roll out in beta-mode, with it planned to be fully operational by 2021.  2020 will involve a lot of data uploads.

 

Taylor Swift’s Master Recordings Dispute

Background: Taylor Swift hit it big while signed to Big Machine Records, and then moved on to Universal Music Group.  Big Machine decided to sell its catalogue of masters to Scooter Braun, backed by some investment funds. Swift and Braun have a longstanding personal beef, and when the sale occurred, Swift took to social media to express her horror at her nemesis owning her masters. Swift stated she was not given the opportunity to buy her masters back. The parties engaged in a public back-and-forth. Taylor announced she will re-record all of her old masters in 2020 once her re-recording restriction from her Big Machine contract has expired. Later, Swift said Braun was blocking her from performing her older songs on the American Music Awards and using the older music in an upcoming Netflix documentary. Another public battle ensued, with Swift ultimately being able to perform as planned.  Now stories have emerged that Swift is denying all licensing requests for her music until she is able to re-record her masters in 2020 and then will resume licensing with masters she owns.

What It Means: Regarding the American Music Awards performance, this is the first time that a record label has publicly argued that a recorded television performance violates a contractual re-recording restriction, when normally that restriction is limited to recording new audio masters. When Swift does re-record her masters, it could negatively impact Braun’s recoupment of his investment. This dispute has opened the eyes of many artists as to what they may give up when signing a record deal, and there is a growing trend toward artists seeking to retain master ownership.

What to Look for in 2020: Swift will most likely continue with her plan to re-record her masters. More public mudslinging may ensue. Artists overall will increasingly seek opportunities that allow them to retain master ownership.

 

Overall, 2020 will see a lot of changes in the music industry. Hopefully, the results will be just as exciting as the anticipation for their arrival.

 

 

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Recent Press

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Categories: Press, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Erin was recently interviewed in VoyageLA magazine about how she came to be #TheMusicIndustryLawyer and what she likes to do outside of helping my clients navigate the complex music industry.

Erin was also recently quoted in an article for The Fader:  “Here’s What You Need to Know About Sharing Lyrics Online”

 

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Spotify May Have To Pay Songwriters $345 Million

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Categories: Articles, Business, Infringement, Legal Disputes, Legal Issues, Music Industry, Music Publishing, Royalties, Streaming, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

By:  Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.

This article was previously published on Forbes.com.

When you stream music on Spotify, are you aware that as you are enjoying your favorite song, Spotify might not be paying the person who wrote that song?

Spotify has been sued for upwards of $345 million by Bob Gaudio and Bluewater Music Services Corporation for failure to pay mechanical licenses when their compositions are streamed on Spotify. Gaudio, a former member of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, wrote and publishes some of the group’s biggest hits including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man,” as well as Valli’s solo hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Bluewater administers the publishing for compositions like Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar,” and Guns ‘N Roses’ “Yesterdays.”

Streaming requires several licenses –sound recording licenses from the record labels; performance licenses for the compositions from performance rights organizations such as ASCAP and BMI; and mechanical licenses for the reproduction of the compositions. While Spotify has deals with the major labels, and blanket licenses with ASCAP and BMI, Spotify has not complied with the requirements for mechanical licenses and payments for all compositions streamed on its platform. Obtaining a mechanical license in the United States is compulsory, meaning that a person or company wishing to reproduce a composition must follow the guidelines in Section 115 of the United States Copyright Act to serve a “Notice of Intent” on the copyright owner and pay said owner the compulsory license fee. Spotify has followed this procedure for compositions affiliated with the Harry Fox Agency (the closest body the United States has to a mechanical rights society), but there are many compositions not affiliated with the Harry Fox Agency that Spotify would need to contact and pay directly – and Spotify largely has not done so.

This is not the first time Spotify has come under fire for its inadequate licensing practices. In 2016, Spotify reached a $30 million dollar settlement with the National Music Publisher’s Association (NMPA) for unpaid mechanical royalties, and Spotify just settled another class action suit for $43.4 million dollars. While maximum statutory damages rates are $150,000 per infringed composition, Bluewater claims that Spotify will only have to pay songwriters $4 per infringed composition after litigation fees are paid. Per the previous settlements, Spotify must also implement a better system to properly track and pay mechanical royalties, and Bluewater asserts this has not yet happened.

The attorney for both Gaudio and Bluewater is Richard S. Busch, most recently in the news for his representation of Marvin Gaye’s estate in the “Blurred Lines” case. Echoing my previous sentiments, a press release citing Busch’s complaint sums up the issue in a single sentence: “Songwriters and publishers should not have to work this hard to get paid or have their life’s work properly licensed, and companies should not be allowed to build businesses—much less billion-dollar businesses—on the concept of ‘infringe now and ask questions later.’”

*This article does not constitute legal advice.

Erin M. Jacobson is a music attorney whose clients include Grammy and Emmy Award winners, legacy clients and catalogs, songwriters, music publishers, record labels, and independent artists and companies. She is based in Los Angeles where she handles a wide variety of music agreements and negotiations, in addition to owning and overseeing all operations for Indie Artist Resource, the independent musician’s resource for legal and business protection. Ms. Jacobson also serves on the boards of the California Copyright Conference (CCC) and Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP).

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June Music Legal and Business Roundup

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Categories: Copyright, Infringement, Legal Disputes, Legal Issues, Music, Music Industry, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Image via freeimages.com

Here’s a recap of my article’s this month:

 

The most talked-about topic in the music legal world this month was certainly the copyright infringement case where band Spirit is sued Led Zeppelin over allegations that “Stairway to Heaven” infringed on Spirit’s song “Taurus.”  The good news is that Led Zeppelin Wins ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Jury Trial!

Here’s a recap of the week’s trial coverage:

What was also exciting is the recent push by artists to urge online content providers like YouTube to #valuemusic.  This call to action also involves the request to reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which allows safe harbor provisions for YouTube and other online content providers.

In other news, those on the other side of the spectrum are filing lawsuits to force certain musical compositions into the public domain so that they don’t have to pay the license fees for them.  This is one of a few lawsuits to follow the “Happy Birthday” case.  This is certainly not a way to #valuemusic.

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Ask a Music Lawyer: Is the Poor Man’s Copyright Enough to Protect Your Songs?

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Categories: Articles, Copyright, Music, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

ESQ - poor mans copyrightIs the “Poor Man’s Copyright” enough to protect your songs? The short answer is no.

A work that meets the standards of originality is considered to be copyrighted under United States law when that work is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression,” (17 U.S. Code §102) which means that the work is put into a physical medium that can be reproduced, like writing it down, recording it on an audio or video recorder, etc.

What is the “Poor Man’s Copyright?”

The Poor’s Man’s Copyright is a practice where someone would take a work they had created, put it in an envelope, and mail it to himself via the United States Postal Service. Because the Postal Service would stamp the envelope with a postmark that had the date of mailing, it is argued that the date on the envelope proves that the work was created on or before that date. Otherwise, if the person hadn’t created it yet, how would he have mailed it to himself?

Poor Man’s Copyright 2.0*

Now with the Internet, the argument people try to present to me is that once a person posts something on the Internet, the timestamp of the posting is enough to show that the work was created on or before the date that it was posted online.

Why the Poor Man’s Copyright Isn’t Enough

There are a few reasons why the date or time stamp is not enough to protect a work. Firstly, while as a matter of logic the work had to have been created on or before it was mailed or posted, it doesn’t dictate when the work was actually created. For example, if Person A creates a work in January of a certain year, but does not mail or post it until September of that year, the date/time stamp Person A seeks to use as evidence will be in September. If Person B someone how access to Person A’s work, copies a portion of that work, and releases and/or registers his new work for copyright in July, then Person B’s work will have a date of July and Person A’s work will have a date of September without concrete proof that his work was actually written in January and before Person B’s work.

While it is true that Person A could show that Person B had access to their work, a date on a federal copyright registration certificate will almost always trump the date/time stamp and other date evidence. In addition, if Person A had registered for federal copyright protection, he could have indicated that the work was created in January even if he filed later. Furthermore, Person A could not even sue for infringement in federal court without having a federal copyright registration, leaving him without strong options to defend his work if it was infringed.

Why Register Your Work?

Federal copyright registration with the United States Copyright Office is always advisable because

  • A person cannot sue in federal court for copyright infringement without a federal registration.
  • The date of creation listed on a federal registration certificate is the strongest evidence a court will consider.
  • And federal registration provides additional benefits including but not limited to:
    1. Public notice of who owns the work;
    2. Listing in the United States Copyright Office’s online databases
    3. A legal presumption of ownership of the work in court (if certain conditions are met);
    4. Statutory damages and attorney’s fees (i.e. more money!) can be awarded to the winner of an infringement suit (if certain conditions are met).

A person can register his own works for copyright protection, and the online registration fee ranges from about $35-55. However, the terms and application can get complicated, especially for someone who has never filed a registration application before. You don’t want to later find out that your copyright is invalid, like Rick Ross just did.

Contact me to file the registration so it is done correctly the first time.

Registering works for federal copyright protection won’t prevent someone from infringing, but it does provide the strongest ammunition to protect creative works.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters. This article does not constitute or create an attorney-client relationship between Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. and you or any other user. The law may vary based on the facts or particular circumstances or the law in your state. You should not rely on, act, or fail to act, upon this information without seeking the professional counsel of an attorney licensed in your state.

If this article is considered an advertisement, it is general in nature and not directed towards any particular person or entity.

This article was  originally posted on Sonicbids.com.

 

*Term coined by Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.

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How Do You Prove That Someone Stole Your Song?

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Categories: Articles, Copyright, Infringement, Law, Legal Disputes, Legal Issues, Music, Music Industry, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Image via hivesociety.com

A lot of musicians email me claiming they have great cases for copyright infringement. Copyright infringement does happen, but there are more people who think they have a case than those who actually do. (Please note that I am not a litigator and the below explanation is only a general overview of the basic principles in a copyright infringement suit. Actual cases may include nuances not discussed in this article.)

In order to sue for copyright infringement, you must have your work’s copyright registered with the United States Copyright Office. You can register your works yourself (the online registration fee is about $35), but I recommend an attorney like me or a service like Indie Artist Resource to file the registration for you, as some of the questions and principles covered in the application can be confusing.

Keep in mind that under copyright law, two similar works can be created independently of each other without infringement. For example, two independent musicians on opposite sides of the country could create original and copyrightable songs that sound very similar to each other, without knowing each other or ever hearing each other’s music. After all, there are only so many notes and chords that can be played.

However, if you do feel someone has actually infringed your music, you will have to prove that you have a valid copyright and your work was sufficiently original to warrant the validity of that copyright. Next, you will have to show that the alleged infringer copied your work. The analysis for infringement involves examining these three areas:

1. Direct copying
Here, you would have to show that the accused infringer directly copied the first work when creating his subsequent work. There is often no way to show direct copying, so the courts will instead look at the next two areas described below.

2. Access
When direct copying cannot be proven, courts will often infer that copying occurred if it is shown that the accused infringer had access to the allegedly infringed composition. This can be proven by showing that someone had direct access to your work, such as if you gave a copy of the song directly to the alleged infringer, or gave it to someone who had access to that person, like a producer or label executive.

Access can also be shown if the prior work is widely disseminated, such as a famous hit played on the radio and well known by the public. Here’s an example of how access was surprisingly proven in a real case: In Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd.,[1] George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord” was deemed to infringe on the song “He’s So Fine” recorded by The Chiffons in 1962.[2] The court didn’t require actual proof that Harrison had heard “He’s So Fine” before; it relied on the fact that “He’s So Fine” had the top position on the Billboard charts in the U.S. for five weeks and hit No. 12 in England in 1963[3] – coincidentally at the same time The Beatles were becoming famous.[4]

The court concluded that Harrison unconsciously plagiarized “He’s So Fine” when he composed “My Sweet Lord” because “his subconscious knew [the musical combination of notes] had worked in a song his conscious mind did not remember.”[5] The court went on to further conclude that it did not believe Harrison deliberately copied the song,[6] but ruled against him anyway because access to “He’s So Fine” was assumed due to its fame and the two songs had enough similarities to satisfy the court.[7]

Therefore, if you have written a song, but it is not well known by others and you have not given it to someone where you can show a direct connection to the person who supposedly copied your song, you don’t have a case. It’s not enough to write and record a song that only a small number of people have heard, and then try to file a lawsuit when something shows up on the radio that you think sounds similar, when in reality you have no proof to show the other person even knew of your song.

3. Substantial similarity
The third analysis looks at the similarities, if any, between the two songs. If the degree of access to the first song is high, the amount of proof required to show similarity between the two songs will be lower than if there was not easy access to the first song.

Here, a court will look objectively at which parts of the first song were allegedly copied, such as the melody, lyrics, etc. A court will also look at the subjective opinion of lay listeners, which is basically whether the average person would think the two songs sounded the same or similar enough when listening to them both.

This point in the analysis is where many people argue that it is supposedly acceptable to copy three notes of an existing composition or sample three seconds or less of an existing recording without infringing copyright. In fact, there are no such rules allowing this practice. Infringement is infringement.

If you have looked at the facts and can truly show that someone has either directly copied your song or has had access to your song, and their song is very similar to yours, then you will need to contact an entertainment/copyright litigator to discuss the potential merits of your case. Keep in mind that these lawyers do expect to get paid for their services, although there are a few who may be willing to take important cases on a contingency. Check with the lawyer on his or her practices.

Footnotes:
[1] Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd., 420 F. Supp. 177 (1976).
[2] Id.
[3] Id. at 179.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 180.
[6] Id. at 181.
[7] Id.

This post was originally published at Sonicbids.com.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters. If this article is considered an advertisement, it is general in nature and not directed towards any particular person or entity. This article does not constitute or create a lawyer-client relationship between Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. and you or any other user. The law may vary based on the facts or particular circumstances or the law in your state. You should not act, or fail to act, upon this information without seeking the professional counsel of an attorney licensed in your state.