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by: Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.
This article was previously published on Forbes.com.
Following are the top music legal cases to watch in 2017, what to expect, and how they could affect the industry as a whole.
Background: As explained here, The Radio Music Licensing Commission (“”RMLC”) sued performance rights organization Global Music Rights (“GMR”) on anti-trust grounds for creating an artificial monopoly over and charging “exorbitant” licensing fees for works in its repertoire. In a separate and non-retaliatory suit (and explained here), GMR sued the RMLC claiming that the RMLC’s committee of radio stations seeks to discourage competition amongst these stations with the common goal of keeping payments to songwriters and music publishers artificially low and using its collective power to do so.
What you might expect: The parties will probably settle, as the implementation of judicial rate supervision would significantly curb GMR’s objectives in negotiating higher rates for its writers. If GMR had to submit to judicial rate setting proceedings, it is probable Irving Azoff would find a way around the regulations to command higher compensation for GMR writers.
How it could affect the industry: If radio does not want to pay GMR’s rates, then radio stations can refuse to play works in the GMR repertoire. As a result, these artists would lose the promotion and performance income provided by radio airplay. It could also affect writers belonging to other performance rights organizations that have co-written songs with GMR writers or covered songs by GMR writers. The band Anthrax has already issued an open letter to Irving Azoff seeking to have its name disassociated with GMR, as the band is not a GMR client but is listed in the GMR repertoire because Anthrax covered “Phantom Lord” by Metallica (a GMR client) early in Anthrax’s career. Anthrax is afraid this association could stop radio stations from playing all Anthrax songs.
However, the radio stations themselves would also suffer because it would harm stations’ popularity with listeners if stations cannot play the music their listeners want to hear, resulting in a significant loss of advertising revenue.
Background: Flo & Eddie of The Turtles sued SiriusXM for playing their sound recordings without paying royalties. In the United States, all sound recordings made after February 15, 1972 are protected by federal copyright law. Prior to that date, sound recordings only had protection under state laws. In 1995, sound recordings were granted a digital performance right to earn royalties when played on digital media like satellite radio or streamed online. This case raised the question as to whether all sound recordings were entitled to the performance right or only those recorded post-1972. Flo & Eddie have been successful in several states to champion the right to royalties for owners of older recordings, but a New York appeals court just ruled against themsaying that the pre-1972 recordings are only entitled to protection provided by state laws.
What you might expect: The outcome could go either way here, but its definitely one to watch. A settlement might also be possible for those involved in the lawsuit, however, a settlement would not dictate the future of royalties for other pre-1972 recordings not included in this class action suit.
How it could affect the industry: If it is found that pre-1972 sound recordings are entitled to a digital performance royalty, then owners of these recordings and the artists who recorded them would be entitled to an income stream much needed for older catalogues that do not currently make much money in terms of sales or other uses. Satellite radio and other Internet services would have to pay an appropriate amount of royalties, which seems doable for a company like SiriusXM worth billions of dollars, but potentially less so for smaller providers. If the appeal is upheld, then satellite radio and Internet services would continue to play these early recordings without paying royalties to the owners and artists of these recordings and would further the financial hardships for older artists without current hits.
Background: Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke wrote and recorded a song (“Blurred Lines”) that they, as stated in interviews, wanted to sound like Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” The Estate of Marvin Gaye sued Thicke and Williams for copyright infringement and the closely followed trial yielded a jury verdict in favor of the Gaye family, with a judgment ultimately set at $5.3 million plus future royalties. The verdict inspired a string of similar lawsuits, including one challenging the originality of “Stairway to Heaven.”
A major issue within the trial was whether to consider only the lead sheet (musical notes) deposited with the Copyright Office (protocol at the time “Got to Give It Up” was registered) and not the recording of the song. Insiders of the music community debate the finding of infringement when many of the actual notes were not an exact match in both compositions versus looking at patterns and other music elements that were similar and repeated within both songs.
The case is now up for appeal. Thicke and Williams’ attorney claims that the trial court’s verdict will “chill” creativity. The attorney for the Gaye family argues in his appellate brief that the copyright for “Got to Give It Up” is not “thin,” and states a reminder that the test for infringement is substantial similarity and not virtual identity.
What you might expect: This case will once again be closely followed, but the verdict cannot be predicted at this time. A settlement is doubtful because the stakes have become too high for both sides. This case has become much bigger than just the two songs involved.
How it could affect the industry: The impact of this decision could set an important precedent. If Thicke and Williams win, it would open the door to frequent usage of elements from older songs with little recourse for the copyright owners of the original songs. If the Gaye family wins, it would probably inspire even more lawsuits for infringement. Regardless of whichever party wins, this case may influence all future copyright infringement lawsuits involving music, as it may dictate which sources (lead sheets, recordings, etc.) can be considered in a copyright infringement suit and based on what is included in those sources, which elements of a composition can be protected and/or infringed.
Background: Performance rights organizations ASCAP and BMI asked the Department of Justice (which oversees the consent decrees governing ASCAP and BMI) to reform the decrees based on today’s digital age. Music publishers asked for the ability to negotiate directly with companies licensing music for digital uses. The Department of Justice ruled against all that was asked for by the music community and decided to implement a model of 100% licensing, which mandates that a performance rights organization can only license rights to perform a work if the organization controls 100% of that work.
BMI appealed the decision and got an immediate verdict in BMI’s favor allowing the industry practice of fractional licensing to continue. The Department of Justice has appealed BMI’s victory and that appeal is currently pending.
What you might expect: This is going to be an ongoing fight to the bitter end.
How it could affect the industry: As explained in more detail here, a ruling in favor of the Department of Justice would force the entire music industry to completely change the way it does business, render hundreds of thousands of works to be unlicensable by ASCAP and BMI, place incredible burdens on composition owners to track performances, potentially require hundreds of thousands of contracts to be amended, and would also affect the music industry throughout the world due to the reciprocal agreements ASCAP and BMI have with performance rights societies in other countries.
*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 catalogues, 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.