It was news earlier this week when a company that promotes poker was sued by one of the major record labels and publishing companies for the use of music in podcasts without permission. As we have written before (see, for instance, our articles here and here), the use of music in podcasts requires a license from the copyright holder of both the musical composition and the recorded performance of the music (usually, for popular music, a publishing company and a record label). In this case, one of the first we’ve seen against a podcaster for infringement of a copyright holder’s music rights (though we have heard of other situations where cease and desist letters were sent to podcasters, or where demand letters from copyright holders resulted in negotiated settlements), Universal Music alleges that the podcast company used its music and refused to negotiate a license despite repeated attempts by the music company to get the podcaster to do so. Thus, the lawsuit was filed.

As we have pointed out before, a broadcaster or other media company that has performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and even GMR does not get the right to podcast music – nor do the SoundExchange royalty payments cover podcasts. These organizations all collect for the public performance of music. While podcasts may require a performance license (see our article here about how Alexa and other smart speakers are making the need for such licenses more apparent as more and more podcast listening is occurring through streaming rather than downloads), they also require rights to reproduction and distribution of the copyrighted songs and the right to make derivative works – all rights given to copyright owners under the Copyright Act. These rights are not covered by the public performance licenses which only give the rights to make performances to the public. What is the difference between these rights?
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Two years ago, a District Court Judge, in a case brought against a broadcaster alleging that the broadcaster owed money under California state law for playing pre-1972 sound recordings, dismissed the suit finding that the broadcaster was playing digitized versions of those songs, created after 1972, which were covered under Federal copyright law (we wrote about that decision here). Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its decision reversing the District Court’s opinion and sending the case back to the District Court for additional hearings. The Court of Appeals concluded, for several reasons, that there was likely insufficient creativity in the remastering of the pre-1972 sound recordings to make them new post-1972 copyrighted works and that, even if they were creative enough to merit copyright protection as a derivative work, that did not end the discussion, as portions of the original pre-1972 work were included in any new work and those portions themselves had to be licensed. The decision looks like a simple premise that digitization is no magic bullet to defeat pre-1972 sound recording claims, but there is much to unpack in this seemingly straightforward decision.

First, we need to provide a little background on the litigation over pre-1972 sound recordings. Federal law did not recognize a copyright in sound recordings until 1972. So while the underlying musical composition in a song was protected under Federal law, a recording by a particular band or singer was not. When these recordings were federalized, the Copyright Act explicitly left all rights regarding pre-1972 sound recordings in the hands of state law until 2067. For over 40 years, that quirk in copyright law did not seem to have much relevance, though some US digital music services did not pay royalties to SoundExchange for digital performances of those recordings as they were not covered by Section 114 of the Copyright Act (the section creating the statutory royalty for sound recordings). About 5 years ago, the singers Flo and Eddie (formerly of the 1960s band the Turtles) started bringing lawsuits throughout the country alleging that they were owed performance royalties under state law for these pre-1972 recordings from both digital and analog services (see our article here when the first suit was filed). In most states, those suits have been dismissed with courts finding that state law did not provide for a performance right in these pre-1972 recordings (see our articles about decisions in New York, Florida and Georgia reaching that conclusion). The issue in California, however, is still open. For a deeper dive into these issues, see our article here.
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The question of whether state laws about pre-1972 sound recordings could give copyright holders a claim against broadcasters for the over-the-air public performance of these recordings was answered in a novel manner in a decision rendered by a US District Court in California. The evidence before the Court showed that CBS, the broadcaster being sued, had played digitally remastered versions of the pre-1972 songs, not the original analog pre-1972 recordings. The Court, based on evidence provided by the sound engineers who remastered the digital versions of the songs, found that there was enough originality in the remastering process for the digital versions to be copyrightable as “derivative works.” A derivative work is a separate work, based on the original, which can itself be copyrighted if there is some creativity in the new work. As the remastered derivative work was created after 1972, the Court decided that it was covered under Federal law. As Federal law provides no royalty for the public performance of a sound recording by an over-the-air broadcaster, the Court granted CBS summary judgement in the suit brought against it, dismissing the claims of the copyright holders (the text of the decision is embedded in this Hollywood Reporter article about the case).

The question of whether digitized versions of old recordings are sufficiently creative to merit their own copyrights (whether they are “original works of authorship”) has been debated in copyright circles for some time. Here, the Court looked at a summary of the law that had been prepared in a Circular distributed by the Copyright Office, which listed certain criteria that could be applied in determining whether a re-recorded work had sufficient creativity to merit a copyright. The Court also looked at specific evidence offered by recording engineers that showed how they used independent creative judgment in deciding to enhance certain elements of the recording in the digital version and to suppress others. The testimony showed that the digital version was the result of more than simply hooking the analog source material to a digital recorder and distributing the result. Human intervention in deciding how to materially change the original work to produce a new digital work was found by the Court – deciding that this was a classic version of a derivative work, authorized by the Copyright holders themselves when they commissioned the digital versions of the recordings. Thus, these works were entitled to their own copyright – a copyright that arose when the work was created after 1972.

We wrote about this issue in our article here, an article that primarily dealt with pending appeals of the question of whether there really is a state law public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings. We wrote there about the fact that Sirius XM and some webcasters have not raised the CBS defense, as they have argued that no such royalties are due on pre-1972 sound recordings and have not been making such payments to SoundExchange (the Court in the CBS case said that CBS was apparently making such payments). Of course, the issue was not raised in those cases as to whether these companies were playing analog versions of the old recordings, or new digitally remastered works that may be entitled, if the current decision is upheld, to new copyrights (in fact, as we wrote here, the Copyright Royalty Board itself has approved of Sirius XM not making payments for pre-1972 recordings, without addressing what constituted such a recording). What implications does this decision have on other cases where this issue has been raised?
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Pre-1972 sound recordings are back in the news. Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided to defer its consideration of an appeal of a District Court’s decision that NY law included a public performance right for pre-1972 sound recordings. The Court deferred its decision until it can get a definitive answer as to whether or not such a right exists under NY state law. To get that definitive answer, the Court of Appeals referred the question to the NY State Court of Appeals (the highest court in New York State) asking it to issue an opinion as to whether the right exists.   Reading the order referring the case to the NY state court, there are a number of interesting issues addressed, including a discussion that could help decide the ramifications for over-the-air broadcasters who play these recordings.

First, we should provide a reminder about what the case here is all about. This case was brought by Flo and Eddie, members of the 1960s band The Turtles, who alleged that Sirius XM (and Pandora in a separate case) owed them royalties for playing pre-1972 sound recordings on their music services (see our article on the filing of the suit, here). Pre-1972 sound recordings first copyrighted in the United States are not covered by Federal law (see our article here and here about a Copyright Office inquiry on whether they should be brought under Federal law). While most states have laws prohibiting the reproduction of those recordings (e.g. prohibiting bootlegging of the recordings), none has an explicit statutory grant of a public performance right such as that collected by SoundExchange for post-1972 works. Sirius XM has thus excluded performances of pre-1972 sound recordings from the royalties that it has paid to SoundExchange (with the blessing of the Copyright Royalty Board in their last proceeding, see our story here). And allegedly Pandora has done the same. In this case, Flo and Eddie argued that in fact state law did convey a public performance right in sound recordings. Many observers (including this author) suggested that this argument would not succeed given that finding that a general performance right existed would be contrary to US law, and could subject all sorts of businesses that have never paid royalties for public performances of sound recordings, from over-the-air radio stations to bars and restaurants, to a performance royalty only when they played oldies. Nevertheless, Flo and Eddie were successful with their arguments in lower Federal Courts in California and New York (see our articles here and here), but a court in Florida denied their claims, finding that there is no performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings in that state (see our article here). The Court of Appeals decision yesterday was on the appeal of the NY decision referenced above. Why did the Court of Appeals need to send this case to the NY state court system?
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The Good Wife is not usually where one turns for serious discussions of music copyright issues (nor is Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special where we found copyright issues discussed several years ago).  But I was surprised to find this Sunday that the principal plot line of The Good Wife was focused on a music rights dispute.  After watching, I wondered how many people in the show’s audience had any idea of what the legal issues being discussed were really all about.  In fact, copyright law, as confusing as it can sometimes be, is an unusual topic for a plot line on a TV show.  It is not as universally understandable as is a criminal trial, a custody case or some civil suit for damages.  In fact, as we’ve written before, the complexity of copyright law makes compliance difficult even for those involved in the industry.  The Good Wife episode itself made that complexity a comedic point throughout the program, as even the musicians involved in the plot line several times remarked that they, too, were clueless as to the rights issues involved in this fictional case.  But, with a couple of days to reflect on the program, I thought that it might be worth expounding on some of the copyright issues involved, as they illustrate some of the rights that are included in the copyrights to every piece of music.

As we have written before, what makes copyrights in music so confusing is that there are several copyright holders in each recorded song, and each copyright holder has different rights, often administered by different organizations.  We write much about the public performance rights in sound recordings (usually payable to SoundExchange by noninteractive digital music services, and to the record companies by interactive services) and in musical compositions (usually payable to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, though some large publishing companies have started to pull their catalogs from these organizations to license directly).  But The Good Wife did not deal with the public performance right, but instead with other rights in music.  The two rights principally dealt with were the right to authorize the making of a reproduction (often referred to as a “mechanical right“) and the right to make a derivative work.  The first is the right of the copyright holder to authorize others to use their compositions or recordings to make copies.  In the TV case, the issue involved the rights held by the writer of the song to authorize others to make cover versions of that song and to reproduce those versions (e.g. through CDs, downloads or other digital reproductions).  The right to make a derivative work is the right that the copyright holder has to authorize others to take parts of the original work but to make more than cursory changes to that work, e.g., keeping the melody and changing the words, or as in the TV case, keeping the words but changing the melody (in the TV case, taking a rap song and giving it a real pop song melody). 
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Using music in commercials and other broadcast station productions can be treacherous. As we’ve written before, contrary to what some stations might think (based on the questions we often get from broadcasters around the country), a station’s ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties do not give them the right to use popular music in their station productions – or in their commercials. Nor do they give you rights to use music in video productions used repeatedly on a station, or on a station’s website. Hearing an award winner at the recent broadcast awards banquet at the Montana Broadcasters Association annual convention thank the music publishers that gave her permission to change the lyrics of a well-known oldie for her PSA for a local animal shelter warms a lawyer’s heart, recognizing that there are broadcasters who understand the rights issues. But from questions that I get all the time, I fear that many other broadcasters don’t.

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are commonly known as the Performing Rights Organizations (or PROs), as they grant music users only a single right – the right to make public performances of musical compositions (or "musical works"). A musical composition is the words and music in a song – not the actual recording done by a particular singer or band. The composer and lyricist of the song have a copyright in the musical composition, though the right is usually assigned to a publishing company to administer. Each copyright in a composition gives its holder the right to exploit it in several different ways – and then user needs to get the rights to use the composition in any of these ways. The different rights include the right to publicly perform the composition (e.g. to play it before an audience or to transmit it to an audience by means of radio, the Internet or other transmission media). But the copyright holder also has the right to limit users from making reproductions of the composition (e.g. a recording of the song or any other “fixation” of the composition), distributing the composition (e.g. selling it or otherwise making it available to the public), or making a “derivative work” (taking the copyrighted work, using it, but changing it in some manner which, in the case of a musical composition, is probably most commonly done by changing the words of a song). So, for the Montana broadcaster to take a well-known song and to change the lyrics for her PSA required that the broadcaster get permission to make a derivative work (and probably to make reproductions, too, if copies of the re-recorded song were made).


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Using music in commercials is not as simple as just paying your ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties.  While many broadcasters think that paying these royalties is enough to give them the rights to do anything they want with music on their stations, it does not.  The payments to these Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) only cover the right to publicly perform music, i.e. to broadcast it.  They do not give you the right to take the music and "synchronize" it with other words or video material, e.g.  you cannot put music in a recorded commercial or otherwise permanently fix it into a recorded audio or video production.  Instead, to make such a production, the producer needs to get the rights to both the underlying musical composition (the words and musical notes) and, if you are planning to use a particular recording of a song, the rights to use that particular recording ( the "sound recording" or "master recording").  Getting these rights may very well require that you deal both with the record company or performing artist whose recording you plan to use, and the publishing company that represents the composer of the music.  And, as some artists may have concerns about having their music used to pitch some products, getting the rights to that artist’s version of a particular song may not be easy. 

Even using the tune of a familiar song in an advertisement, with different words, is not permitted without getting the rights to do so from the publishing company.  A copyright holder in a musical composition has the right to prepare "derivative works" of that composition.  A derivative work is one that uses the original copyrighted material, but changes it somehow – like putting new words to an old tune.  Many think that "fair use" permits the making of a parody of a song, so they are allowed to use the tune as long as they produce a new version that is funny.  However, in the copyright world, fair use is not that simple.  A parody, to allow use of the original tune, must be making commentary or criticism of the original song.  Being independently funny or amusing, or otherwise dealing with some independent social or political issue, does not give you the right to use the music without securing permission from the composer of the music first.  A recent story in the Hollywood reporter’s legal blog, THR,esq.com, told the story of a Congressional candidate, Joe Walsh, who thought that it would be cute to use the music of former Eagle Joe Walsh, to make fun of Democratic politicians.  As set out in that story, Eagle Joe Walsh’s attorney did not find the campaign song very funny, and sent a very strong letter objecting to that use (the LA Times site had at one point had a link to a video of a band playing the candidate’s version of the Joe Walsh song "Walk Away", but it now says that the video has been taken down due to a copyright objection). Don’t let your station be the recipient of such a letter – get the rights to use music in commercials or other productions. 


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