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.
Continue Reading Court of Appeals Finds That Digital Remasters of Pre-1972 Sound Recordings Likely Do Not Result in New Copyrighted Work That Would Bring These Songs under Federal Law – Reversing District Court Decision