pre-1972 sound recording

Recently, the Radio Music License Committee sent out a memo to broadcasters about a July 8, 2019 SoundExchange payment deadline for pre-1972 sound recordings.  As with everything in copyright law, the issues surrounding pre-1972 sound recordings are complicated, and the RMLC notice, while seemingly straightforward, still resulted in our receiving lots of questions.  These questions may have been compounded because of notices sent to broadcasters back in April about another filing deadline concerning these recordings which caused much consternation for what was, for most broadcasters, a matter of little concern.  For most broadcasters, neither of these dates are of particular concern unless the broadcaster has been identifying pre-1972 sound recordings and not paying SoundExchange royalties when those songs are streamed, and we understand that most broadcasters have in fact been paying SoundExchange for these recordings.  But let’s try to explain what is going on in a little more detail.

First, let’s look at the basics.  Sound recordings (the recording of a particular band or singer performing a song) were originally not covered by federal copyright law.  The law provided protections for “musical works” (i.e. the musical composition, the words and musical notes of the song), but the mere recording of that work was initially not seen as a creative work.  It was thought of more as a mechanical rendering of the real creative work – the underlying song.  So when recordings came to have real value in the first half of the last century, recording artists had to rely on state laws to prevent other people from making and distributing copies of their recordings. Laws against what we would refer to as bootlegging or pirating of recordings were passed in most states, and lawsuits against bootleggers would be brought under these state laws.  It was not until 1972 that Congress, through an amendment to the Copyright Act, recognized that the recordings were themselves creative works entitled to copyright protection.  But that amendment did not fully make all pre-existing recordings subject to the Copyright Act, instead leaving most sound recordings first recorded in the United States prior to the adoption of the amendment to the Act in February 1972 subject to state laws until 2067.
Continue Reading Pre-1972 Sound Recordings and the July 8 SoundExchange Filing Deadline

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

The week before last, we summarized the provisions of the Music Modernization Act as passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate is now poised to take up this legislation in a hearing scheduled by the Senate Judiciary Committee for next Tuesday, May 15. The legislation proposes, among other things, to set up a SoundExchange-like collective for the collection and payment of mechanical royalties due under Section 115 of the Copyright Act and to create a digital public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings (ending some of the litigation that has arisen in recent years on that issue). Our summary provides more details on these issues and highlights some of the other issues addressed by this bill.

The consideration of the bill by the Judiciary Committee is the next step to the bill becoming a law. The hearing will feature representatives of several groups directly affected by the legislation – including David Israelite, the CEO of the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA represents publishing companies that usually hold the copyrights to musical compositions); Chris Harrison, the CEO of the Digital Media Association (DiMA represents digital music services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music); and Mitch Glazier, the President of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA represents the major record labels who usually own the copyrights to the sound recordings – the compositions as recorded by particular performers). Members of DiMA and the RIAA pay mechanical royalties. Members of NMPA collect those royalties. Thus, these groups are directly affected by the Music Modernization Act. Songwriters and performers, including Motown legend Smokey Robinson, will also testify at the hearing. A full list of the participants can be found on the Judiciary Committee’s website, where video of the hearing will also be available next week.
Continue Reading Senate to Hold Hearing on May 15 on Music Modernization Act

In a decision this week, the Florida Supreme Court rejected claims by Flo & Eddie (of the 1960s band the Turtles) that there was a common law public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings in the state of Florida (the opinion is available here). The Florida court, after examining numerous avenues of argument, concluded that the establishment of such a right was a legislative task. A judicial declaration that the right existed would, in the Court’s words, “have an immediate impact on consumers beyond Florida’s borders and would affect numerous stakeholders who are not parties to this suit.” It would also upset settled expectations, as the determination that there was a right would effectively create a sound recording performance right greater than that which has ever been recognized in the US – far broader than the limited right granted under Federal law to cover digital performances of sound recordings. The Court went on to conclude that other claims raised by Flo & Eddie were similarly unavailing. The Court found that any reproductions made in the transmission process by Sirius XM (the defendant in the case) were not entitled to composition as they were transitory and made only for purposes of the transmission, not for public consumption (and as Florida law specifically permitted limited reproductions by radio broadcasters and the Court considered Sirius to fit that definition). And, as there was no violation of any rights of the plaintiffs, the use of the recordings could not constitute unfair competition or conversion.

This case reached the Florida Supreme Court when it was certified by the United State Court of Appeals which was reviewing a District Court decision reaching the same conclusion as did the Florida Supreme Court – that there was no performance right under state law for pre-1972 sound recordings (see our summary of the District Court decision here). The Supreme Court’s decision in Florida is similar to that reached by the Court of Appeals in New York (the state’s highest court), about which we wrote here, determining that there was no NY state law public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings. As we’ve written many times, pre-1972 recordings are not governed by Federal law, which was only extended to cover reproduction rights in sound recordings in that year, leaving all pre-1972 rights in sound recordings with the states. Georgia and Illinois have reached similar decisions in slightly different cases (see our article here on the Georgia decision). In California, where a District Court found a public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings, we are awaiting word from its Supreme Court as to whether such rights exist in that state (see our article here on the certification of this question to the California Supreme Court).
Continue Reading Florida Supreme Court Rejects Public Performance Right in Pre-1972 Sound Recordings – What’s Next?

The CLASSICS (Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service and Important Contributions to Society) Act was introduced in Congress last week to try to clear up some of the ongoing disputes over the public performance rights of pre-1972 sound recordings. Through litigation, certain copyright holders (including, most notably, Flo and Eddie of the 1960’s band The Turtles) have been seeking compensation from digital and analog music services for the public performance of pre-1972 sound recordings. These sound recordings are not covered by Federal law. As the obligation to pay SoundExchange only applies to recordings covered by Federal law, some digital services were not paying for the performance of these songs. The artists that have brought suit have contended that state laws did create an obligation to pay for the public performance of these recordings, even though there were no specific statutory provisions establishing those rights. Thus far, New York, Florida, Georgia and Illinois have found there to be no right of compensation under state laws (though some of these cases are on appeal). By contrast, California found that there was a right for compensation, though that case, too, is on appeal.

The CLASSICS Act looks to resolve these issues by pre-empting state lawsuits and establishing that services cannot play these recordings without either getting a direct license from the copyright holder to do so, or by paying SoundExchange royalties under the statutory license at the fees set by the Copyright Royalty Board. If a digital music service pays SoundExchange royalties and obeys the rules that apply to such royalties, it is not infringing on the rights of the copyright holder. It can also directly license these rights, but must pay half the license fee to SoundExchange to be distributed to the artists who performed on the recording (in the same manner that half the fees paid under the statutory license are distributed to the artists).
Continue Reading CLASSICS Act Introduced to Provide Pre-1972 Sound Recording Public Performance Clarity – What Issues Does It Leave Unresolved?

The Georgia Supreme Court this week issued a decision holding that the streaming of pre-1972 sound recordings by iHeart Media does not violate the state’s criminal statutes against the “transfer” of recorded sounds without the permission of the owner of the master recording. While many trade press articles have lumped this decision in with the ongoing litigation about the public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings, this case is actually dealing with a different issue – and does not even mention the words “public performance” that were the center of debate in the Flo & Eddie cases against Sirius XM and Pandora, leading to the decisions that we wrote about in New York (here and here), California (here), and Florida (here).

What is at issue in the Georgia case is a criminal statute similar to those found in many states that prohibits the unauthorized transfer of various recordings, including pre-1972 sound recordings, without permission of the owner of the master recording. The plaintiff in this case, argued that the illegal transfers violated criminal law, and thus gave rise to a claim of civil liability under state racketeering statutes which provide for civil recovery against a defendant engaged in multiple criminal activities. By finding that there was no criminal violation here, the Georgia Supreme Court effectively ended the racketeering claim.
Continue Reading New Wrinkle in Pre-1972 Sound Recording Cases – Georgia Supreme Court Holds that iHeart Streaming Does Not Violate State Criminal Statute

The music battle continues over the question of whether state laws provide a public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings. While, as we wrote here and here, the highest court in New York has determined that there is no such right in that state ending the litigation there, cases continue in other states, notably California (where a Federal Court determined that there was a state right, see our summary here) and Florida (where the Federal Court determined that there was not, see our summary here). The Florida case has been referred to that state’s highest court for an advisory ruling on the state of the state’s law on the issue, and earlier this week, the same thing happened in California. The US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which was hearing an appeal of the Federal District Court decision that there was a performance right under California law, decided to turn to the experts in California state law – the California Supreme Court – and ask for an interpretation of California law to determine if there is indeed a public performance right in these pre-1972 recordings.

Flo & Eddie, the performers behind the 1960s band the Turtles, stirred up a major music rights controversy several years ago by their high-profile lawsuits against music services including Sirius XM and Pandora as to whether there is a state law public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings (see our article here on the first of these suits). Those recordings are not covered under Federal Copyright law, so Flo & Eddie had the novel idea of bringing state law actions to enforce a purported state law performance right in these recordings – even though no such right had been enforced against any music service in the 45 years since Federal Copyright law decided to cover all new US sound recordings, and even though Federal law did not itself create any performance right in sound recordings until 1995, and then limited it solely to digital performances under a very carefully crafted statutory license scheme. Even though no state law explicitly states that there is a performance right in these pre-1972 law, in California, the band has relied on a very general statutory grant of property rights in pre-1972 sound recordings to conclude that this broad grant included a performance right – even though there were no indication as to how such a performance right would function, or what limitations would apply, as are specified under Federal law. The US Court of Appeals, in its order referring this question to the California Supreme Court, noted the general nature of this statutory grant, and asked the state court for an interpretation as whether it really is meant to include a performance right.
Continue Reading More on Flo & Eddie: Federal Court Certifies to California State Court Question of Whether There is a Public Performance Right in Pre-1972 Sound Recordings

This week, the US Court of Appeals essentially ended Flo and Eddie’s New York case against Sirius XM where it tried to establish a public performance royalty in pre-1972 sound recordings. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the US District Court with instructions that it be dismissed, finding that a December decision by New York’s state Court of Appeals resolved all issues in the case. As we wrote just before Christmas, the New York Court of Appeals determined that there was no public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings under New York state law. That decision resulted from a certified question from the US Court of Appeals which was reviewing the decision of a federal District Court which had found that such a right exists. An issue in a Federal case is certified or referred to a state court when there are issues of state law that control the determination of the Federal case. As pre-1972 sound recordings are not covered under Federal law, state law controls the rights accorded to such recordings, thus the certified question was necessary in this case to determine the state of the law on this issue in New York state (see our article about the referral of the public performance issue in this case to the NY Court of Appeals, here, an article that also discusses more broadly the status of pre-1972 sound recording litigation and related issues).

This week’s federal Court of Appeals order was very direct, relying on the state court decision that there was no public performance right to end the case. It did briefly address the remaining arguments of Flo and Eddie by finding that no issues still remained as to liability for copies of the sound recordings made during the digital transmission process (server, buffer and cache copies) or on any claim of unfair competition. Basically, the Court found that any copies made in the transmission process were fair use necessary to engage in the legal performance, and there was no unfair competition issue as the performance was legal, hence not unfair in the eyes of the law.
Continue Reading Flo and Eddie NY Suit on Pre-1972 Sound Recordings Ordered Dismissed By Court of Appeals – No Issues with Copies Made in the Transmission Process

The New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has ruled that there is no public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings in the state of New York. The decision (available here in a version subject to revision) was reached after the US Court of Appeals certified the question to the state court as being necessary to resolve the appeal of a US District Court decision which had found such a right to exist in a lawsuit brought by Flo & Eddie of the band the Turtles against Sirius XM Radio. We wrote about the District Court’s decision here, and the certification to the state court here. Certifying a question from a Federal Court to a State Court is a rare matter, done when a Federal Court needs guidance as to the state’s treatment of a legal issue under state law where there is no clear precedent, and where the state law issue is central to the resolution of the case. The NY Court of Appeals did not have to accept the certification, but it did to resolve this somewhat obscure issue of state intellectual property law (most of which is governed by Federal law).

The NY Court’s decision was not unanimous, as there was one dissenting Justice who would have found that a performance right does exist. The dissenting justice thought that there should be a state performance right – but a right co-terminus with the Federal right, thus applying only to digital services and not to terrestrial radio and presumably not to retail outlets, bars and restaurants and other businesses that may play music. That Justice seemed to be motivated by a desire to keep pace with current developments in the music industry, suggesting that common law should evolve with the times and, as streaming is now becoming more important to the music industry, there should be a royalty for such streams. Another justice concurred with the decision that there is no performance royalty in noninteractive services like that offered by Sirius XM, but there should be for interactive services like that offered by Spotify and Apple Music. The majority of the court disagreed with these justices.
Continue Reading NY State’s Highest Court Finds that There is No Public Performance Right in Pre-1972 Sound Recordings

While this summer has perhaps not brought the big headlines in trade press about copyright issues involving broadcasters – particularly in the area of music rights – there still are many issues that are active. I addressed some of those issues in a presentation earlier this month at the Texas Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention. I did my presentation in conjunction with a representative of SoundExchange, where he covered the nuts and bolts of the obligations of broadcasters and webcasters to file royalties for the noninteractive digital performance of sound recordings (e.g. webcasting and Internet radio). While the rates for 2016-2020 are on appeal (see our articles here, here and here), these rates are effective pending appeal and webcasters need to be paying under them. In the Texas presentation, I covered some of the many other copyright issues that are on the horizon, many of which we have written about in the pages of this blog. The slides from my presentation are available here. They provide an outline of many of the pending matters.

The presentation covered the controversy about the Department of Justice decision on the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, about which I wrote about here. That controversy continues, as the PROs seek judicial or legislative relief from the new DOJ requirement for 100 per cent licensing of split works (see my article for an explanation of what that means). In the interim, the radio industry is negotiating new royalties with both of these organizations, as the current license agreements expire at the end of this year (see our article here).
Continue Reading What’s Up With Music Rights for Broadcasters and Webcasters? – A Presentation on Pending Issues