If you are confused by the news that a California federal court has ruled that satellite broadcaster Sirius XM is liable under California state law for streaming pre-1972 sound recordings by The Turtles,* you are not alone. The issues in this case prove, once again, Mark Twain’s complaint that “only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.”
To appreciate this bizarre situation you may need to be reminded of a few basic principles of our arcane copyright laws:
- The copyright in a musical work (aka a musical composition) and a “sound recording” of that work may be separately owned. John Lennon’s estate may own the copyright to the musical work Imagine, but Ray Charles, Elton John and Queen (or their record labels) own the copyrights in their sound recordings of the song. Thus, a sound recording may give rise to legal rights under two separate copyrights with two different owners.
- When Congress passed the 1976 Copyright Act, the new federal law preempted most, but not all, state copyright laws. One area Congress expressly left untouched was copyright rights in the public performance of sound recordings made before February 15, 1972. The public performance right for sound recordings will not become subject to federal law until February 15, 2067 (go figure).
- The federal vacuum for pre-1972 sound recordings left by the 1976 Act gives rise to an argument that state copyright laws may be asserted by the owners of pre-1972 sound recordings.
- Lastly, in 1995 and 1998 Congress passed laws which have the effect of requiring digital streaming services (Sirius XM, Pandora, Spotify) to pay a compulsory license set by the Copyright Royalty Board and administered by SoundExchange, for post-1972 sound recordings. This compulsory licensing system does not cover analog transmissions (AM/FM radio). Nor, importantly, does it cover pre-1972 sound recordings.
Here is the rub: the owners of pre-1972 sound recordings claim that if the public performances of their sound recordings are not covered by the federal copyright act then they must, of necessity, be protected under state copyright laws.* Congress said nothing to the contrary when it passed the 1976 Act, and in fact expressly left pre-1972 sound recordings governed by state law. Flo & Eddie, which owns the Turtles’ pre-1972 sound recordings, has filed suits against Sirius XM and Pandora, as have several record companies. To date, the cases are centered in California and New York.
*[note] This has implications in more than one area of copyright law. For example, in April 2013 I wrote a post discussing the question whether the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “notice and take-down” process provides a safe harbor for publishers of pre-1972 works. (See New York State Court Blows a Hole in the DMCA Safe Harbors for Pre-1972 Sound Recordings).
The first court decision to address this issue was Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM , decided by a California federal judge on September 22, 2014. This case held that because sound recordings fixed before February 15, 1972 are not covered under the federal copyright act — and are explicitly left to the control of state statutory and common law — Flo & Eddie’s rights are governed by a California statute which vests “exclusive ownership” in pre-1972 sound recordings in their authors. Sirius XM argued that because it was generally assumed at the time the California law was enacted that copyright rights did not exist in pre-1972 sound recordings under state law, the California law was never intended to grant pre-1972 copyright holders this right. The court rejected this reasoning based on the express language in the statute, concluding that “exclusive ownership” encompasses all rights, the only exception being the right to make a “cover” recording (which is expressly carved out in the statute).
Setting aside an almost certain appeal and reversal, what are the implications of this decision? First, there is no reason that the logic in Flo & Eddie does not extend beyond streaming webcasters to analog broadcasters, such as radio and television. It’s not clear why these companies would not now be squarely in the litigation cross-hairs of Flo & Eddie and others (mostly record companies) who own pre-1972 sound recordings.
Second, this decision (if upheld) puts Internet service providers such as Youtube at risk of copyright infringement under state laws. If Youtube is not protected by the DMCA (as one court has already held in a case involving a different music locker), Youtube cannot claim immunity under that section of the federal copyright law, even if pre-1972 sound recordings were uploaded by users of the site. It would be liable for copyright infringement under the same theory used in Flo & Eddie – by streaming these recordings it is publicly performing them.
Despite Flo & Eddie’s win in the federal district court in California, this battle is by no means over. First, there is an argument that Sirius XM can press on appeal, either to the Ninth Circuit or to the California Supreme Court (if certified to that court), that given the fact that public performance rights in sound recordings did not exist as a historical matter before 1972, the California legislature never intended to create them for pre-1972 sound recordings. However, this seems a long-shot given the language of the California statute. If there were any legislative history to support this argument it would have been presented to the federal district court, so apparently there is none.
Second, there are several ways the federal legislature could step in and fix this problem (prospectively, at least) by amending the federal copyright statute. In fact, the Register of Copyrights has recommended exactly that. For example, Congress could bring sound recordings (pre- and post-1972, webcasting and otherwise) under the system of compulsory licensing regulated by the Copyright Royalty Board. Legislation to effect this has already been proposed.
Third, broadcasters could negotiate licenses for these works, either directly or through a new or existing performance rights organization.
Lastly, some commentators have argued that the Flo & Eddie/record company litigation strategy vis-a-vis pre-1972 sound recordings is an attempt to obtain leverage to increase the royalty rates paid under the compulsory license for post-1972 sound recordings, which means that a compromise on post-1972 royalty rates could resolve the dispute.
The final option for streaming companies and their terrestrial counterparts would be to eliminate pre-1972 sound recordings from their broadcasts, which would certainly be the worst outcome for music lovers.