New York State Court Blows a Hole in the DMCA Safe Harbors for Pre-1972 Sound Recordings

by Lee Gesmer on April 30, 2013

The recording companies have consistently maintained that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA) notice-and-takedown regime does not apply to pre-1972 works. However, the law on this arcane issue has been scarce. In Capital Records v. MP3tunes (SDNY 2011), the court ruled that pre-1972 works were covered by the DMCA. After this decision the recording companies decided to make their argument in state court. Their strategy paid off – the New York State intermediate appellate court (the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division), has issued a decision contrary to MP3tunes. In UMG Recordings v. Escape Media (often referred to as the Grooveshark* case), the court held that “Congress intended for the DMCA only to apply to post-1972 works.”

*Grooveshark is a music streaming service that allows users to upload sound recordings.  According to Wikipedia, Grooveshark streams over one billion sound files a month.

The Grooveshark case arises out of two legal oddities: first, Congress did not extend copyright protection to “sound recording” until it passed the 1972 Copyright Act (the effective date of protection being February 15, 1972); and second, before 1972 copyright was subject to state law. The upshot of this is that although the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over most copyright law claims, pre-1972 sound recordings are an exception. Claims for breach of pre-1972 sound recordings can be brought in state court and decided under the antiquated state copyright laws.*

*Pre-1972 sound recordings remain protected under state copyright laws. All post-1972 copyrighted works are subject to federal copyright law. Under current law, state law jurisdiction over pre-1972 sound recordings continues until 2067, at which time all state protection will be preempted by federal law and pre-1972 sound recordings will enter the public domain. Yes, this is bizarre and inexplicable. If this strikes you as bizarre, you are normal.

Clearly, as I stated in the title of this post, this holding has the potential to blow open a hole in the DMCA system of safe harbors. For example, is Google now liable for every pre-1972 sound recording uploaded to Youtube, if the owner of the copyright files suit in New York state court? Must Google review every upload by a user to ensure that it is not a pre-1972 sound recording (a well-nigh impossible task)? Can New York state law trump federal law for sound recordings under the DMCA for the next 54 years?

This decision is only one step in this ongoing case. The trial court must now determine whether Grooveshark is liable for copyright infringement under the theory of secondary liability (since Grooveshark’s users, not Grooveshark, posted the pre-1972 sound recordings). However, there is little or no legal precedent upon which to base secondary liability for state copyrighted works. There is also the question of whether a small company like Grooveshark can afford this ongoing litigation, or whether the case will force it to fold.

This decision creates a new element of uncertainty under the DMCA, a statute that recently had been clarified by the federal courts. Ten steps forward, five steps back.

UMG Recordings v. Escape Media (Grooveshark) (April 23, 2013)

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