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Heritage artists galore intervene in pre-1972 case in California

By | Published on Monday 15 January 2018


A plethora of heritage artists, including Carole King, The Beatles, Grateful Dead and The Doors, and the estates of Hank Williams and Judy Garland, have put their names to one of those amicus briefs, seeking to weigh in on the pre-1972 copyright debate in California, where the matter is heading to the state’s Supreme Court.

US-wide federal copyright law only protects sound recordings released since 1972, with older tracks protected by state-level copyright law. In America, AM/FM radio stations don’t pay royalties to artists and labels, but online and satellite stations do. However, because that rule comes from federal law, online services like Pandora and satellite broadcaster Sirius decided that they didn’t have to hand over any payment whenever the tracks they were playing pre-dated 1972.

The music industry felt that was sneaky, and two musicians in particular – one time Turtles, Flo & Eddie – went legal on the matter in multiple states. They argued that state law also required Pandora and Sirius to pay royalties to artists and labels. Though, as older state copyright laws don’t make a distinction between AM/FM radio and online/satellite stations, that would basically require the court to conclude that all radio services should have been paying royalties to the record industry, whenever they played golden oldies, all this time.

Despite that fact, Flo & Eddie won their lawsuit against Sirius in California, and also initially had some success in New York state too. Though subsequently both New York and Florida ruled that there were no recording royalties due for airplay – however delivered – under those two states’ respective copyright systems.

Meanwhile, back in California, Flo & Eddie’s separate lawsuit against Pandora continues to go through the motions, and last year the Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeal asked the state’s Supreme Court to settle the matter once and for all.

Which is why a flurry of big name heritage acts have now put their name to a court filing requesting that the state’s top judges do provide artists and labels with royalties from online and satellite radio platforms.

Lawyers and labels involved in the case have focused on copyright law technicalities, but some of those acts backing Flo & Eddie have gone with more ethical arguments. According to Billboard, one of those artists, Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick, told the music writer who compiled the amicus brief, Steve Hochman, that “It’s basically simple … if you are making bucks off of my stuff, guess what? I deserve a portion of it”.

While legal wranglings continue in California, efforts are also underway in Washington to amend federal copyright law so that the obligation on online and satellite radio to pay royalties to artists and labels would be extended to all recordings still in copyright, not just those released since 1972. It’s the CLASSICS Act that seeks to make those amendments.

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