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Irving Azoff’s collecting society sues three US radio companies for copyright infringement

By | Published on Friday 7 October 2022

Global Music Rights

American collecting society Global Music Rights has sued three radio companies in the US for failing to secure licences covering the organisation’s songs. The accused broadcasters are “sophisticated media companies” that have “wilfully infringed” the copyrights of the songwriters GMR works with, the society argues in three lawsuits filed earlier this week.

Veteran artist manager Irving Azoff launched GMR back in 2013. There were already multiple collecting societies representing the performing rights of songwriters in the US, with ASCAP and BMI the big two, alongside the smaller SESAC.

Azoff’s GMR entered the market as a boutique rights organisation seeking to represent some premiere league songwriters. Its client base currently includes the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bruno Mars, Drake, Pharrell William, The Eagles and the estate of John Lennon.

As a broadcaster in the US, if you want a full blanket licence allowing you to play pretty much all songs, then you need to do deals with all of the different societies. The US radio sector wasn’t that pleased when a fourth society was added to the list, meaning stations needed to negotiate yet another deal to get yet another licence. Though – given the client base – refusing to negotiate with GMR would stop a radio station from playing a stack of really big hits.

Collective licensing is often regulated in one way or another to overcome the competition law concerns that are raised when the music industry comes together to license through central organisations that then represent large repertoires of music.

In the US, BMI and ASCAP are regulated via consent decrees agreed with the US Department Of Justice. SESAC is not subject to a consent decree, but has an agreement with the American radio industry to accept third party mediation in royalty disputes.

When GMR came along, the radio industry – via an organisation called the Radio Music License Committee – argued that the new society should accept similar third party mediation. But in a subsequent legal battle, GMR countered that – as a small boutique rights organisation – it didn’t need to be regulated or subject to mediation in the same way as its competitors.

And, actually, if there were any competition law concerns to worry about when GMR and RMLC come together to negotiate deals, it was on the RMLC side, it negotiating on behalf of the majority of the US radio industry.

The legal battle between GMR and RMLC rumbled on for years, but was settled earlier this year, with Azoff saying at the time: “Global Music Rights stands for songwriters and the value of their music. I am proud of the GMR team for the hard work on behalf of songwriters in achieving this settlement. It is wonderful that GMR and thousands of radio stations coast to coast are partnered to bring great music to fans for many years”.

Meanwhile, the Chair of the RMLC, Ed Atsinger III, added: “This settlement puts an end to more than five years of litigation, and represents a shared desire by both sides to find a way for radio stations and GMR to work together on a long-term basis without repeatedly resorting to litigation”.

However, it turns out, there are still some radio stations in the US yet to get themselves a GMR licence. This week’s lawsuits filed by the rights group target One Putt Broadcasting in California, Southern Stone Communications in Florida, and Red Wolf Broadcasting, which operates stations in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

In the One Putt litigation, GMR states that the radio firm is “a sophisticated media company that operates numerous radio stations in California. Some of defendants’ radio stations perform GMR compositions and, since at least 2017, these stations have performed GMR compositions without obtaining a licence in violation of copyright laws”.

One Putt’s infringements are “neither incidental nor accidental”, the lawsuit goes on, “defendants radio stations performed more than one hundred GMR compositions tens of thousands of times”, and “defendants’ infringements were wilful”.

The latter point is important because because if GMR wins in court, the damages it can claim will be higher if it can prove the radio firms’ infringement was wilfil. To prove that it was, the society lists all the times it sent licence offers to One Putt: January 2017, August 2017, February 2018, August 2018, February 2019, August 2019, March 2020, March 2021, December 2021 and January 2022.

In the main those offers were rejected. Although, GMR says in a footnote in its legal filing, “on one occasion, in response to GMR’s ninth licence offer to defendants, defendants opted into the licence but then failed to pay any of the licence fees due thereunder”.

All of which means, GMR concludes, that “defendants made the strategic decision not to pay GMR for these uses and hoped to get away with it. But defendants did not get away with it. Its stations have been caught red-handed violating the law. By way of this complaint, GMR seeks to hold defendants accountable for their wilful infringements of the GMR compositions”.

We await to see how each of the radio firms respond.