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Pandora hits out at comedy rights agency Spoken Giants in ongoing dispute with Lewis Black

By | Published on Tuesday 27 September 2022


Pandora has responded to the copyright lawsuit filed against it by comedian Lewis Black. And while the streaming firm’s arguments are pretty much the same as those presented in its responses to the earlier lawsuits filed by other comedians, Black is linked to a different rights agency, so it’s a different company on the receiving end of Pandora’s wrath.

A number of comedians have now gone legal against Pandora, arguing that whenever the streaming firm has made their comedy routines available it was only half licensed. Which is to say, while it had a licence allowing it to stream the recordings of their routines, it didn’t have a licence covering the words contained in each of those routines.

In music, streaming services get two sets of licences, one covering the copyrights in the recordings from the record industry and another covering the copyright in the songs from the music publishing sector. But with spoken word content, to date, only the former set has been secured.

Now, until recently, securing a licence for the words in each comedian’s routine – what in legal terms is the ‘literary work’ – would have required doing a deal with each individual comedian, because comedy people have not tended to have publishers or collecting societies in the way songwriters do.

However, in recent years in the US two companies have emerged to represent these rights on behalf of comedians and other spoken word performers, they being Word Collections and Spoken Giants.

Most of the comedians that have sued Pandora to date – including Andrew Dice Clay, Bill Engvall and Ron White, and the estates of Robin Williams and George Carlin – are working with Word Collections. However, Black is actually allied with Spoken Giants, or at least he was until recently.

That’s notable, because Pandora’s argument is basically that comedians were more than happy to have their routines streamed by digital platforms and to bank the royalty cheques they received via the labels or distributors that managed their recordings, and that this whole spat about additional literary work royalties has only come about because of the opportunists at Word Collections and Spoken Giants.

And those opportunists, Pandora reckons, are busy building monopolies that will allow them to force uncompetitive licensing terms onto the streaming services.

In a previous filing in relation to the earlier comedy lawsuits, Pandora declared that “Word Collections’ true business model is not that of a benign licensing agent or an advocate for comedians’ intellectual property rights, it is that of a cartel leader”.

But what does it think about the rights agency Black is allied to? “Spoken Giants’ true business model is not that of a benign licensing agent or an advocate for comedians’ intellectual property rights”, the streaming firm says in a new legal filing, “it is that of a cartel leader”.

“Spoken Giants has consolidated its comedians’ naturally competing rights into a monopolistic portfolio and fixed the price of the only licence realistically available for those rights”, the new filing goes on, “ensuring that services have no alternative to its blanket licence for its entire portfolio”.

Can you simultaneously accuse two companies – both of which are very busy competing with each other to sign up clients within the comedy community – of being “monopolistic”? Yeah, it turns out you can.

“On information and belief”, Pandora continues, “Spoken Giants has been involved in the coordination and funding of the filing of the complaint brought by Mr Black as part of its larger efforts, and those of Word Collections Inc – another licensing cartel that is similarly violating the antitrust laws – to impose this dysfunctional market on all manner of entities that perform, reproduce or distribute comedy through the threat of crippling infringement penalties”.

Black’s lawyers, it seems, have been keen to stress that it’s the comedian’s own company that is suing Pandora, not Spoken Giants, adding that their client isn’t even currently working with the rights agency. But, Pandora claims, that’s “nothing more than a half-baked and misguided effort to avoid being named as a counter-defendant in these counterclaims [against Spoken Giants]”.

Word Collections has previously dubbed Pandora’s ‘cartel’ claims as “absurd”, and Spoken Giants will presumably respond in a similar fashion. We will see, I guess.