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Yet another comedian sues Pandora over unlicensed jokes

By | Published on Wednesday 24 August 2022


Yet another comedian has sued US streaming service Pandora over allegations it failed to fully license his comedy routines. This time its George Lopez going legal, accusing Pandora of infringing his copyrights.

There have been a flurry of lawsuits of this kind against Pandora this year, all of them making pretty much the same claims – basically that while Pandora secured the rights to stream recordings of each comedian’s performances, they failed to get permission to stream the routines contained within those recordings, what in legal terms would be considered the ‘literary works’.

In music, of course, streaming services like Pandora secure two sets of licences, one from the record industry covering recording rights, and then another set from the music publishing sector covering the separate song rights.

However, with spoken word content, generally only licences covering the recording rights have been sought. The services would likely argue that until recently there was nowhere to go to license the literary works, with the comedy community not having publishers or collecting societies specifically representing those rights. However, in the US at least, agencies have now launched to represent the rights in comedy material.

It’s not just Pandora which has been criticised for under licensing its comedy content, with Spotify also coming under fire over all this last year. However, when Pandora was a publicly listed company it used to state in its financial filings that there were potential issues around spoken word content – because it lacked licences covering the literary work element of that content.

The comedians can argue that this means that Pandora’s infringement here was ‘wilful’, which is important under US copyright law when it comes to what level of damages you can seek. Which may well be why the test cases on this issue have all been targeted at Pandora.

Lopez’s lawsuit states: “While it is commonplace in the music industry for companies like Pandora to enter into public performance licensing agreements with performance rights organisations like BMI and ASCAP for musical compositions, these entities do not license literary works. Therefore, it was the responsibility of Pandora to seek out the copyright owners and obtain valid public performance licences”.

“Pandora only needed to contact one entity, Mr Lopez, to obtain the required licences”, it adds. “Or Pandora could have chosen not to use the works, particularly since it knew it did not have the required licences. Instead, it chose to infringe”.

Noting the statements Pandora made about under-licensed spoken word content in its old filings, the new lawsuit adds: “Pandora’s failure to obtain the necessary licences for the works or pay royalties, but to nonetheless infringe by exploiting the works, has been wilful”.

Pandora is already battling litigation filed by Lewis Black, Andrew Dice Clay, Bill Engvall and Ron White, and the estates of Robin Williams and George Carlin. And it has already responded to those lawsuits, which it is seeking to get dismissed.

The streaming firm argues that the comedians all knew their work was being made available via Pandora, and yet for years didn’t complain about that content being under-licensed, and accepted the royalties on the recordings side.

What changed, Pandora says, is the launch of the new comedy rights agencies, and in particular Word Collections, which is representing the rights of the comedians that have gone legal.

“Word Collections’ true business model is not that of a benign licensing agent or an advocate for comedians’ intellectual property rights”, Pandora said in a legal filing in May, “it is that of a cartel leader”.

A court hearing on Pandora’s bid to have the comedy lawsuits dismissed is due to take place next week. It’s not clear whether this new lawsuit from Lopez will be mentioned during that hearing, though the outcome of it will be relevant to his litigation either way.