Although songs recorded before 1972 receive no copyright protection under U.S. law, that doesn’t mean SiriusXM can keep playing the Beatles, the Supremes and many other classic recordings without paying the artists and their record labels, California Judge Mary Strobel ruled earlier this week.
Strobel’s ruling was a bit of a surprise, as she had signaled two months ago she would side with SiriusXM. But in late September, a federal court ruled in favor of the Turtles in the hit Sixties group’s $100 million class-action lawsuit against the satellite radio company for playing its songs without permission—leading Strobel to agree that California law “must be interpreted to recognize exclusive ownership rights as encompassing public performance rights in pre-1972 sound recordings.”
Major record labels Sony, Universal and Warner, which own rights to the master recordings for most well-known modern songs, filed suit against SiriusXM in September 2013. They argued that even though U.S. law did not give copyright protection to sound recordings until after 1972, a variety of state laws, including those in California, covered such recordings. SiriusXM disagreed. “I think everybody should get paid, and I think everybody should pay,” David Frear, the company’s chief financial officer, said during a banking conference, as quoted in the New York Times. “But to get there, there needs to be a change in the laws. And it shouldn’t be coming from the bench. It should be coming from the legislature.”
Strobel’s ruling could influence courts in cases involving Internet-radio giant Pandora, which paid $343 million in song-licensing costs in 2013 but has not been compensating artists and labels for pre-1972 recordings. In early October, after their court victory against SiriusXM, Flo and Eddie of the Turtles filed a similar class-action lawsuit against Pandora, this time for $25 million.
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“It’s increasingly clear that SiriusXM, Pandora and other digital music firms who refuse to pay legacy artists and rights holders are on the wrong side of history and the law,” Cary Sherman, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the labels, said in a statement. “It’s time for that to change.”