Do digital radio services in the US have to pay royalties for recordings released before 1972? Yes, they do, according to a summary judgement handed down yesterday by US district judge Philip Gutierrez.
The ruling came in a case between Flo & Eddie of The Turtles and satellite radio provider SiriusXM, which has been closely followed by artists, songwriters, rightsholders and digital services alike.
As things stand, SiriusXM has been found in violation of public performance rights by not paying royalties for pre-1972 tracks, although the plaintiffs in this case must still prove that it violates reproduction rights by “copying recordings on servers and through on-demand offerings” in Billboard’s words.
Flo & Eddie are seeking $100m in damages, but of course, the implications of this judgement and case go well beyond the potential payment by SiriusXM: pre-1972 song royalties are one of the areas of criticism for Pandora too.
Complications: this case is taking place at state level – California – as are other lawsuits over pre-1972 recordings. Another case between major labels and SiriusXM appeared to have tipped in the latter’s favour earlier this month.
It’s a mess: an interconnecting web of lawsuits that are leaving the status of digital radio services’ legal obligations distinctly unclear. Let alone the moral arguments on top of that about whether they should be paying the royalties on pre-1972 tracks.
Long-term, the answer will surely be new, clear legislation, likely as part of the US’ wider shakeup of copyright laws. Which, of course, will bring with it intense lobbying from all sides, and more protests against the digital services.
However well the ‘digital service weaselling out of its moral responsibility to pay artists’ cap seems to fit Pandora and SiriusXM, though, the real villain here is outdated copyright legislation that, when you step back and remove yourself from the heated emotions of the debate, is failing both the creators of music, and the digital services distributing it.