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The music industry has seen a fair few controversies (and, indeed, some class-action lawsuits) over the licensing of music publishing rights by streaming services. Since the end of 2021, it’s become clear that music is not the only form of audio that may present headaches for streaming services on this front.

In December, we reported on Spotify removing a collection of spoken-word comedy recordings from its service, amid claims that it needed to license the underlying literary works – the comedy equivalent of a music composition – rather than just the recordings.

Then, in February, US streaming service Pandora was sued by the estates of Robin Williams and George Carlin, along with comedians including Andrew Dice Clay, claiming that the company’s licences did not cover their underlying works. Pandora later filed a counterclaim against that lawsuit.

Now Pandora is the focus of more litigation: a $10.2m lawsuit from comedian Lewis Black. Black had previously asked Spotify to remove his work from its service, claiming at the time that the company “should recognise that a joke is as powerful as a lyric of a song, which they do pay for”.

Spoken Giants, the agency that represents the rights of Black and other comedians, has been talking about the lawsuit and its implications, slamming Spotify and Pandora (as well as the latter’s parent company SiriusXM) in particular.

“Given all the lessons they’ve learned as they’ve battled songwriters for over a decade, this should have been a simple matter, resolved amicably in the boardroom, and jointly announced. Instead, these services have turned their back on comedy,” said CEO Jim King.

“Since November, they’ve penalised comedians with take-downs, refused to add new material, and issued knowingly inaccurate statements suggesting that their ‘million-dollar’ licenses with record labels (for the recorded work) somehow cover royalty payments to the author of the underlying written works. It’s the equivalent of saying a license with Columbia Records to stream a Bob Dylan album negates the need to also pay songwriting royalties to him through SESAC.”

Spoken Giants and another agency, Word Collections, are pushing hard in the US on these matters. The latter was co-founded by a man who may send a shiver down the spines of the streaming services: Jeff Price. The founder of TuneCore and Audiam was a prominent figure in the days of publishing class-action suits against Spotify, and alongside Spoken Giants’ King is now spearheading the campaign for comedians’ rights.

All of this represents a headache for streaming services as they expand beyond music into other forms of audio. It’s why you’re hearing far less about comedy in that expansion than you are about podcasts and audiobooks. Pandora may be the focus for the latest lawsuits, but its bigger peers are well aware of the potential knock-on implications.

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Music Ally's Head of Insight

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