Court Case Has ‘Sirius’ Impact on Common Law Copyright in NY

By Luann Dallojacono, J.D. Class of 2018 Touro Law Review Junior Staff Member

It’s 1967, and the band The Turtles has a no. 1 hit.[1] “So Happy Together” has people imagining me and you day in and day out.[2]

Fast-forward almost five decades later, and in 2013, the song is the subject of several lawsuits pitting the 1960s band against satellite radio giant SiruisXM.[3] Flo & Eddie, Inc., the company that controls the Turtles’ music and that is owned by original band members Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan sued SiriusXM in California, Florida, and New York for playing the band’s songs without the company’s permission.[4]

Flo & Eddie filed three class action suits claiming copyright protection under state law.[5] The plaintiffs were independent artists and record companies, including Flo & Eddie. [6] The suits have since uncovered some confusion about the applicability of copyright law to sound recordings made prior to 1972 and whether certain state’s laws allow the owners of those songs to control performing rights for the recordings.[7] As the New York District Court put it, “The long and short of this is—Sirius makes multiple copies, temporary, permanent, whole or partial, during its broadcast process; and it performs the copies it makes. Furthermore, as to pre–1972 sound recordings, it does so without obtaining licenses or paying royalties.”[8]

The parties are in the process of settling in California after Sirius was found liable under California law.[9] Sirius agreed to pay at least $25 million for playing pre-1972 recordings without a license and $5 million for each victory in state court if Flo & Eddie won its cases in New York, California and Florida.[10] The settlement also includes $59 million for a 10-year license for recordings by the plaintiffs at a 5.5% royalty rate.[11]

But legal developments last month may have some questioning the settlement. In February, Sirius saw victory when the case was dismissed in New York, overturning rulings in 2014 by the U.S. District Court.[12] The dismissal also reduced the amount of the settlement reached in California by $5 million as per the settlement agreement.[13]

The New York District Court described the case as one about copyright in sound recordings, which are media in or on which a particular performance of a song is fixed.[14] Congress gave sound recordings copyright protection in 1971 and in 1995 added a “limited public performance right” for sound recordings to give copyright holders of sound recordings the “exclusive right . . . to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.”[15] However, the 1971 Act has an important limitation in that recordings made prior to February 15, 1972, do not qualify for federal copyright protection.[16] Congress left the issue of pre–1972 sound recordings to the states.[17]

The Turtles’ recordings were all fixed before that February date in 1972, leaving none eligible for copyright protection under federal law.[18] Thus, Flo & Eddie looked to state law.[19] In New York, the company argued that pre–1972 sound recording owners have rights and remedies under the common law, which covers pre–1972 sound recordings and prohibits reproducing and publicly performing the recordings.[20]

This past February, New York’s Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals accepted a December 20, 2016, ruling by the state Court of Appeals holding that New York common-law copyright does not protect public performance for creators of sound recordings made before 1972.[21] The issue came before the high court after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals certified the following question to the court: “Is there a right of public performance for creators of sound recordings under New York law and, if so, what is the nature and scope of that right?”[22] It was an issue of first impression for the Court of Appeals.[23] After an exhausting look at relevant case law, the court concluded that New York’s common law has not recognized a right of public performance for those who have created sound recordings prior to 1972. [24] The court noted that recognizing such a right would rattle societal expectations and carry with it extensive economic consequences as well as pervasive and widespread ramifications. [25] The issue would be more appropriately addressed by the legislature, the court added.[26] Judge Rivera dissented and came to the opposite conclusion. [27] She argued that the benefits of a right of public performance coupled with the creator’s desire to be compensated for his or her labor in making the recording pair well with society’s interest in protecting artists and their works from exploitation.[28] She also said that the right aligns well with increasing the public access to artists’ endeavors, the expectations of the music industry, and the fact that “Congress has placed a time limit on common-law protections for pre-1972 sound recordings while providing a limited right of public performance for all sound recordings made after February 15, 1972.”[29]

Sirius also won the Florida case in 2015, making its legal record 2-for-3.[30] Perhaps it is as the singer Meat Loaf would say: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”[31]

 

[1] See Ben Sisario, SiriusXM Agrees to Pay Up to $99 Million to Settle Turtles-Backed Copyright Suit, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/29/arts/music/turtles-siriusxm-1972-copyright-settlement.html.

[2] The Turtles, So Happy Together (White Whale Records 1967).

[3] See Sisario, supra note 1.

[4] See Sisario, supra note 1.

[5] Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., 62 F. Supp.3d 325, 335 (S.D.N.Y. 2014); see Sisario, supra note 1.

[6] See Sisario, supra note 1.

[7] Ben Sisario, SiriusXM Agrees to Pay Up to $99 Million to Settle Turtles-Backed Copyright Suit, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/29/arts/music/turtles-siriusxm-1972-copyright-settlement.html.

[8] Sirius, 62 F. Supp.3d at 334.

[9] In California, Flo & Eddie alleged violations of Cal. Civ. Code § 980(a)(2) and California’s Unfair Competition Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § § 17200, et seq., conversion, and misappropriation. The court granted the company’s motion for summary judgment on all causes of action insofar as the claims are based on Sirius XM’s public performance conduct. See Flo & Eddie Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio Inc., No. CV 13-5693 PSG RZX, 2014 WL 4725382 at *12 (C.D. Cal. 2014). See also Jonathan Stempel, Siruis XM Wins Dismissal of Turtles Copyright Lawsuit in New York, Insurance Journal (Feb. 21, 2017), http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/east/2017/02/21/442442.htm; Jonathan Stempel, Sirius May Settle Music Copyright Suit Brought by The Turtles for $100M, Insurance Journal (Nov. 20, 2016), http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2016/11/30/433536.htm.

[10] See Sisario, supra note 1; Stempel, Sirius XM Wins Dismissal, supra note 9.

[11] See Sisario, supra note 1.

[12] Stempel, Siruis XM Wins Dismissal, supra note 9.

[13] Stempel, Siruis XM Wins Dismissal, supra note 9.

[14] 17 U.S.C. § 101; See Sirius, 62 F. Supp. at 335–36.

[15] 17 U.S.C. § 106; See Sirius, 62 F. Supp. at 336.

[16] 17 U.S.C. § 301(c); See Sirius, 62 F. Supp. at 336.

[17] See Sirius, 62 F. Supp.3d at 336.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] See Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., 28 N.Y.3d 583, 610 (2016); Stempel, Siruis XM Wins Dismissal, supra note 9.

[22] Sirius, 28 N.Y.3d at 589.

[23] Id. at 595.

[24] Id. at 594-603.

[25] Id. at 606.

[26] Id.

[27] Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., 28 N.Y.3d 583, 617 (2016) (Rivera, J., dissenting).

[28] Id. at 620-21.

[29] Id.

[30] Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., No. 13-23182-CIV, 2015 WL 3852692 at *1 (S.D. Fla. 2015).

[31] Meat Loaf, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad (Epic Records 1977).

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s