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CBS wins ruling that remasters of pre-1972 songs can be played without liability

cbs radio logoA district court has ruled that remastered songs are not necessarily subject to the same copyright laws as the originals. This development could have a big impact on the ongoing wave of litigation centered on music recorded prior to the adoption of federal copyright laws in 1972. Recordings from before that date are protected only by state laws, but this development means that broadcasters could play remasters without copyright liability.

The decision came as a result of ABS Entertainment’s lawsuit against CBS Radio, iHeartMedia, and Cumulus Media. ABS owns the masters to several songs recorded pre-1972, and alleged that those broadcasters needed to pay royalties for their use of ABS’ songs. CBS Radio mounted an unusual defense in November 2015, arguing that a remastered version of a song recorded prior to 1972 is not subject to the same state protections as the original track.

Now, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson has ruled that CBS Radio’s position is valid. He agreed with CBS’ expert, acoustic engineer Dr. Durand Begault, who said that the recordings in the ABS v CBS case “have undergone sufficient changes during the remastering process to qualify for federal copyright protection.”

Anderson did draw a distinction between a full remaster – including creative choices such as sound editing, channel assignment, and equalization – and a straightforward conversion between formats. But the decision still does open up a new way for the participants in these pre-1972 lawsuits to consider the music in question.

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7 Comments

  1. Do they ever bring in artists who will suffer from these hackneyed decisions to testify? The labels typically prosper, the publishers prosper, the radio stations prosper, the PRO’s prosper, etc., etc., but the writers and artists – not so much (with obvious exceptions).

  2. Remastering was a huge boom for pre-1972 artists. All of a sudden, consumers had a reason to buy records they already owned. That meant new income for artists who were no longer making new music. This decision justifies those remastered recordings as unique works. Otherwise those remastered recordings are a fraud.

  3. I wonder if the radio logs are detailed enough to distinguish between remastered versions of songs and unremastered gen1 CDs. Probably not. They will likely just go by the American release dates of remasters. But which remaster of, say, The Beatles, will be considered a significant enough change–1987 or 2009? There’s potentially a big difference in royalty payouts there.

    • To Jeff: Most music scheduling software saves all the metadata, so they have pretty detailed information about the recordings they play.

  4. Color me a clueless hayseed…but is not the fact that they “have undergone sufficient changes during the remastering process” would that not deem them “new” recordings? Ergo, post 1972 protection. Confused.

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