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David Oxenford: Podcaster Sued for Copyright Infringement for Using Music without Permission

david oxenford 02This guest column is by broadcast law attorney and frequent guest contributor David Oxenford. The article was originally published on his Broadcast Law Blog.


It was news earlier this week when a company that promotes poker was sued by one of the major record labels and publishing companies for the use of music in podcasts without permission. As we have written before (see, for instance, our articles here and here), the use of music in podcasts requires a license from the copyright holder of both the musical composition and the recorded performance of the music (usually, for popular music, a publishing company and a record label). In this case, one of the first we’ve seen against a podcaster for infringement of a copyright holder’s music rights (though we have heard of other situations where cease and desist letters were sent to podcasters, or where demand letters from copyright holders resulted in negotiated settlements), Universal Music alleges that the podcast company used its music and refused to negotiate a license despite repeated attempts by the music company to get the podcaster to do so. Thus, the lawsuit was filed.

As we have pointed out before, a broadcaster or other media company that has performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and even GMR does not get the right to podcast music – nor do the SoundExchange royalty payments cover podcasts. These organizations all collect for the public performance of music. While podcasts may require a performance license (see our article here about how Alexa and other smart speakers are making the need for such licenses more apparent as more and more podcast listening is occurring through streaming rather than downloads), they also require rights to reproduction and distribution of the copyrighted songs and the right to make derivative works – all rights given to copyright owners under the Copyright Act. These rights are not covered by the public performance licenses which only give the rights to make performances to the public. What is the difference between these rights?

The public performance right is simply that – the right to perform a copyrighted work to the public (those beyond your circle of family and friends). Making a copy of a copyrighted work is a different right, as is the distribution of that recording. Both are triggered when the podcast is downloaded onto a phone or other digital device – the manner in which podcasts were initially made available to the public. As we have written before (see, for instance, here and here), by convention (and now by the provisions of the Music Modernization Act), making available music for on-demand streaming (where a listener can choose a particular song, or a set of songs that will play in the same order all the time) has come to be considered to involve the rights of reproduction and distribution (the “mechanical royalties” covered by the MMA – see our articles here and here on the MMA).

The right to make a derivative work is another right of the copyright holder (see my article here on derivative works). A copyright owner must give his or her permission before their work is modified in some way. While that can involve the changing of lyrics to a song, it can also involve associating that song in some permanent way with other content. In the video world, that is referred to as a synch right – where the audio is “synched” to the video creating a single audiovisual work. Synch rights are not specifically defined by the Copyright Act. They have traditionally referred to audiovisual productions, but the same concept is at play in the creation of a podcast, where the music is synched to other audio content to create the podcast. In the Universal Music complaint against the podcaster, Universal complains that the podcaster violated not just the public performance rights of the copyright holders, but also their rights to authorize the reproduction, distribution, and the derivative works made from their copyrighted material.

This is all a long way of saying that podcasters need to get permission for the use of music in their productions. Many podcasters have commissioned original works where they license from local artists the recordings of music written and performed by those artists. Some online services have recently begun to develop, licensing music for podcasts for set fees. But, thus far, most of that music is not major label releases, but instead independent music. Right now, for major label releases, you need to get permission directly from the copyright holders to use their music. The bottom line – don’t use music in podcasts without getting permission.

David Oxenford

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