Since the initial copyright ruling against Sirius XM, nobody would blame streaming music companies for nervously wondering whether the other shoe would drop. It has, with a vengeance.
On Thursday, Zenbu Magazines filed multiple proposed class-action lawsuits against several streaming services seeking to collect royalties on music recorded before 1972. The company targeted Beats Electronics, Sony Entertainment, Google, Rdio, Songza, Slacker, and Escape Media Group (which owns Grooveshark) in the complaints. These suits aim to certify a class of all parties who own recordings that were made prior to the federal copyright date and appear on streaming services, according to The Recorder. Zenbu says it holds the rights to songs performed by The Flying Burrito Brothers, Hot Tuna and New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Zenbu’s filings come on the heels of earlier legal action taken by Flo & Eddie, which represents 60s band The Turtles, against Sirius XM, charging that the satellite radio company owed royalties to the performers under state law. The U.S. Copyright Act, which was enacted on February 15, 1972, does not protect music released before that date. Because there is no legal obligation to pay royalties, which are specifically regulated by the U.S. government, Sirius XM argued against any liability. However, Flo & Eddie has now won rulings in state courts — both California and New York — that support its complaints.
Although this move by Zenbu is at a very early stage in the legal proceedings — they haven’t been certified as class actions yet and haven’t entered the damage phase — it’s still a threat to streaming services. Both Sirius XM and Pandora, which has also been hit with a lawsuit by Flo & Eddie, have expressed support for federalizing copyright for pre-1972 recordings. The torrent of state court cases might motivate federal revision of the Copyright Act, but in the meantime the state cases grind on expensively. Sirius XM and Pandora might be willing to pay pre-1972 royalties, as they have implied, but probably aren’t keen on paying state-mandated damages to along the way.