Late last week, Sony, Apple, and Google were hit with a flurry of lawsuits filed in California federal court. The suits were brought by Zenbu Magazines LLC, which claims ownership over numerous sound recordings made before 1972, including “Sin City” by The Flying Burrito Brothers, “All I Ever Wanted” by New Riders of the Purple Sage, and “Been So Long” by Hot Tuna. The suit against Sony accuses the company of streaming these and other songs over its Music Unlimited service without paying royalties, and is seeking an amount in excess of $5 million.
“Sony’s conduct as alleged herein was unfair because its conduct was immoral, unethical, unscrupulous, or substantially injurious and the utility of its conduct, if any, did not outweigh the gravity of the harm to its victims,” the suit reads. Zenbu brought similar charges against Apple and Google for streaming songs through their iTunes Radio and Google Play Music services, but those suits only mention the song “Sin City.”
Not too long ago, these sorts of suits would have never happened. While musical compositions have been protected under U.S. copyright law since 1831, “sound recordings” only received federal protection in 1972. Any recordings made before then were only protected under state law, and their owners—mainly record labels—rarely bothered to sue radio stations or streaming services for playing them royalty-free.
That changed last October, when a California judge ruled in favor of a group of record labels that sued Sirius XM for playing pre-1972 recordings without paying royalties. The judge concluded that, even though the recordings weren’t protected under federal law, California state law “must be interpreted to recognize exclusive ownership rights as encompassing public performance rights in pre-1972 sound recordings.”
Basically, this means that the owners of sound recordings made before 1972 are now free to go after anyone in California who plays their property without permission, which may have emboldened a little company like Zenbu to go after a big fish like Sony. Ironically, Sony Music Entertainment was one of the major labels that sued Sirius in the first place, and has now lived to reap the foul harvest of its actions. In any case, Sirius is trying to appeal that decision, so the story could yet take another turn.