Major Labels Combine to Form Satellite-Radio Lawsuit Destructicon

Sony, UMG, and Warner claims SiriusXM owes them for broadcasting pre-1972 tracks

major labels, SiriusXM, satellite radio, pre-1972, lawsuit, umg, sony, warner
Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love" is right on the 1972 cusp Photo by NASA via Getty Images
Marc Hogan WRITTEN BY
Marc Hogan

Ah, the '60s, a more innocent time for music. All the more reason for people to fight about who gets to make money from the peace-and-love decade and earlier. Most recently, the three major labels have combined their powers to sue SiriusXM for playing such golden oldies on satellite radio.

Sony Music Entertainment, UMG Recordings, and Warner Music Group claim that SiriusXM ought to be paying for the use of recordings made before 1972. According to the Hollywood Reporter, SiriusXM currently only pays artists and other rights holders for post-1972 music. The debate comes down to the fact that federal copyright law didn't cover sound recordings until February 15, 1972. Instead, tracks were protected on a state-by-state basis.

The lawsuit, filed September 11 in California state court, is only the latest legal broadside against SiriusXM in recent weeks. The Turtles filed a similar suit on August 1, and SoundExchange, which collects and distributes royalties, filed its own complaint later in the month. Each of those suits seeks as much as $100 million in damages.

The potential implications of the case go beyond satellite radio. As the New York Times notes, Pandora also relies on the federal copyright law provisions and could see an impact, although other streaming services generally strike comprehensive deals with copyright holders and should be unaffected. A SiriusXM rep declined to comment to the Times. Investors have appeared unfazed by the news, as SiriusXM shares closed September 11 up 2.4 percent since the start of August.

Joining the major labels in the latest suit is ABKCO, which oversees many of the Rolling Stones' early copyrights. The suit includes statements from Dionne Warwick, Judy Collins, the Animals' Eric Burdon, and other musicians and their relatives. Nicole Cooke, granddaughter of Sam Cooke, wrote: "SiriusXM is using my grandfather’s music to attract millions of subscribers and broadcasting his recordings for free. SiriusXM has been enjoying record profits at the expense of artists like my grandfather for too long.”

The issue of pre-1972 music has turned up elsewhere in the digital realm this year. In April, a New York state appeals court ruled that the 1996 Digital Millennium Copyright Act did not cover music made before 1972. Because the DMCA includes a "safe harbor" component protecting streaming sites from copyright infringement, the ruling could mean that streaming providers will have to crack down on pre-1972 content or risk legal damages.

Read the labels' full complaint over at THR.

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