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Satellite Radio Can’t See the Turtles Getting Paid for Pre-1972 Music

satellite radio, SiriusXM, the Turtles, lawsuit, pre-1972 music, $100 billion

A massive legal battle involving potential royalties from records made before 1972 has taken another portentous turn.

In case you’ve missed it: Federal copyright law doesn’t apply to sound recordings before February 5, 1972. In August, the Turtles sued SiriusXM for $100 million, essentially claiming the satellite radio giant played their songs without permission. Another $100 million suit by royalty distributor SoundExchange followed. Then the three remaining major labels filed their own similar suit seeking unspecified damages.

SiriusXM has now responded in court. The 23-page filing, posted by The Hollywood Reporter, technically just asks a judge to move the case from California to New York, where the “Happy Together” band members also filed a claim. But the document also represents the first we’ve heard from SiriusXM in its own defense, and the company comes out swinging. It seems to acknowledge it doesn’t pay royalties for pre-1972 music, arguing that no state laws require it to pay the Turtles for their ’60s hits. Beyond that, the filing suggests that if you follow the Turtles’ claims to their extreme, basically nobody would get to hear that old-fashioned rock’n’roll, ever.

Here’s the key paragraph, which is not as catchy as that one Turtles song: “Plaintiff apparently has become aggrieved by the distinction drawn by Congress in withholding copyright protection from its Pre-1972 Recordings; thus now, after decades of inaction while a wide variety of music users, including radio and television broadcasters, bars, restaurants and website operators, exploited those Pre-1972 Recordings countless millions of times without paying fees, it asserts a purported right under the law of various states to be compensated by SiriusXM for comparable unlicensed uses.”

It’s still far too early to say how all these cases will turn out, and none of the sides involved have so far made themselves easy to root for. Unlike restaurants and bars, SiriusXM markets entire channels of pre-1972 music. And restaurants and bars, big ones anyway, often pay various licensing fees to avoid copyright complaints. But then again, $100 million? For a song that’s 46 years old and has already, one expects, generated its makers a decent amount of money?

As it happens, a New York state appeals court ruled earlier this year in another case involving pre-1972 music. The court decided that a more recent copyright law, the 1996 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, did not protect streaming site Grooveshark from being sued for copyright infringement over their use of recordings from before 1972. Whew.

Hey, here’s a list of 50 albums that will help you avoid having anything to do with this whole kerfuffle.