Michael Jackson’s Production Company to pay $9.4M in Royalty Damages to Quincy Jones

Jones  v. MJJ Productions Inc. et al., No. BC525803 (Superior Court of the State of Cal. For the Cty. Of L.A.)

Michael Jackson’s production company was ordered to pay producer Quincy Jones more than $9.4 million in royalty damages for his work on “Thriller,” “Bad,” and “Off the Wall.” The jury determined that Jones was shorted after Jackson’s estate had breached contracts but declined to award Jones the full $30 million sought

Spotify Settles Songwriter Royalty Class Action

Ferrick v. Spotify USA Inc. et al., No. 1:16-cv-08412 (S.D.N.Y. May 30, 2017).

Spotify has agreed to pay $43 million to settle two class actions brought by Camper VanBeethoven lead singer David Lowery, and singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick. The actions claimed that Spotify chose “systemic and willful copyright infringement” by failing to pay proper royalties to thousands of songwriters and their music publishers.

SoundExchange Royalties Case Against Muzak Reinstated By Appellate Court

SoundExchange v. Muzak, No. 16-7041 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 25, 2017).

The D.C. Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of SoundExchange's complaint against Muzak, which alleges that Muzak underpaid royalties.  SoundExchange is a nonprofit entity charged with the responsibility of collecting royalties for performing artists and copyright owners of music; Muzak is a company that supplies digital music channels to satellite television networks who, in turn, sell to subscribers.  Muzak argued that it was permitted to pay lower, "grandfathered," rates that had been set by a copyright royalties board even after certain corporate changes.  There had been a statutory change in the 1990s as part of the DMCA-compromise, and the case turned on the statutory definition of a "preexisting subscription service."  The Court concluded:

The grandfather provisions were intended to protect prior investments the three business entities had made during a more favorable pre-1998 rate-setting regulatory climate. “Muzak was [a] pioneer music service that incurred both the benefits and risks that came with its investment,” specifically its investment in DishCD. 71 Fed. Reg. at 64,646. But when Muzak expands its operations and provides additional transmissions to subscribers to a different “service,” (i.e., SonicTap), this is an entirely new investment. * * * We conclude, therefore, that the better interpretation of the statute is that the term “service” contemplates a double limitation; both the business and the program offering must qualify before the transmissions are eligible for the favorable rate.

Beats, Dre & Iovine May Owe Royalties For More Than First Model Headphone; Question for Jury

Jibe Audio v. Beats Elec., No, B267633 (Cal. App. - 2nd Dist. Sep. 19, 2016).

A California appellate court holds that the headphone company Beats, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine may owe the plaintiff royalties for more than the first headphone model, the Studio model, because the contract at issue (a settlement agreement) was ambiguous and disputes of material fact existed.  Accordingly, summary judgment in favor of the defendants was reversed so that a jury could decide the case.

The case was a question of contract interpretation under California law, and the Court considered extrinsic evidence outside of the 4 corners of the contract.  "The Beats parties and Brunner contend that the Royalty Agreement was only intended to cover one product: the Studio headphone. They argue that the agreement was not intended to cover sales of the entire line of Beats headphones. Lamar, on the other hand, argues that the Royalty Agreement requires Beats to pay a royalty on the sale of every headphone whose design embodies or is a minor or cosmetic modification to the original headphones design."

We find that the contract is ambiguous as to whether it contemplated royalties only for the Studio headphone model or for other headphones that embody the headphones design depicted in Schedule I to the Royalty Agreement. The extrinsic evidence thus must be admitted to assist in the second step of contract interpretation. The factual conflict in the evidence regarding the meaning of the contract must be resolved by a jury. 

New Service Grandfathered For Pre-1998 Royalty Rates

SoundExchange v. Muzak, No. 15-cv-476 (D.D.C. filed Mar. 8, 2016).

The Court held that Muzak, a grandfathered "preexisting subscription service" under 17 USC 114, enjoyed a favorable royalty rate -- not subject to the  "willing buyer/willing seller" standard -- for its SonicTap service even though that service was not offered at the relevant statutory date.  Interpreting the statute, the Court found that Congress intended to permit preeexisting subscription services to expand their offerings.  This ruling was also consistend with the legislative history and findings by the Register of Copyrights.

Cars' Audio Technology May Require Royalty Payment

Alliance of Artists &Rec. Cos. v. Gen. Motors Co. et al., No. 14-1271 (D.D.C. Feb. 19, 2016).

Audio technology that has been installed in a number of car models since 2008 may require payment of royalties under the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 (17 USC 1001 et seq.), holds the court in denying the defendant car manufacturer's motion to dismiss.  The Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 requires manufacturers, importers, and distributoers of "digital audio recording devices" to incorporate copying control technolgy into their devices and pay a set royalty amount for each device.  The statute has been referred to as a "compromise" and at the time of its adoption then-current technology was much different than it is today (DAT tapes were the issue then).  On defendants' Rule 12 motions to dismiss, the Court undertook an extensive and detailed analaysis of the statutory text and agreed with Defendants' asserting that a "digital audio recording device" must be capable of producing "digital audio copied recordings;" that these recordings are a type of "digital music recording;" and that the device's output must therefore comport with the definition of a digital music recording that is establisehd at 17 USC 1001(5).  However, the Court also concluded that the plaintiff's complaint sufficiently alleged facts that, if true, could plausible demonstrate that Defendants' devices are in violation of the statute.

Band Member May Sue As Third-Party Beneficiary Of Contract Between Record Label and Suspended Loan-Out Company

Bozzio v. EMI Group Ltd. et al., No. 13-15685 (9th Cir. Jan. 26, 2016).

The 9th Circuit held that the front-woman of the '80s new-wave band "Missing Persons" could sue the band's record label for breach of contract (whether proper royalty rates were paid) as a third-party beneficiary of the contract between the record label and the "loan-out" company created by the band, even though the State of California had suspended the corporation's status for failure to pay certain taxes.  "The parties have not cited, and we have not found, any California case holding that a third-party beneficiary cannot sue the promisor for breach of contract when the promisee is a suspended corporation."  Additionally, interpreting a related Artist Declaration, the 9th Circuit held that plaintiff did not necessary waive the benefits of the contract under the provision requiring band-members to look to the loan-out company (not the label) for the payment of royalties.  Language in the Loan-Out Agreement was in tension with language in the artist declaration.  Accordingly, the district court -- which had dismissed with prejudice believing that amendment would be futile -- was reversed.

Plaintiffs In Sampling Case Fail To Sufficiently Plead Their Standing



Kelley v. The Universal Music Group, No. 14-cv-2968 (S.D.N.Y. filed 10/19/15).

In a case alleging that a song by the artist "Fabulous" infringed plaintiffs' 1974 song by including an unauthorized sample, the Court dismissed the pro se plaintiffs' copyright claim without prejudice to amend based on their lack of standing. The Court found that a copyright registration listing the plaintiffs as authors but not claimants rebutted their claim; but, that plaintiffs could replead to allege that they have standing as "beneficial owners" (i.e. a right to collect royalties), which was not sufficiently pleaded. The other state-law claims for violation of "poetic license " and "fraudulent deceit" were held to be preempted by the copyright act, and the mental anguish claim was not a remedy authorized by the statute.

Ray Charles' Foundation Can Challenge Notices His Heirs Served To Terminate Copyright Grants To The Foundation

The Ray Charles Foundation v. Robinson, No. 13-55421 (9th Cir. Opinion dated July 31, 2015).

The 9th Circuit holds that that the Ray Charles Foundation, the sole beneficiary of Ray Charles’s estate, had standing to challenge the validity and effectiveness of notices of termination of copyright grants conferred by Charles to the predecessors of Warnter/Chappell Music.  The Court found that the Foundation was a real party in interest because the termination notices affected its right to royalties, and its claims fell within the statutory zone of interests.  Accordingly, it had standing to sue to challenge whether the underlying works were made for hire and thus not subject to the termination provisions of 17 USC 203 and 304(c).

No New Trial In "Blurred Lines" Case; Damages Reduced; 50% Royalty Awarded

Williams v. Bridgeport Music, No. CV13-06004 (C.D. Cal. dated July 14, 2015).

In the "Blurred Lines" copyright infringement case, Robin Thicke's motion for a new trial was denied but the amount of damages he is laible for was reduced.  Additionally, the heirs of Marvin Gaye were awarded a declaratory judgment that any past and ongoing exploitation of "Blurred Lines" constitutes copyright infringement of "Got To Give It Up."  Rather than enjoin future exploitation or impound infringing articles, the Court awarded the Gaye parties a 50% royalty of songwriting/publishing revenues from "Blurred Lines."

Management Agreement With "Ginuwine" Abandoned


Reives v. Lumpkin, 08-CV-7797, NYLJ 1202716836270, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. decided Jan. 30, 2015).

Plaintiff's suit, claiming that the artist Ginuwine failed to make payments under a 1996 Management Agreement, was dismissed because the parties mutually abandoned the contract less than one year after after entering into the agreement.  The Court found that New York law applied, under which a contract is unenforceable where the parties have abandoned or ignored it.  "In such cases, a later cause of action for breach is typically barred, and will only lie where the agreement of the parties to terminate the contract expressly or impliedly reserved a later cause of action."  Here, the Court found as a matter of fact that Ginuwine had satisfied his burden of proof and sufficiently demonstrated that the parties mutually agreed to abandon the Management Agreement in late summer of 1996.  The Court further found that this abandonment precluded plaintiff's current action for breach as a matter of law.

Copyright Royalty Board Royalty Rates For Performance Of Sound Recordings Affirmed

Music Choice v. Copyright Royalty Board, No. 13-1174/13-1183 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 19, 2014).

In 2013, the Judges of the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) issued a determination setting royalty rates and defining terms for statutorily defined satellite digital audio radio services and preexisting subscription services.  SoundExchange, which collects and distributes royalties, argued that the CRB arbitrarily set rates too low and that the CRB erred in defining "Gross Revenue" and eligible deductions.  Music Choice, which provides music-only television channels, also appealed arguing that the Judges set the rates too high.

The Court of Appeals held that the CRB acted within its broad discretion to set rates for compulsory licenses of the digital performance of sound recordings, and therefore affirmed the determination of royalty rates.  The appellate court found that the CRB did not exercise its broad discretion in an arbitrary or capricious manner when setting royalty rates for satellite digital audio radio services and preexisting subscription services.

For satellite digital audio radio services, the rate was set at 11%; in order to avoid disruption, the CRB adopted a staggered schedule beginning at 9% in 2013 and increasing by 0.5% annually until achievement of 11% in 2017.

For preexisting subscription services, the rate was set at 8.5% with an upward adjustment for Music Choice's planned channel expansion.  The rate would start at 8% in 2013 and increase to 8.5% for 2014 through 2017.

Covenant Not To Sue Upheld In Run-DMC Co-Author's Case Against Publisher Assignee For Royalties

Reach Music Publishing, Inc. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., No. 09-cv-5580, 2014 BL 317978 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 2014).

A Run-D.M.C. co-author's claim for breach of contract failed because that co-author "long ago sold all rights to the subject songs -- including his entire copyright interest -- in exchange for royalty payments," and in that agreement, he plainly acknowledged that the songs could be transferred to another publisher (Protoons) and that "he would only ever seek royalty payments from" the original publisher (Rush Grooves).  The Court found that the covenant not to sue Protoons was enforceable and was not unconscionable under New York law.  Therefore, the co-author breached the contract when he filed suit in 2008, and the defendant's damages were their resulting attorney's fees pursuant to the express attorney's fees provision in the contract.  Defendant also counterclaimed that the plaintiff (another publisher, Reach, to whom the co-author had purportedly transferred his interest), tortiously induced the co-author to breach the covenant not to sue.  The Court found that there was a question of material fact whether Reach had knowledge of the covenant not to sue, preventing either party from winning summary judgment on the tortious interference claim.  "Even though knowledge of the contract need not be perfect, Reach must have knowledge of the covenant not to sue in order to be liable for helping Reeves violate that particular contractual provision."

Publisher Not Double Dipping Foreign Royalties Under Terms Of 1961 Agreement With Duke Ellington

Ellington v. EMI Music et al., 2014 NY Slip Op 07197, NYLJ 1202674400667 (N.Y. Court of Appeals Oct. 23, 2014).

New York's highest court affirmed dismissal of a breach of contract claim brought by Duke Ellington's heir, against Ellington's publisher (EMI), seeking unpaid royalties under a 1961 agreement.  The majority of the Court of Appeals held that, under the contract's clear and unambiguous terms, Ellington was entitled to 50% "net receipts" from foreign publishers, even if those foreign publishers were now-affiliated with the US publisher.

Plaintiff had claimed that by using affiliated foreign subpublishers, EMI was double-dipping into the entire pot of revenue generated from the foreign sale of the relevant musical compositions.  Essentially, plaintiff claimed that the amount retained by the affiliated foreign subpublishers prior to remittal of the remainder to EMI was an amount received by EMI, and therefore, when using affiliated foreign subpublishers, EMI should remit to the First Parties half of the entire amount generated from the foreign sale of the relevant musical compositions.  The trial court disagreed and dismissed the complaint; the appellate division affirmed; and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

First, as to "net revenue actually received," the Court of Appeals found that the royalty provision makes no distinction between affiliated and unaffiliated foreign subpublishers.  Therefore,  the courts below properly declined to read such a distinction into the contract as it does not appear to have been the intent of the parties that such a distinction be included, primarily because they were understandably unaware that such a change in the industry would occur.

Second, as to "any other affiliate," the Court of Appeals found that "[a]bsent explicit language demonstrating the parties' intent to bind future affiliates of the contracting parties, the term 'affiliate' includes only those affiliates in existence at the time that the contract was executed."  In other words, the publisher was not double dipping because its later-foreign-affiliates were not "affiliates" of the publisher under the contract.

There were two dissents.  In sum, the dissents found it "wrong... that, when a contract is written to bind 'any . . . affiliate' of a party, its effect should be limited to affiliates in existence at the time of contracting."  In other words, the dissent would have held that the term "affiliate" as used in the Agreement may be interpreted as appellant suggests to include EMI's foreign affiliated entities.

Toto Loses Breach Of Contract Claim Against Label For Digital Download Royalties

Toto, Inc. v. Sony Music Entertainment, No. 1:12-cv-01434-RJS (S.D.N.Y. filed Oct. 8, 2014) [Doc. 117].

In this breach of contract action concerning royalties for digital downloads (and master and ringtones) payable by the record label to the 80's band "Toto", the Court granted the record label summary judgment finding that the proper royalty rate had been paid.  The Court applied New York law to interpret the relevant recording agreements, and found that one provision (the "Audiophile Provision" in 1986 and 2002 amendments) supplied the applicable royalty rate for the sale of downloads through digital retailers, regardless of whether the downloads were sold by the record company or unaffiliated third-party licensees.  The dispute turned on the meaning of the terms "Licensee" and "lease", which had different royalty rates.  Toto argued the term "lease" referred to a license to any party, regardless of whether that party is affiliated with the record company; the record company argued that the term "lease" referred to a special license whereby a third party incorporates the recordings into its own product, such as a compilation record.  The Court found that the inclusion of the record company's affiliates in the contractual definition of "licensee" did not limit the scope of that term; the definition included the term "without limitation".  Accordingly, digital retailers were licensees, and industry custom defined the term "lease" as a limited license to a third party to incorporate recording into their own unique product.  However, the Court found that the record company did not have a declaratory judgment claim because the dispute was "far more hypothetical than real."  The declaratory judgment dispute arose from Toto's threat to sue the label for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing if the label ceased distributing Toto's records through certain retailers.

SoundExchange/Sirius Royalty Dispute Belongs Before Copyright Royalty Board, Not Federal Court

SoundExchange, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., No. 1:13-cv-1290 (D.D.C. filed August 26, 2014).

Pursuant to the "primary jurisdiction" doctrine, a federal district court judge stayed a royalties dispute between SoundExchange and Sirius, saying that the dispute belongs before the Copyright Royalty Board.  The parties already had met before the CRB in two prior proceedings, setting royalty rates for the digital broadcast of sound recordings on satellite radio  SoundExchange brought an action in federal court alleging that Sirius underpaid royalties owed from 2007-2012 (the subject of the first CRB proceeding).  The instant dispute centered on the meaning of the term "Gross Revenues" (a percentage of which are the royalties owed SoundExchange), and Sirius's alleged reductions/exclusions therefrom based on pre-72 recordings and Sirius' premiere subscriber package.  The Court agreed with Sirius that the disputes "are best suited to review in the first instance by the CRB. ... [T]he technical and policy expertise of the CRB makes referral to that body appropriate."  Because neither party was asking for a change in the royalty rates, only a clarification, the CRB was found to have continuing jurisdiction.

Royalties Dispute Between Co-Authors Of Song Not Preempted

McCants v. Tolliver, 2014-Ohio-3478 (Ohio. Ct. App., 9th Dist. Aug. 13, 2014).

An Ohio appellate court held that the trial court erred in dismissing the plaintiff's breach of contract claim as pre-empted by the Copyright Act.  The dispute concerned a royalty-split between co-authors of a song, later licensed to the Blacked Eyed Peas, pursuant to an alleged oral agreement.  Although the dispute did concern a song and recording, there was no "extra element" because "Th[e] alleged promise to split the proceeds is 'qualitatively different' than that of a copyright infringement claim."

McCants does not argue that Tolliver could not reproduce, perform, or distribute the song. See 17 U.S.C. § 106. Instead, McCants argues that he should be compensated according to the alleged agreement between the parties. Because McCants’ claim for breach of contract is qualitatively different than that of a copyright infringement claim, his claim is not preempted by the Copyright Act and the court erred in finding that it was preempted.

11th Circuit Clarifies Author's Standing When Publisher Registers Copyright As Author's Assignee

Smith v. Casey, No. 13-12351 (11th Cir. Jan. 22, 2014) (decision here).

At issue in this appeal is whether the author of a musical composition who assigned his rights in exchange for royalties may rely for purposes of standing to sue for infringement under the Copyright Act on a registration his publisher filed.  The 11th Circuit found that the lower court erred in concluding that the estate lacked statutory standing to sue for copyright infringement.

The basic facts are this.  Around the same time a song called "Spank" was recorded, Harrick Music, Inc. (Harrick Music), a publishing company affiliated with the record label Sunshine Sound, registered a copyright for the musical composition “Spank,” identifying Smith as composer and itself as claimant.  Harrick Music checked a box on the registration indicating the song was not a composition made for hire.  In the ensuing years, Smith acquiesced in Harrick Music’s administration of the “Spank” composition copyright, but, he alleged, the company never remitted a cent to him. According to the complaint, neither did Sunshine Sound. Under Smith's Recording Agreement with Sunshine and the form songwriter’s agreement attached to it,
however, Smith was owed percentage royalties for the song’s exploitation in exchange for assigning his rights to it. So on November 28, 2011, shortly before his death, Smith through counsel sent a cease-and-desist letter revoking Harrick Music’s authority to administer “Spank.” And Smith also filed with the Copyright
Office four Notices of Termination, seeking to formally record his revocation. Despite this, the defendants continued to commercially exploit the composition, and thereafter Smith's estate sued for infringement of the composition (not the sound recording).

Two defendants (not Sunshine or Harrick) moved to dismiss, and the district court concluded Smith lacked statutory standing to pursue his copyright claim and sua sponte dismissed that count with prejudice as to all of the defendants.  Harrick Music, not Smith or his estate, had registered the copyright, the district court noted, and registration was a necessary precondition to filing suit for infringement.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit first examined sections 411 and 501 of the Copyright Act: "The 1976 Copyright Act’s legislative history explains that Congress intended 'beneficial owner,' as the term is used in § 501(b), to 'include . . . an author who had parted with legal title to the copyright in exchange for percentage
royalties based on sales or license fees.'"  Continuing,
Under this definition, the estate has a sufficient ownership interest for standing under § 501(b). According to Smith’s allegations, he never signed any agreement giving Harrick Music the right to exploit the “Spank” copyright. But even were we to treat Smith’s agreement to permit Sunshine Sound to execute the form songwriter’s contract appended to his Recording Agreement as acquiescence to its terms for the “Spank” composition, Smith still would only have assigned his rights to the musical composition in exchange for royalties. Thus, he has at least a beneficial interest that satisfies § 501(b) of the Copyright Act.
The twist was that Harrick, not Smith, had filed the registration.  Nonetheless, the 11th Circuit found that "The district court’s construction of § 411(a) was too narrow. Harrick Music registered a claim to copyright in the 'Spank' composition, specifically identifying Smith as the composer and informing the Copyright Office the work was not made for hire. Nothing in § 411(a) indicates that a composer who has agreed to assign his legal interest in a composition, along with the right to register it, in exchange for royalties, may not rely on the registration his assignee files. Where a publisher has registered a claim to copyright in a work not made for hire, we conclude the beneficial owner has statutory standing to sue for infringement."  (Emphasis added).

Although the 11th Circuit reversed on the standing issue, it found that the District Court properly dismissed plaintiff's declaratory judgment claim.


Dismissal Of Bay City Rollers' Royalties Suit Upheld By 2nd Circuit

Mitchell v. Faulkner, No. 13-576-cv (2d Cir. filed 8/29/2013).

The Second Circuit affirmed the lower court's Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of plaintiffs' (Bay City Rollers) claims for unpaid royalties based in the alternative on breach of contract and unjust enrichment.  The contract claim failed because it was barred by the statute of frauds, in that any agreement to pay royalties extending beyond one year must be in writing to satisfy the statute of frauds.  The unjust enrichment claim failed because it was barred by the statute of limitations.  As stated by the Second Circuit
A claim for unjust enrichment must be based on the value of plaintiffs’ contribution to the joint effort of the band at the time it made the relevant records, not on the income stream resulting from a revival over thirty years later. That contribution and the failure of the defendants to pay for the value of the effort occurred well over six years ago and is barred by the statute of limitations.  N.Y.C.P.L.R. § 213.


Sound Recording Performance Royalty Proposed

House democrat Rep. Mel Watt (North Carolina) announced a plan to reintroduce legislation requiring radio stations to pay performance royalties for sound recordings (not just for compositions).  The last time the issue was proposed, in February 2009 (H.R. 848, the Performance Rights Act), the bill failed to pass the House.  The National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement strongly opposing a "new performance tax."