German rights holders sue YouTube in escalating royalty fight

Lady Justice

German music rights group GEMA has filed a lawsuit against YouTube, alleging that the video site is misleading users about the details of an ongoing licensing dispute between the two parties. The lawsuit is the latest escalation in that dispute, which has been going on since 2010, and resulted in German YouTube users being unable to view many popular music videos on the site. GEMA is now asking a Munich-based court to issue a cease-and-desist order in order to prevent YouTube from blaming GEMA for this mess.

I know, it’s confusing, but bear with me. Here’s what happened so far: GEMA, which represents recording artists as well as publishers, wants YouTube to pay a fee for each and every video viewed on the site that contains music of one of the artists represented by GEMA (which include every major label artist, as well as most indies). YouTube has rejected that approach, and instead wants to pay a percentage of the ad revenue it makes with those videos.

Negotiations between both parties broke down in 2010, and GEMA asked YouTube to block videos containing music of some 600 artists. YouTube responded by blocking a wide range of videos, telling users that these videos are “unfortunately not available in Germany” because they could contain music for which GEMA hadn’t granted the rights to YouTube.

GEMA officials have long complained that this wasn’t true, suggesting instead that YouTube simply didn’t pay for licenses to these rights. Of course, the licenses that YouTube is offering are based on the rates that YouTube is challenging, so it’s pretty much semantics and fingerpointing.

Except, most users are upset about GEMA, and the group apparently doesn’t want to shoulder all the blame anymore. GEMA’s CEO Harald Heker told local paper Wirtschaftswoche that YouTube’s handling of the blocking is “pure demagogy.”

A YouTube spokesperson sent me the following comment about the lawsuit:

“YouTube believes that rights holders and artists should benefit from their work. We have dozens of collection society deals in place across more than 40 countries because we provide an important source of income for musicians and a platform where new artists can be discovered and promoted. We are open for negotiations to find a solution with GEMA compatible with YouTube’s business model so that we can again provide a source of revenue for musicians and a vibrant platform for music lovers in Germany.”

So there you have it. Each side wants to sound completely reasonable as, all the while, the actual licensing dispute drags out further and further. At this point, it’s pretty unlikely that German YouTube users are going to get access to their music videos any time soon.

Image courtesy of Flickr user  nyghtowl.

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