A controversy over who should get paid when songs are streamed on the internet is about to get a whole lot bigger as a company that claims to own the royalty rights to 1960s acts, including the Flying Burrito Brothers, has sued Apple’s Beats Music and other online radio services, including Rdio and Google Play.
According to a complaint filed in Los Angeles federal court, Apple’s subsidiary Beats Music owes at least $5 million for not paying performance rights over the older sound recordings.
The lawsuit was filed by Zenbu Magazines LLC, a New York holding company. It appears to be a copycat suit to the ones brought by former musicians from the band The Turtles, who are suing SiriusXM and Pandora over the same issue.
If the lawsuits gain traction, they could serve to wipe out large collections of pre-1972 music from the internet, since companies like Apple and Pandora will likely decide to simply stop playing the older songs rather than add yet another stack of royalty payments to the ones they already pay out. If this happens, consumers could lose access to millions of song recordings from before 1972.
As I’ve argued in the past, these lawsuits are simply a shakedown in which music lawyers are attempting to exploit the public’s sympathy for aging musicians and ignorance of copyright law in order to obtain a windfall.
The legal nitty-gritty is complicated but, in short, there is overwhelming evidence that performers, unlike songwriters, never had a right to be paid for public performances of sound recording in the first place — though they are paid when such recordings are sold. The songwriters, meanwhile, get paid in every case.
Here’s a copy of the lawsuit against Beats Music. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.