This week the Supreme Court refused to hear a case regarding payments due for the use of pre-1972 sound recordings. While most artist advocates see it as a setback, Ross Pruden of TechDirt sees it as victory for the DMCA's safe harbors clause.
By Ross Pruden of Techdirt
For many years now, we've been talking about the copyright questions surrounding pre-1972 sound recordings. There are a ton of ongoing cases about this and it may be a bit confusing to keep up with it all. In short, under old copyright law, copyright only applied to the composition itself, but not the recordings.
Many states then tried to step in and created state copyright laws (or common law doctrine via the courts) that gave sound recordings some form of copyright protection -- some of it much crazier than ordinary copyright law. Eventually Congress federalized copyright for sound recordings, but it didn't apply to any sound recordings from before 1972 (and a few at the very, very, very beginning of 1972, but it's easier just to say "pre-1972 sound recordings.") And then, even though the 1976 Copyright Act took away state copyright laws having any power, they still applied to certain aspects of pre-1972 sound recordings. This has... made a mess of things.
The easiest solution would be to just admit this is dumb and say that pre-1972 works should be covered by federal copyright law, but lots of folks have been against this, starting with the RIAA (more on that in a bit).
And with things being confusing, some copyright holders have been using the weird status on pre-1972 sound recordings to effectively try to shakedown online streaming music sites into giving them better deals. The various cases have been all over the place, with the first few cases coming out saying that because pre-1972 sound recordings aren't covered under federal copyright law, things are different and copyright holders can sue over them. This upended decades of what was considered settled law.
Last summer, in a related case on a slightly different issue, the Second Circuit completely ripped to shreds the argument from the record labels that the DMCA's safe harbors don't apply to pre-1972 sound recordings. The labels were going on a quixotic attack against the video hosting site Vimeo, and because the DMCA's safe harbors protected that site, it argued that pre-1972 sound recordings didn't qualify. The lower court had ruled the other way, opening up a world of problems for any website that hosted audio. Thankfully, the 2nd Circuit reversed it. Of course, the labels asked the Supreme Court to hear the appeal, specifically arguing that the 2nd Circuit's ruling had to be in error because it was "contrary to the considered view of the United States Copyright Office."
The Supreme Court, thankfully, declined to hear the case on Monday. This is a big win for the DMCA's safe harbors. While the 2nd Circuit's ruling only has precedence in that one region, the 2nd Circuit is fairly well respected and influential on the other circuits -- and having the Supreme Court refuse to take up the issue, at the very least, suggests that the Supreme Court doesn't see that reading as particularly egregious.
It's Not Over Yet
Meanwhile, there are other things afoot regarding the legal status of pre-1972 sound recordings. Late last year, we noted that the big win for the copyright holders in NY was overturned, and it was decided that, contrary to what some copyright holders have been arguing, there was no "performance" right under NY's state copyright, and thus they can't magically argue that such a right applies to pre-1972 works. Then, earlier this month, out here in California, the 9th Circuit told the California Supreme Court to explore the issue concerning whether or not California's state copyright law provided some proto-performance right to pre-1972 works.
And, just a few days after that, the state of Georgia's Supreme Court ruled that pre-1972 sound recordings can be played by streaming sites, and some copyright holders can't bring "RICO" claims (IT'S NEVER RICO!!!!!!) just because iHeartRadio plays those songs.
As more and more courts seem to be cutting off this attempted path used by record labels to shake down online services, it appears that maybe even the RIAA is having a change of heart. As you may recall, back at the top of the post, I noted that the RIAA was one of the leading voices insisting that it would be horrible to bring pre-1972 sound recordings under federal copyright law a few years ago. If they hadn't blocked proposals along those lines, none of this mess would have happened. That's why I find it somewhat surprisng, that one of the RIAA's favored front groups, musicFIRST, has been banging the drum this year, suddenly insisting that pre-1972 sound recordings should be treated the same as post-1972 works. Maybe, just maybe, the RIAA should have taken that position originally, rather than hoping to keep the copyrights separate so that it could force internet companies to pay more.