I recently came across two interesting articles that discuss whether the Copyright Act preempts state or common law performance rights in sound recordings fixed prior to 1972.
Ostensibly, Prof. Pulsinelli’s article is focused on the Legacy Sound Recording Protection Act (the “LSRPA”), which was introduced in the last session of the Tennessee state legislature. The LSRPA would grant owners of Pre 72 Recordings essentially the same rights in Tennessee that owners of sound recordings made after 1972 enjoy under the federal Copyright Act.
Prof. Ross’ article takes as its jumping off point two recent federal district court decisions, one in California and another in New York, which found an exclusive right in Pre 72 Recordings. See Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., No. CV 13-5693, 2014 WL 4725382 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 22, 2014); Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., No. 13 Civ. 5784, 2014 WL 7172270 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 14, 2014).
Both articles focus analysis on whether state laws, whether statutory or common, that attempt to create a performance right in Pre 72 Recordings are preempted by the Copyright Act. Both articles begin by noting that sound recordings did not enjoy any federal copyright protection until the enactment of the Sound Recording Act of 1971, which established a reproduction and distribution right—but not a performance right—for sound recording initially fixed after February 15, 1972. When Congress completed its major rewrite of the Copyright Act in 1976, it included a very broad preemption clause embodied in § 301(a), which effectively preempts all state laws purporting to grant any right “equivalent to” any right provided in § 106. Not wanting to displace the reproduction and distribution rights in Pre 72 Recordings that many states historically provided to discourage record piracy, a.k.a. “bootlegging”, § 301(c) then goes on to exempt Pre 72 Recordings from the general preemption of § 301(a).
The ‘general’ preemption language in § 301(a) provides:
On and after January 1, 1978, all legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright as specified by section 106 in works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression and come within the subject matter of copyright as specified by sections 102 and 103, whether created before or after that date and whether published or unpublished, are governed exclusively by this title. Thereafter, no person is entitled to any such right or equivalent right in any such work under the common law or statutes of any State.
The ‘exception’ to the general preemption language in § 301(c) provides:
With respect to sound recordings fixed before February 15, 1972, any rights or remedies under the common law or statutes of any State shall not be annulled or limited by this title until February 15, 2067. The preemptive provisions of subsection (a) shall apply to any such rights and remedies pertaining to any cause of action arising from undertakings commenced on and after February 15, 2067. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 303, no sound recording fixed before February 15, 1972, shall be subject to copyright under this title before, on, or after February 15, 2067.
In order to determine whether performance rights for Pre 72 Recordings are preempted by the Copyright Act, the authors describe preemption and its primary forms. Preemption exists because of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution (Article IV, Clause 2). There are two broad categories of preemption: express preemption and implied preemption. Express preemption occurs when the applicable statutory scheme contains a provision that expressly states that the federal statute is meant to preempt state law in a particular area. If the federal law does not contain an express preemption provision, the state law may nevertheless violate the Supremacy Clause under the theory of implied preemption if the federal statutory scheme is so detailed and pervasive that it “occupies the field,” leaving no room for state law to operate (so-called “field preemption”) or the state statute “‘stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.’” (so-called “conflict preemption”). The fact that a statute contains an express preemption does not mean that the statute cannot still be found invalid as impliedly preempted.
The most important Supreme Court guidance on preemption in the context of conflict between state and federal law is Goldstein v. California (412 U.S. 546 (1973)). In Goldstein, the Court considered the validity of a California law criminalizing record piracy; i.e., the unauthorized reproduction and distribution of sound recordings. The timing of the case is quite complicated: it involves sound recording fixed prior to February 15, 1972, arrived at the Supreme Court after the passage of the SRA in 1971, but before the passage of the 1976 Copyright Act that added the express preemption provisions. In Goldstein, the Supreme Court upheld the California law as a valid exercise of the state’s power, finding that the Copyright Act left sound recordings “unattended,” and thus states could choose to protect them.
Prof. Pulsinelli quotes the Goldstein Court for the proposition that the Copyright Act itself is a reflection of Congress’ interest in setting broad, national policy around protecting copyrighted works, stating “[t]he objective of the Copyright Clause was clearly to facilitate the granting of rights national in scope.” Prof. Pulsinelli also quotes the House Report accompanying the 1976 Act, “One of the fundamental purposes behind the copyright clause of the Constitution … was to promote national uniformity and to avoid the practical difficulties of determining and enforcing an author’s rights under the differing laws and in the separate courts of the various States. Today, when the methods for dissemination of an author’s work are incomparably broader and faster than they were in 1789, national uniformity in copyright protection is even more essential than it was then to carry out the constitutional intent.” Performance rights in particular implicate the problems of varying state regulation, as noted by a variety of courts and commentators.
Prof. Pulsinelli argues that “At least theoretically, the Copyright Act is sufficiently comprehensive as to “occupy the field” and leave no room for the states to operate.238 However, given the strong express preemption provided in § 301(a), such an analysis is generally unnecessary—any law that escapes express preemption because it falls outside the scope of § 301(a) is likely also to fall outside the “field” occupied by the statutory scheme.” Instead, he argues that state law protections of performance rights in sound recordings is likely preempted under the “conflict preemption” doctrine.