Are You Sirius?

As readers of this blog will recall, aging rockers Flo & Eddie filed three separate lawsuits alleging that Sirius XM has infringed certain state- or common law copyrights of a class of owners of sound recordings fixed prior to 1972. Sirius XM has filed a motion to transfer the California case, which was transferred from state to federal court, and the Florida case to the Southern District of New York.  While this legal maneuver is relatively uninteresting, the motion does indicate at least one defense that is likely to feature prominently in this and the related case filed by the so-called “major” record companies, – titled Capitol Records, LLC et al. v. Sirius XM Radio Inc., No. BC520981 – in California state court raising similar issues: laches.

Laches, an equitable defense based on the doctrine of estoppel, is the unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim that prejudices the opposing party.  According to Sirius XM’s motion,

Plaintiff apparently has become aggrieved by the distinction drawn by Congress in withholding copyright protection from its Pre-1972 Recordings; thus now, after decades of inaction while a wide variety of music users, including radio and television broadcasters, bars, restaurants and website operators, exploited those Pre-1972 Recordings countless millions of times without paying fees, it asserts a purported right under the law of various states to be compensated by Sirius XM for comparable unlicensed uses. Plaintiff’s multiple court filings constitute a form of lawsuit lottery in search of an elusive new state-law right that would radically overturn decades of settled practice.

The laches defense raises a number of interesting issues.  For example, since at least the late 1980s, almost all terrestrial radio stations have used digital copies stored on servers to originate performances; i.e., the days of “disc jockeys” spinning vinyl have been gone for decades.  Presumably, under Flo & Eddie’s complaint, these terrestrial radio broadcasters needed a license to make copies of Pre-72 recordings and, potentially, to perform them.

Terrestrial radio stations have been simulcasting performances over the internet for nearly 20 years, presumably implicating the right of performance by digital audio transmission that Flo & Eddie allege exist under certain state laws for Pre-72 recordings.  Has SoundExchange, which collects and distributes royalties under certain statutory licenses for the public performance of sound recordings by digital audio transmission, been collecting royalties from these terrestrial radio broadcasters and remitting such payments to Pre-72 artists?  Because federal copyright doesn’t apply to Pre-72 recordings, if SoundExchange were collecting such royalties it would owe the terrestrial radio simulcasters a refund. If SoundExchange hasn’t, why hasn’t Flo & Eddie sued terrestrial radio?

Flo & Eddie will undoubtedly respond that they had no way of knowing that they weren’t getting paid by Sirius XM until the most recent Copyright Royalty Board proceeding, at this pre-72 recordings were a significant issue.

[The allegations raised by SoundExchange against Sirius XM that Sirius XM was inappropriately deducting revenue from its royalty calculation to account for Pre-72 recordings are inapplicable in the context of a per-song royalty, where each Pre-72 recording can be identified and appropriately excluded from royalty calculations.  Per-song royalties have existed since at least 2008.]

The motion is here.