Copyright Infringement at the Winter Olympics: House of the Rising Sun
Crystal Broughan, Intellectual Property Attorney Mar 17, 2022 in Copyrights
What do you imagine when you hear “Winter Olympics”? Steep hills of snow, racers on skis, lyrical ice skaters… And copyright infringement?
Musicians and brothers Robert and Aron Marderosian – known as the musical artist “Heavy Young Heathens” – are waging a copyright infringement case against U.S. Olympic ice skaters Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.
The duo used the Heavy Young Heathens’ master recording version of “House of the Rising Sun” for an Olympic short form program without obtaining permission or giving credit to the Heavy Young Heathens. NBC is included as a defendant in the suit.
Since the Winter Olympics are such a major event covered by so many media outlets, one has to ask: how did this copyright slip happen?
How Do Olympic Figure Skaters Encounter Copyright Issues Music Work?
Let’s take a step back to understand how music copyright works.
For most music pieces, two copyrights generally exist:
- Composition: The “paper version” of the song (lyrics/music), written down
- Recording: The “aural version” of the song, often known as the “master recording”
When you want to use a song that’s not in the public domain, you have to deal with licensing for one or both of these copyrights.
And if you want to use a song in a recorded piece, like a film or TV show, you need a distinct synchronization license. This can be quite expensive, since it is meant to cover indefinite instances of this song being played when the piece is shown.
Olympic figure skating is considered a “live performance.” The skaters and networks do not need a synchronization license. But they do need to get permission from the artist, either directly or through managers or music licensing organizations, like Broadcast Music Inc.
Who Was in the Wrong?
In this case, it appears that the ice skating pair and their management team were more at fault than NBC. In a sense, NBC was only reporting on what happened on the ice.
One could argue that confusion arose from the song’s composition copyright, which is in the public domain. The source is described as “traditional,” and the original author is unknown.
This is part of why so many artists have capitalized on the song to make their own copyrightable recordings.
It is possible that the skaters and their team thought the recording was in the public domain and thought they did not need licensing for the recording – unfortunately, they were wrong.
How Might This End?
The Marderosians have asked for the ice skaters to stop using their recording sans license and pay damages.
What sorts of damages are at stake? It is difficult to calculate since we don’t know if the Marderosians are seeking statutory damages for each violation of the copyright or actual damages, which are tougher to calculate and prove. NBC has already taken down videos of the performance, as well as social media posts.
My professional estimation: the parties will settle before this lawsuit goes to trial. And hopefully, Knierim and Frazier will ask permission and give credit to the musical artists who own the copyrights to the music they use in future skating programs.
If you are considering using a musical recording for a public performance like dance or skating, make sure you obtain permission from the holder of the copyright. This simple act will save you a lot of future headaches and money.