Three Broadcast Groups Deny Copyright Infringement in Unlicensed Radio Play
Crystal Broughan, Intellectual Property Attorney Jan 19, 2023 in Copyrights
When you hear a song on the radio, what sorts of intellectual property law does that evoke? And if a radio station plays a song without obtaining the proper permission, what kind of trouble can that spell for the station?
We are currently seeing this play out in a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Global Music Rights against three different U.S. radio broadcast groups.
Allowed Use or Copyright Infringement: How Radio Licensing Works
Radio play of music is considered akin to a live performance. If you buy the CD of an artist you love and play that CD on your local radio station, you are not in the clear. Buying the CD only gives you legal access to the recording of that music for personal listening. Even if you bought the rights to the recordings, that still does not give you legal standing to play the music on the radio – you would need different licensing to cover the “live performance” of that song on the radio.
Because of this IP distinction for radio, Performance Rights Organizations (PRO) emerged as a way to streamline the process of obtaining radio play licensing. Basically, if 88.1 FM had to contact each and every artist on their roster to work out a contract for each song, that would take an untenable amount of manpower and hours. Instead, radio stations can go to a PRO and buy access to their entire catalog of artists to avoid any copyright infringement issues.
For decades, most artists have had the choice of three major PROs: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Each has its own operation methods for radio contracts, tracking artists plays, and distributing the fees among its artists, depending on how much their work surfs the airwaves.
A Newer PRO
About 10 years ago, Global Music Rights (GMR) introduced itself as a fourth PRO on the scene, touting some major players across genres like Bruce Springsteen, Lizzo, Drake, and Bon Iver. Perhaps as part of a stand to be recognized as legitimate, GMR is pursuing three lawsuits alleging copyright infringement against three different radio groups that have played their artists’ tracks without permission: Southern Stone Broadcasting, Red Wolf Broadcasting, and One Putt Broadcasting.
Interestingly, rather than immediately recompense licensing fees, all three radio stations have fought back – each with different arguments.
Southern Stone Broadcasting
Southern Stone has asked the court to dismiss GMR’s suit. They cite a lack of specific infringement instances. GMR claims that infringement has occurred since 2017, but Southern Stone wants the details. Basically, the Southern Stone’s stance is: “Dismiss this suit, because it is vague and inconclusive.”
Red Wolf Broadcasting
Red Wolf takes a different tact. They admit there is some truth to GMR’s claims, but those claims are barred by a statute of limitations. Red Wolf also believes that GMR gave insufficient notice of copyright infringement over the past several years. Red Wolf’s defense in a nutshell: “You gave us unclear notice, too late – the courts will find that this suit has lost its legs.”
One Putt Broadcasting
One Putt harbors the frailest argument. While they do not pull up a strong rebuttal to any of GMR’s claims, they simply deny its allegations. And they add that, if infringement did occur, they were acting in good faith and did not know.
Will GMR’s Copyright Infringement Arguments Win?
GMR does have one particularly strong point, besides the standard PRO claim to its catalog. GMR asserts that it gave these radio groups multiple chances over the years to sign licensing contracts.
For example, in its lawsuit against Red Wolf, GMR lists the number of times it offered licensing agreements: January 2017, August 2017, February 2018, August 2018, February 2019, August 2019, March 2020, March 2021, December 2021, and January 2022. From this perspective, it seems like GMR did give sufficient notice.
Why any multi-channel radio group would decide to ignore licensing music on its airwaves is a mystery to this IP lawyer – one that may come with a high cost in the long run.Share