After many months of legal jousting, an important legal question concerning pre-1972 recording copyright has been answered in favor of the artist. Sirius XM is on the losing side, but the decision is set to affect many more players in the digital and streaming music space.


The case facing the California court claimed that the Sirius XM copyright infringement occurred on songs recorded before 1972 – February 15th, 1972, to be precise – which it makes available to subscribers to its digital radio service  but for which it pays no royalties. That isn’t the case for songs recorded after that year, because they’re covered by federal copyright law as it applies to digitally-sourced music.

A lawsuit brought by a band called The Turtles, active from 1965 to 1970, claimed that this was insufficient grounds for the service to use its music without compensating the creators, an argument which appears to hold enough water to send ripples through the digital music service industry. Other popular services such as Pandora and Rhapsody will certainly feel the pinch of the additional costs to serving up their music streams. Roughly 10% of the music such services use would fall under this potential requirement to pay more to artists, and would cover recordings from seminal songwriters including Neil Young, James Brown, Linda Ronstadt and Cat Stevens.

The victory holds huge promise for artists and their advocate organizations, who earlier this year appealed to lawmakers for fair play on songwriter pay.

Record labels and performing rights organization SoundExchange were quick to back up the original artist’s litigation, holding that there should be no arbitrary exemption to royalty payments simply because the music is transmitted across a different medium than traditional radio stations. While it’s understandable that these newer music services want to keep their royalty costs down, especially given that music licensing can account for around half of their overall operating costs, that’s no excuse to cut out artists thanks to some archaic legal line in the sand.

Put simply, if you base your business on the music of others, do the right thing and pay them for the privilege. It’s a shame that it had to come to a court case to make this point, but the relationship between music service providers and songwriters can only get better if the decision lays the land for fair royalty payments across the spectrum of artists, young or old, contemporary or “classic.”