Royalties for pre-1972 oldies

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A federal judge in New York has ruled against Sirius XM Holdings Inc over an obscure copyright issue that has galvanised the music industry: royalties for recordings made before 1972.

Sirius XM and Pandora Media have been hit in the last year by a series of lawsuits over old recordings. Neither company pays record labels or performing artists on songs recorded before 1972, when federal copyright protection was first applied to recordings. Both services, however, pay separate royalties for songwriting.

Last year, members of the 1960s band The Turtles - who sang hits such as Happy Together - sued Sirius XM in California, New York and Florida, saying that, by playing its songs without permission, the broadcaster had infringed on the group's rights under state laws.

Flo & Eddie - Mark "Flo" Volman and Howard "Eddie" Kaylan - of the band had sued, seeking class action status and more than US$100 million (S$130 million) of damages for alleged infringements by New York-based Sirius XM.

Mr Harvey Geller, a lawyer for Flo & Eddie, said his client is pleased. He said: "From coast to coast, the owners of pre-1972 recordings are finally getting what is owed to them."

But these cases may well have broader implications if they lead to changes in copyright law. Last Friday, Judge Colleen McMahon of United States District Court in Manhattan rejected Sirius XM's motion for summary judgment, saying The Turtles have performing rights to their recordings under New York state law. Sirius XM has until Dec 5 to dispute remaining facts in the case, the judge wrote, otherwise Sirius XM will be ruled liable for infringement. A representative of Sirius XM declined on Sunday to comment on the decision.

The ruling comes after a separate win for The Turtles last September, when a federal judge in California found Sirius XM liable for infringement under state laws there. That decision was viewed as a major victory for artists and record companies, although its wider impact was unclear because it applied only to California.

Ms McMahon's decision bolstered the music industry's position that old recordings are covered under state laws. But recording and broadcasting executives said that the potential for wide confusion over music licensing - for example, it may mean that AM-FM radio stations, as well as restaurants or sports arenas where music is performed, may have been infringing on recording rights for decades - may require clarification from Congress.

The cases also come as record sales have continued to decline and the music industry has become more reliant on income from online and streaming audio services.

SoundExchange, a non-profit organisation that collects recording royalties from Internet and satellite radio, estimates that US$60 million is lost each year in uncollected royalties from oldies.

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