Radio Giants Facing Bicoastal Legal Demands to Stop Playing Pre-1972 Songs

Lawsuits against CBS, iHeartMedia and Cumulus follow similar legal action against SiriusXM and Pandora.
Associated Press

CBS Radio, iHeartMedia and Cumulus — the nation's three largest radio station operators — are now facing multi-million dollar lawsuits both in California and New York over exploitation of pre-1972 sound recordings.

The litigation campaign comes from ABS Entertainment, which owns the recordings of Al Green and others, and aims to represent a class that would include such iconic musicians as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles. It's being demanded that radio stations in two of the country's biggest states stop publicly performing their works plus exploiting older songs in any matter including linking to such recordings from websites.

Is this the last summer that The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" gets played on the radio?

Maybe not, but the lawsuits aren't coming out of nowhere.

Sound recording owners haven't traditionally been paid for radio airplay, but until recently, no one had challenged what laws might protect songs authored before recordings were put under federal copyright protection.

That changed in August 2013 when a proposed class action lawsuit from Flo & Eddie of The Turtles theorized that state laws governing conversion, misappropriation and unfair competition might interfere with uncompensated public performance of pre-72 works.

The following year, The Turtles scored success pursuing such claims against SiriusXM, which led to a similar lawsuit against Pandora. Legal observers predicted terrestrial radio would also face lawsuits, and now they have.  Robert Allen, one of the attorneys who represented The Turtles, is the lead plaintiff lawyer here.

The record giants filed their own lawsuit against SiriusXM and then came to a $210 million settlement. This past week, Sony, UMG and Warner opted out of the Turtles' class action against SiriusXM, and we're not aware of any litigation they've filed just yet against CBS, iHeartMedia and Cumulus.

"We intend to vigorously defend this lawsuit," says a spokesperson for CBS Radio.

Although the latest suits (read one of the complaints filed today) sound quite a fury with demands for a temporary, preliminary, and permanent injunction, there's a reasonable chance that the litigation will quickly pause. That's because the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals is set to address the key threshold issue of whether pre-'72 sound recording owners have public performance rights under state law.

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