The Legal Fight Over Karaoke is Getting Loud

Karaoke - H 2012
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Karaoke - H 2012

Karaoke seems simple enough: Drunk amateur singers perform hit songs in public and embarrass themselves. But don't tell that to lawyers.

Two weeks ago, KTS Karaoke, a CD and DVD manufacturing giant was fed up by the suggestion that it might owe $1.28 billion for 6,715 acts of alleged song infringement. The company decided to drag Sony/ATV Music Publishing into a California federal court for being an aggressive nuisance in the karaoke marketplace.

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Now, Sony/ATV, a joint venture that's co-owned by the estate of Michael Jackson, has travelled halfway around the country to get its revenge. In Nashville, Tenn., known as "Music City," Sony is suing KTS for willful copyright infringement. At stake could be a significant share of the karaoke CDs currently on the market as the plaintiff is demanding a recall of the product so they can be turned over and destroyed.

Karaoke means "empty orchestra" in Japanese, but should really be translated as "legal nightmare."

As we described in our original story on this subject, karaoke embodies various different rights that require different forms of payments. Money must be paid for use of the original music, for use of the song composition, for the ability to perform the song in public, for the ability to match the music to screen visuals (known as the synchronization license), and for the ability to reprint the lyrics.

But wait -- the complication doesn't stop there.

According to Sony/ATV in this new lawsuit:

"Pursuant to typical synchronization and product licenses, karaoke companies are required to pay fixing fees and/or administration fees, advances against future royalties, and account and pay royalties based upon the total number of units manufactured, usually on a quarterly basis. The customary rates for physical synchronization licenses are fairly standardized; the rates for product and other licenses vary considerably."

Both parties agree that KTS isn't alone on the karaoke supply chain. The details of their operation aren't spelled out in either of the lawsuits, but we imagine it might go something like this...

To avoid paying money to record labels for the use of original recorded music, KTS purchases songs that are re-recorded by musicians others than the original band members. Still, mechanical and synch license fees are still due. KTS believes that its suppliers are responsible for attaining these licenses, and that the licenses would cover their own uses. Sony disagrees.

In KTS' lawsuit two weeks ago, the company alleges that Sony is committing copyright misuse by attempting to collect multiple damage awards on a single work from the upstream producers, the downstream users (bars and restaurants), and KTS, the packager/distributor. KTS believes this alleged bullying "scheme" is unlawful.

Sony, in turn, is holding the position that the manufacturers of karaoke music, "being unrelated, are not jointly and severally liable for copyright infringement with one another and, as such, the separately made recordings appearing on different brands are separate infringements."

Sony wants damages, an injunction, and as mentioned above, a recall. How this litigation shakes up the karaoke scene remains to be seen, but perhaps a clever future songwriter on Music Row will write an ode about why nobody goes to local bars to belt out old songs anymore, prefering the cheaper option of flying to Japan.


Twitter: @eriqgardner