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Apple's Beats, Google, and Sony hammered with unpaid royalty claim

Firm wants fees for golden oldies

New Apple toy Beats Electronics, along with Sony and Google, are among the targets of a lawsuit over claims of unpaid royalties.

A New York publisher is suing the companies for failing to pay it royalties on songs published before 1972, the year US copyright law was updated to cover sound recordings. Zenbu Magazines claims that the music services played a song it owns the rights to ("Sin City" by the Flying Burrito Brothers) without paying fees.

According to the Beats suit, the service has been playing the song, along with others recorded pre-1972, for years without paying royalties.

"Beats has copied tens of thousands of pre-1972 sound recordings to its servers, transmitting and performing them via the Beats Music Service to its millions of users on a daily basis, without any authorization," the suit (PDF) alleges.

"Beats profits from its unauthorized reproduction, distribution, and public performance of pre-1972 recordings by charging subscription fees to its users, without paying royalties or licensing fees for pre-1972 recordings."

Zenbu is seeking to collect punitive damages under California state law as well as the back royalties and attorney fees. The company has filed a similar case (PDF) in Northern California against Sony and its Music Unlimited streaming service, while Google was also targeted in the filings that cover more than a half-dozen services according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Beats and Sony are not the first music services to be sued for playing pre-1972 recordings without paying fees. Last year, the Recording Industry Ass. of America sued Pandora for the same thing, and in 2013 Sirius XM Radio was targeted.

Because the US Copyright Act was only expanded to cover song recordings in 1972, tunes from before that era were not covered, leaving owners out of the modern royalty payments system used by the recording industry and streaming music services. Publishers have instead opted to pursue cases under state laws that do cover the older songs.

Should Zenbu prevail, Apple and others would be left with the decision to begin paying out royalties on the older songs as they do current recordings, or to simply remove all pre-1972 recordings from the streaming music service.

The Beats Music service was seen as a primary motivator for Apple's decision to acquire Beats Electronics last year. The $3bn deal gave Apple both the Beats Music and headphone brands and brought Beats co-founder Dr. Dre on board Apple as a vice president. ®


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