Another Season, Another Common-Law Copyright Opinion

To be clear, this is my opinion only, and the views expressed in this post, and indeed this blog, should not be imputed or otherwise associated with anyone else.

This one from the Supreme Court of Florida, finding that Florida common law does does not recognize an exclusive right of public performers for the holders of common-law copyrights in sound recordings made before February 15, 1972.  The 11th Circuit certified a series of questions to the Florida Supreme Court, namely:

  1. Whether Florida recognizes common law copyright in sound recordings and, if so, whether that copyright includes the exclusive right of reproduction and/or the exclusive right of public performance?
  2. To the extent that Florida recognizes common law copyright in sound recordings, whether the sale and distribution of phonorecords to the public or the public performance thereof constitutes a publication for the purpose of divesting the common law copyright protections in sound recordings embedded in the phonorecord and, if so whether the divestment terminates either or both of the exclusive right of public performance and the exclusive right of reproduction?
  3. To the extent that Florida recognizes a common law copyright including a right of exclusive reproduction in sound recordings, whether Sirius’s back-up or buffer copies infringe Flo & Eddie’s common law copyright exclusive right of reproduction?
  4. To the extent that Florida does not recognize a common law copyright in sound recordings, or to the extent that such a copyright was terminated by publication, whether Flo & Eddie nevertheless has a cause of action for common law unfair competition / misappropriation, common law conversion, or statutory civil theft under FLA. STAT. § 772.11 and FLA. STAT. § 812.014?

Instead of addressing these questions, the Court chose to address a reformulated question of its own, “Does Florida common law recognize the exclusive right of public performance in pre-1972 sound recordings?”  The obvious problem with this is that it fails to address whether pre-72 sound recordings are protected under Florida law more generally.  The Court notes (pp. 19-20) that Florida criminal law provides penalties against commercial bootleggers of sound recordings, but those criminal provisions do not impact a range of activity including noncommercial infringement.

This could be excused as judicial minimalism if it wasn’t central to the case – Flo & Eddie sued in Florida specifically because SiriusXM has servers there, and alleged that copying was ongoing on those servers in violation of their exclusive right of reproduction.  The Court later in the opinion reasoned that because the criminal statute exempts copying made in the course of “as part of a radio, television or cable broadcast transmission,” so the copying would not trigger civil liability under common-law copyright, regardless of whether any such rights exist.  But of course this analysis doesn’t properly follow – whether certain actions do not give rise to criminal liability does not mean the same actions give rise to civil liability.  One only need to look at federal copyright law (or, indeed, nearly any body of law) for ample demonstration of this – most conduct which gives rise to a civil claim for infringement does not give rise to a criminal claim for the same conduct.

So, in revising the question formulating by the Circuit Court to one it preferred, the Florida Supreme Court effectively ignored one of the main claims being brought by Flo & Eddie.  However, I believe the Court’s reasoning on the performance rights claim is problematic as well.  One key part of the Court’s analysis is that finding performance rights would upset settled expectations and cause wide-ranging impacts not expected by the statute.  Regardless of whether this is true, 1 the Court relies on a second argument as well.  The Court notes that Congress extended federal copyright protection to sound recordings in 1972, but in the same breath denied them performance rights.  The Court thus reasons that Congress could not have intended to take away rights that existed, and thus performance rights must not have existed before that time as well.

The problem with this analysis is that Congress clearly was taking away performance rights, at least for sound recordings from Pennsylvania, where a performance right had existed at common law since the decision of that state’s Supreme Court in the 1937 Waring v. WDAS decision.2  And by the evidence, this was a tradeoff sound recording rightsholders were fine with at the time – the right to federal remedies against bootleggers of recorded music was worth far more than a right in some states to demand royalties for sound recording performance.  This is especially true because record companies did not want to imperial radio airplays by demanding additional royalties at the time.

Regardless, Florida is unlikely to revisit this decision anytime soon.  California is the next stop, where the same issue is now being briefed before that state’s Supreme Court.

  1. I’m skeptical that the Flo & Eddie cases would actually have such an effect since they’re only aimed at services that already pay royalties for sound recordings, and indeed Flo & Eddie and SiriusXM reached a settlement that would resolve the issue, but that’s another story.  By contrast, I do think the ABS series of cases, targeting terrestrial radio stations, may raise broader concerns, regardless of the legal merits.
  2. Whether New York recognized such a right was unclear in 1972 – the 1940 RCA v. Whiteman decision had said no, but in 1955 the same Court (the 2nd Circuit) found that decision to be overruled.  Three states including Florida had expressly abrogated the performance right by statute, and as far as I’m aware 45 states had no precedential decisions or laws on the topic.

Author: Zvi S. Rosen

Lawyer and sometimes academic. I've written a fair deal about the evolution of intellectual property law into its present form, this blog is a way to share things that don't fit into a full-length article.

2 thoughts on “Another Season, Another Common-Law Copyright Opinion”

  1. Good analysis, but I’m curious about one thing. You say this case is “only aimed at services that already pay royalties for sound recordings,” but if the court had found that a public performance right exists, on what basis would that precedent be limited to digital transmissions? What would stop Flo & Eddie etc. from suing every FM radio station, restaurant, and DJ in Florida for performance royalties?

    1. So, that’s an open question. Sirius and Pandora are the only named parties in these suits, which really arise out when those services stopped paying royalties for pre-72 sound recordings following a 2012 CRB decision. And it is possible to distinguish, saying that common-law copyright obeys the same limits on performance rights that statutory copyright does. Some of the dissenting and concurring opinions from the NY Court of Appeals suggested drawing such a line.

      The difficulty is that, as my upcoming article on common law copyright explains (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2834199), common law copyright is not statutory copyright, and does not obey the same boundaries – courts routinely found that common law copyright included performance rights well beyond what statutory copyright included in the 19th century.

      There are a couple of responses. In practice, the most likely ones are “well, who cares about those old cases, the performance right hasn’t been asserted in so long that it fell into desuetude” or “that’s fine and dandy, but I’m not breaking the internet.” The one that I think is much more interesting is the argument that even though we (now) call it common-law copyright, the cases protecting sound recordings from before 1972 are not actually about the old-fashioned doctrine of common-law copyright at all, but are in fact something different and new(ish). This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems – Nimmer says it explicitly in the pre-76 version of his treatise.

      Of course, that leaves open the question of what exactly the legal doctrine is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *