Is it still considered piracy when the labels do it?



I’m not sure if you’ve heard the buzz behind singer Nina Simone’s estate and her former label, RCA, which is now Sony, but they have been an extensive legal battle for a couple years now regarding the rights in her music. The parties, which include Nina’s lawyer, ex-husband (“Nina’s Team”) and Sony Music, reached a settlement last fall, but Sony recently sought to rescind the settlement agreement, alleging that the other parties have failed to live up to the agreement. At issue are the rights that were granted under the settlement agreement. Nina’s representatives contend that only reproduction rights were granted to Sony, with all other rights remaining with Nina’s estate. A grant of reproduction rights basically only provides Sony with the right to duplicate phonorecords of Nina Simone’s music and sound recordings, which really limits Sony’s rights to exploit Nina’s music.


Nina’s Team did not take Sony’s hit lying down. As Sony attempts to rescind, Nina’s team countered with allegations of infringement of over 80 Nina Simone songs that have been uploaded to digital outlets without authorization or permission from Nina’s estate. Nina’s Team accused Sony of operating a “piracy ring” by virtue of its ownership of Orchard, an independent music distributor that provides music to digital music powerhouses such as iTunes, Google Play and Amazon (to name a few). Sony fully acquired Orchard for approximately $200 million in March of this year. Orchard has managed to get its hands on some bootlegs of Nina’s music performances and have been distributing them without consent of any of the rights holders. Under normal circumstances, this unauthorized distribution would have gained the attention of Sony executives and a lawsuit would normally follow if cease and desist demands weren’t met and settled. But here, Sony owns Orchard, so why would they sue themselves, especially when they have so much to gain from the unauthorized distribution? By allowing Orchard to continue to pirate Nina’s music, it effectively displaces any consumer purchases for record sales, which would generate far greater royalties to the artist’s estate than would be received by digital distribution. The Simone estate is currently seeking an injunction to prohibit Sony – I mean Orchard, from all exploitation of Simone’s music and a declaration that Sony is prevented from receiving any of the settlement received by Simone’s ex-husband for her music rights.


I’m very curious to see how this one turns out because if Sony is allowed to wholly own a subsidiary distribution company and effectively turn the other cheek when this subsidiary infringes on Sony’s copyrights in an attempt to avoid paying higher royalties to its artists, what’s to stop all the majors from following suit? It never ceases to amaze me just how crafty these record labels are at stiffing their own artists for all of their dedication and hard work, when it is the artist that keeps them employed. Where is the appreciation and loyalty? Well, some of these artists are waking up (even from the dead) and demanding what is rightfully theirs! This dynamic that exists between the music labels and its artists cannot continue to go on for very much longer. Artists are being educated on the music business and seeing the industry for what it is, and they want to take control of their music or at least at a bare minimum, be adequately compensated for it. It’s about time…

For questions concerning this article please contact lerae@askmusiclawyer.com

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