This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings and all the fun stuff in between.
This week: A federal judge rules that works created by A.I. are not covered by copyrights; an appeals court revives abuse lawsuits against Michael Jackson’s companies; Smokey Robinson beats a lawsuit claiming he owed $1 million to a former manager; SoundExchange sues SiriusXM for “gaming the system” on royalties; and much more.
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No Copyrights For A.I. Works – But Tougher Questions Loom
The rise of artificial intelligence will pose many difficult legal questions for the music business, likely requiring some combination of litigation, regulation and legislation before all the dust settles. But on at least one A.I. issue, a federal judge just gave us a clean, straightforward answer.
In a decision issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ruled that American copyright law does not cover works created entirely by artificial intelligence – full stop. That’s because, the judge said, the essential purpose of copyright law is to encourage human beings to create new works.
“Non-human actors need no incentivization with the promise of exclusive rights under United States law, and copyright was therefore not designed to reach them,” the judge wrote.
Though novel, the decision was not entirely surprising. Federal courts have long strictly limited copyrights to content created by humans, rejecting it for works created by animals, by forces of nature, and even those claimed to have been authored by divine spirits, like religious texts.
But the ruling was nonetheless important because it came amid growing interest in the future role that could be played in the creation of music and other content by so-called generative AI tools, similar to the much-discussed ChatGPT. The issue of copyright protection is crucial to the future role of AI, since works that are not protected would be difficult to monetize.
Trickier legal dilemmas lie ahead. What if an AI-powered tool is used in the studio to create parts of a song, but human artists then add other elements? How much human direction on the use of AI tools is needed for the output to count as “human authorship”? How can a court filter out, in practical terms, elements authored by computers?
On those questions, the current answers are much squishier – something that Judge Howell hinted at in her decision. “Undoubtedly, we are approaching new frontiers in copyright as artists put AI in their toolbox to be used in the generation of new visual and other artistic works. The increased attenuation of human creativity from the actual generation of the final work will prompt challenging questions.”
“This case, however, is not nearly so complex.”
Other top stories this week…
MJ ABUSE CASES REVIVED – A California appeals court revived lawsuits filed by two men who claim Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children, ruling that they can pursue negligence claims against his companies. A lower court dismissed the cases on the grounds that staffers had no power to control Jackson, who was the sole owner of the companies. But the appeals court called such a ruling “perverse” and overturned it: “A corporation that facilitates the sexual abuse of children by one of its employees is not excused from an affirmative duty to protect those children merely because it is solely owned by the perpetrator.”
SMOKEY ROBINSON TRIAL VICTORY – The legendary Motown singer won a jury trial against a former manager who claimed he was owed nearly $1 million in touring profits, capping off more than six years of litigation over the soured partnership. Robinson himself took the stand during the case, telling jurors that the deal was never intended to cover concert revenue.
“GAMING THE SYSTEM” – SoundExchange filed a lawsuit against SiriusXM claiming the satellite radio giant is using bookmaking trickery in order to withhold more than $150 million in royalties owed to artists. The case centers on allegations that SiriusXM is manipulating how it bundles satellite services with web streaming services to “grossly underpay the royalties it owes.”
TIKTOK JUDGE RESPONDS – A judge in New Jersey defended himself against misconduct allegations over TikTok videos in which he lip-synced to Rihanna’s “Jump” and other popular songs, admitting “poor judgment” and “vulgar” lyrics but saying he should receive only a light reprimand for what intended as “silly, harmless, and innocent fun.”
LAWSUIT OVER TAKEOFF SHOOTING – Joshua Washington, an assistant to the rapper Quavo, filed a lawsuit over last year’s shooting in Houston that killed fellow Migos rapper Takeoff. He claims injuries sustained during the attack are the fault of the bowling alley where the shooting took place, which he says failed to provide adequate security, screening or emergency assistance.
GUNPLAY FACING FELONY COUNTS – The rapper Gunplay was arrested in Miami and hit with three felony charges over an alleged domestic violence incident in which he is reportedly accused of drunkenly pointing an AK-47 assault rifle at his wife and child during an argument.
FRENCH DIDN’T CLEAR SAMPLE? – The rapper French Montana was hit with a copyright lawsuit claiming his 2022 song “Blue Chills” features an unlicensed sample from singer-songwriter Skylar Gudasz. She claims he tentatively agreed to pay her for the clip – both in an upfront payment and a 50 percent share of the publishing copyright — but then never actually signed the deal.
YOUTUBE FRAUDSTER SENTENCED – Webster “Yenddi” Batista Fernandez, one of the leaders of the largest-known YouTube music royalty scam in history, was sentenced to nearly four years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. Under the name MediaMuv, Batista and an accomplice fraudulently collected roughly $23 million in royalties from over 50,000 songs by Latin musicians ranging from small artists to global stars like Daddy Yankee.