Members of the band The Turtles, best known for their 1967 song “Happy Together,” have filed a class-action lawsuit against SiriusXM, saying that the satellite radio company is violating the rights they have in their sound recordings by playing their music to satellite radio subscribers without permission.
Sound Recording Copyrights are Recent, and More Limited
This might seem to be a strange oversight on the part of SiriusXM, except that normally, radio services don’t need to get permission to play music. This is because copyrights for recording artists are a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, recording artists didn’t have *any* copyright rights in their works until 1972. Even after 1972, when Congress decided to expand copyrights to include recorded sound (copyrights in sheet music had been allowed since the 1830s), it did so in a limited manner. Recording artists could prevent others from reproducing, making derivative works of, or distributing copies of their works, but they couldn’t stop anyone from publicly performing them.
That included broadcasters, who were free to play records over the air without permission or payment to the people who made the records. Even much later, when Congress decided to expand recording artists’ rights to include public performance “by means of a digital audio transmission,” it also included a statutory license for that right, meaning that satellite radio and webcasters, who make digital audio transmissions, don’t have to get permission from recordings artists—but they do have to pay for the use of their songs. (These statutory licenses in section 114, which are calculated differently depending upon the type of broadcaster, are the source of a lot of the conflict you might be hearing about internet radio rates.)