Copyright Woes are Over the Rainbow: Harold Arlen Estate Sues Tech Giants

The estate of famous composer Harold Arlen, composer of the classic “Over the Rainbow,” has sued multiple technology giants over alleged unauthorized recordings of Arlen’s compositions.  In the copyright infringement lawsuit, the Arlen estate claims that there are over 6,000 unauthorized recordings of Arlen’s compositions streaming or for sale on platforms provided by Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.

Arlen Estate Files Copyright Infringement Lawsuit in California

Filed in California’s Central District Court, the lawsuit alleges that the unauthorized streaming and sale of Arlen’s compositions amount to massive piracy and, as such, the estate of Arlen is entitled to millions of dollars in damages.  The Arlen estate is asking for maximum statutory damages under U.S. copyright law, claiming that the infringement has been willful.  

At the heart of the case, Arlen’s estate argues that the technology giants’ unauthorized distribution of the copyright works has cheated the Arlen estate out of royalties that should be paid whenever the copyrighted work is copied and distributed on sound recordings. Specifically, Arlen’s estate argues that the “distribution” of the work now also encompasses streaming and digital downloads, in addition to the traditional distribution of works on physical mediums like CDs or vinyl records.  

The Arlen Estate Focuses on Infringement Claimed to be Caused by Tech Giants

The rapid innovation of technology plays a particularly relevant role in this lawsuit as it has generally been the impetus behind such rapid unauthorized distribution of Arlen’s works.  For example, the Arlen estate points out that Apple’s iTunes store not only sells the official recording of one of Arlen’s compositions, which would rightfully compensate the estate, but also sells an undercutting illegal version of the song at a lower price, effectively deterring consumers from purchasing the authorized, official version that would rightfully compensate Arlen’s estate.

While the consumer that purchases the unauthorized recording is arguably also infringing upon Arlen’s works, the Arlen estate chose to go after the technology giants, because metadata on the works is generally difficult to find, making it hard for consumers to correctly determine whether they are purchasing an authorized version or an illegal copy.

U.S. and Foreign Copyright Laws

Although the Arlen estate filed suit against the aforementioned technology giants, it has also filed claims against dozens of both named and unnamed labels that are allegedly infringing upon Arlen’s works.  In fact, the majority of the defendants named in the suit are actually based outside of the United States, making the differences in U.S. copyright law and foreign copyright law another wrinkle in the lawsuit.  As a result, the Arlen estate must properly navigate the differences in foreign copyright laws when pursuing these “John Doe” distributors and labels abroad.  

Although music is often purchased and streamed via the world wide web, it’s important to understand that copyright laws are not “international.” U.S. rights do not automatically extend to foreign jurisdictions, and most countries have their own copyright protection laws. Additionally, there are international copyright treaties and conventions that will help to extend protection. Seeking assistance from copyright attorneys with international experience is important when pursuing adequate copyright protection of works likely to be infringed abroad.

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