Digital Giants Including Spotify, Apple Named in Suit from Leader of Obscure R&B Group Over Pre-1972 Licenses

The federal courthouse in Manhattan

The federal courthouse in Manhattan photographed on Oct. 23, 2014 in New York City.

The fight over older music continues. 

Ricky Spicer, a singer who joined a pair of singing twins in 1970 to form the Jackson Five-esque group The Ponderosa Twins Plus One (Spicer being that suffixed "one"), has filed a suit seeking class action status against and damages from a large cross-section of the digital music landscape -- Spotify, Apple, Google, SoundCloud, iHeartMedia, Pandora and Sony Computer Entertainment -- over royalties related to pre-1972 recordings. Spicer's action directly relates to several other ongoing cases, all related to the same complex issues of copyright ownership and music licensing.

The case centers around these various tech giants publicly performing (through streams) recordings that were created before those recordings came under the protection of federal copyright law, which went into effect Feb. 15, 1972. That law left those copyrights' fates to be decided state-by-state, thus leaving streaming companies which have secured federal, statutory licenses hanging in the breeze, as it were. Spicer claims none of the defendants have received "a valid license to... distribute the intellectual property owned by Ricky Spicer" and the other members of the Twins. 

The new action most closely resembles a suit brought almost exactly a year ago over recordings from Hot Tuna and the Flying Burrito Brothers, among others. That case was dismissed shortly after being filed.

Notably, the filing says the various defendants may have thought they had licensed his album. In the filing Spicer makes the allegation that a "phantom party... used back channels and private under-the-table dealings to transfer licenses that ultimately wound up in the hands of Defendants."

Spicer's difficult childhood, outlined briefly in his document, led him from an orphanage to a high school talent competition to joining the Ponderosa Twins, eventually becoming best known for the song "Bound," which was recently sampled by Kanye West (royalties for which Spicer sued over) in his song "Bound 2." The group eventually disbanded in 1975 after seeing little to no payment from touring or recording, Spicer's filing claims.

Previous suits over pre-1972 recordings have led to sizable settlements from Pandora, which paid $90 million to the major record labels, and SiriusXM, whose own fight led to the company paying $210 million with several labels that included the three majors (Sony Music, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group).

Pandora addressed the new action, saying it "can’t speak to this latest suit, but settled this issue with the major labels in order to focus on developing greater partnerships within the industry. Though there is no existing federal sound recording copyright, Pandora has repeatedly voiced our support for full federalization of pre-1972 sound recordings.”

Spotify had no comment on the new filing. A person close to the situation claims Apple pays for pre-1972 recordings. iHeartMedia, Google, Sony Computer Entertainment and SoundCloud did not respond to a request for comment at press time.