Business

Publishers Aren't Playing With Lawsuits Over Unlicensed Music. Who Might Be Next?

Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

"Tech companies keep making the same mistake in asking for forgiveness instead of permission," says NMPA chief David Israelite

Over the past year, Roblox has become a popular online platform for kids and teenagers to create and play simple but addictive games — and apparently also upload unlicensed music by artists like Olivia Rodrigo and The Weeknd to listen to at the same time. Now, the National Music Publishers' Association is demanding that the company behind it stop playing around and start paying for music in a $200 million lawsuit filed June 9.

Now that streaming is an established business, the trade associations that represent rights holders are focusing more on ensuring they get paid by companies that incorporate unlicensed music into their products. One early battle was against the exercise bike startup Peloton, which the NMPA sued for $370 million in 2019 and settled with the following year.

"We are getting more aggressive," says NMPA president/CEO David Israelite. "Tech companies keep making the same mistake in asking for forgiveness instead of permission." Not every NMPA publisher is participating in the Roblox lawsuit: Sony Music Publishing and Warner Chappell, whose recorded music businesses have partnered with Roblox on in-game performances, aren’t part of it. (Warner Music Group made a series H investment in Roblox in January, reportedly worth eight figures; the company declined to comment). But rights holders see significant opportunity in licensing these kinds of startups — a process that can sometimes involve litigation as well as negotiation.

"We seem to have run into a whole bunch of companies blossoming at the same time," says RIAA chairman/CEO Mitch Glazier.

The same day that the NMPA announced its lawsuit against Roblox, it also claimed it would ramp up its process for filing takedown notices for infringing content on the Amazon-owned livestream platform Twitch, in partnership with the RIAA. Although Twitch operates under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which offers it "safe harbor" from infringement lawsuits as long as it responds to such notices, filing them by the thousands can frustrate users and give rights holders leverage.

In most cases, the end result of this maneuvering is a licensing agreement: The only question is when and on whose terms. Some startups postpone paying for music in order to focus more on growth. That's especially tempting if competitors aren't licensing either. In a statement, Roblox -- which has 42 million daily active users -- promised to defend itself "vigorously" against the lawsuit, adding that it does "not tolerate copyright infringement." (The platform uses upload filters, although they seem easy to bypass.) The company declined to comment further.

As for the future, Israelite says, "We haven't said we'll never sue Twitch."

This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.