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Lewis Black Sues Pandora in Latest Comedy Copyright Case

The infamously angry comic joins a chorus of peers who say Pandora is willfully refusing to pay enough for spoken-word content.

Pandora is facing yet another lawsuit claiming it has failed to pay legally-required royalties for comedy, this time by from comedian Lewis Black.

In a complaint filed Thursday (July 7) in California federal court, attorneys for Black said Pandora “took and exploited his works solely to make themselves money while knowing it had no license and had not paid, and would not be paying, royalties to Lewis Black.”

The case is the latest in a string of lawsuits filed by comics, including the estates of George Carlin and Robin Williams, who say Pandora is violating copyright law by refusing to pay the equivalent of publishing royalties for spoken-word content.

Filed by the same attorney as the earlier cases, the new lawsuit against Pandora largely echoed those allegations, but also quoted from the infamously angry comic’s material.

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“Mr. Black once famously quipped in the wake of the Enron Scandal: ‘You don’t want another Enron? Here’s your law: If a company can’t explain in one sentence what it does, it’s illegal,’” the comedian’s lawyers wrote. “The exact same thing is true here: If a company can’t explain in one sentence how it has a license to use copyrighted works, it’s copyright infringement.”

The case is another escalation in an ongoing battle between streaming services and comics, who claim they have long been underpaid relative to other creators on the platforms.

Every piece of audio is covered by two copyrights – one for the sound recording itself and another for the underlying “literary work” that’s been recorded. When it comes to music, streaming services pay licensing fees to the owners of each copyright. But for comedy, platforms like Pandora have typically only ever paid for the recordings.

Part of the problem is that there is no society like ASCAP or BMI to collect such publishing royalties for spoken works. Over the past few years, two groups – Word Collections and Spoken Giants – have moved to fill that void and has begun asking streaming services to pay those fees for comedy; such efforts are what prompted Spotify to pull down some comedy content last fall.

In February, several comedians took the issue to court, accusing Pandora of willfully refusing to pay the legally required royalties for their content: “Pandora did what most goliaths do: it decided it would infringe now to ensure it had this very valuable intellectual property on its platform to remain competitive, and deal with the consequences later. Later is now.”

In addition to groups that control the intellectual property for Carlin and Williams, the lawsuits were also filed by comics Andrew Dice Clay, Bill Engvall, Ron White and Nick Di Paolo. All of the cases were filed by attorney Richard Busch, a veteran music litigator at the law firm King & Ballow best known for winning the high-profile copyright case against Robin Thicke and Pharrell over “Blurred Lines.”

Pandora has sharply refuted the allegations, going so far as to file a countersuit in May that accused Word Collections of trying to create an illegal “cartel” of comedy rights. In that filing, Pandora said it had “always satisfied its copyright obligations” by paying “millions of dollars in license fees every year” for comedy recordings.

The new case is notable because Black is a member of Spoken Giants, one of two groups that are trying to establish themselves as royalty collection societies for comedy and other spoken content. The previous cases were all filed by comics repped by Word Collections, the other such group.

In a statement to Billboard, Spoken Giants CEO Jim King said that comedians had been “pushed into a corner” by Pandora: “We are disappointed that these services have stone-walled amicable and legally sound discussions and instead opted to spend galling sums of money on legal fees and eventual legal losses. The staggering costs of this battle would be better spent simply paying for the intellectual property they stream to their millions of subscribers.”

A spokesman for Pandora parent SiriusXM did not immediately return a request for comment on Thursday.

Read the full complaint here: