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Pandora Hit With Comedy Copyright Lawsuits Over Robin Williams & George Carlin

Growing uncertainty over streaming licenses for comedy content has now boiled over into federal court.

Pandora is facing a copyright battle involving the late George Carlin and Robin Williams over allegations that the service is failing to pay proper royalties for comedy, escalating a brewing licensing dispute between streamers and comedians.

In at least five different lawsuits filed Monday (Feb. 7) in California federal court, each on behalf of a different comic or their estate, attorneys claimed Pandora has steadfastly refused to obtain sufficient licenses to perform or reproduce spoken-word material, even after it allegedly knew it needed to do so.

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“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,” attorneys wrote in the lawsuit over Robin Williams. “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 and Ron White. All five cases were filed by attorney Richard Busch, a veteran music litigator at the law firm King & Ballow. A spokesman for Pandora parent SiriusXM declined to comment.

Monday’s lawsuits against Pandora came amid growing uncertainty about what kind of royalties streaming services must pay to comedians, which has already led to some comedians being pulled from Spotify.

Every piece of recorded music is covered by two copyrights, including one for the sound recording itself and another for the underlying written music. Streaming services pay licensing fees to the owners of each copyright — typically to a record label for one and either a songwriter or a publisher for the other.

But for spoken-word recordings, streaming services have typically only paid for the sound recordings and not for the underlying “literary work” that’s been recorded. Part of the problem is that there is no society to collect royalties for the public performance or reproduction of spoken works.

The issue has come to the foreground in recent months, as companies like Spoken Giants and Word Collections have sought to position themselves as that kind of collection group for spoken-word content. The groups and their supporters want streamers to start paying not just for sound recordings but also for mechanical licenses — the fee paid to reproduce a written work — as well as fees to publicly perform a written work.

As the dispute simmered, Spotify in November quietly removed many of the comedy recordings it offers, including some or all material from Jim Gaffigan, John Mulaney, Dave Attell, and many others. At the time, Spotify said it had “paid significant amounts of money for the content in question” but that Spoken Giants was disputing what rights had actually been acquired.

In the new lawsuits against Pandora, attorneys for the comedians said Word Collections had made repeated efforts to get the company to pay such licensing fees, but had not been successful. Instead, the company “chose to illegally profit” from the comedians’ works.

The lawsuits also claimed that Pandora knew that such fees might be necessary. The document cited an SEC filing in which Pandora warned investors that it streams spoken-word content “absent a specific license” and industry customs might “change” at some point in the future.

“Pandora not only did not obtain any copyright in Williams’s Works but admitted that it did not do so in SEC filings, and admitted that it would very likely face copyright infringement liability as a result,” attorneys for the comedians wrote.