The estate of Harold Arlen – who wrote such American songbook classics as Over The Rainbow and Get Happy – is suing some of the world’s biggest tech firms.
Arlen’s son, Sam Arlen, says he has found more than 6,000 unauthorised copies of his songs on Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft’s services – often at lower prices than the originals.
His lawyers claim the firms are engaged in “massive piracy operations”.
Arlen is seeking damages that could reach into the millions of dollars.
According to the legal papers filed in Los Angeles, streaming services and download stores are flooded with “bootleg” copies of Arlen’s songs, robbing his estate of royalties.
The 148-page filing makes provides several examples of alleged piracy.
It notes that a fan looking for Ethel Ennis’ recording of Arlen’s song For Every Man, There Is A Woman can find the official recording on the RCA Victor label for $1.29 (£1.01) on iTunes. However, a separate version on the Stardust Records label – featuring the same cover art with the RCA Victor Logo edited out – is available for $0.89 (70p).
Similarly, Benny Goodman’s 1955 album Get Happy, on the Capitol Records label, is $7.99 (£6.29) on Google Play and Amazon, alongside a Pickwick Group copy which sells for $6.99 (£5.50).
In some cases, the alleged pirate copies contain the tell-tale “skips, pops and crackles” of vinyl – suggesting they’ve been duplicated from a record, rather than the original master tapes.
“It is hard to imagine that a person walking into Tower Records, off the street, with arms full of CDs and vinyl records and claiming to be the record label for Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, could succeed in having that store sell their copies directly next to the same albums released by legendary record labels, Capitol, RCA, and Columbia, and at a lower price,” stated Arlen’s lawyers.
“Yet, this exact practice occurs every day in the digital music business where there is… a complete willingness by the digital music stores and services to seek popular and iconic recordings from any source, legitimate or not, provided they participate in sharing the proceeds.”
Part of the dispute appears to stem from the differences in copyright law between the US and Europe.
In the US, copyright for sound recordings made after 1923 and before 1972 is generally 95 years. In the UK and Europe, copyright expires after 70 years, after which sound recordings enter the public domain.
Even so, some of the recordings cited in Arlen’s court papers are still protected by copyright in Europe; while the compositions themselves are not in the public domain (a writer’s copyright continues for 70 years after their death).
The estate is suing dozens of record labels alongside the online retailers, which it claims have “continued to work with” alleged pirates despite having knowledge of copyright infringement “for several years”.
Arguing that songs like It’s Only A Paper Moon, Over The Rainbow, Stormy Weather and I’ve Got The World On A String were “monumental works of art [that] are, quite literally, national treasures”; they are seeking damages in the region of $4.5m (£3.5m).
Anything less, lawyers argued, would “amount to a slap on the wrist, and reward multi-billion and -trillion dollar companies that rule the digital music markets for their wilful infringement on a grand scale.”
The companies named in the court papers have yet to comment.
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