Unhappy Together: No Right of Public Performance under California Copyright Law
Addressing for the first time whether California law establishes a right of public performance for the owners of pre-1972 sound recordings, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found no such right for music and overturned a district court’s grant of partial summary judgment. Flo & Eddie, Inc. v. Sirius XM Radio, Inc., Case No. 17-55844 (9th Cir. Aug. 23, 2021) (Lee, J.)
In 1971, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the rock band the Turtles formed Flo & Eddie to control the band’s song rights, including the hit song “Happy Together.” In 2013, Flo & Eddie filed a complaint alleging a violation of California common law and statutory copyright law arising out of Sirius XM’s playing of songs to which Flo & Eddie control the rights. Based on California’s copyright statute (Cal. Civ. Code § 980), Flo & Eddie argued that California law gave it the “exclusive ownership” of its pre-1972 songs—including the right of public performance—which required compensation whenever Flo & Eddie’s copyrighted recordings were publicly performed.
The district court granted partial summary judgment to Flo & Eddie in 2014, finding that California law protected sound recording owners’ right of public performance by granting “exclusive ownership” to the music, and therefore, Sirius XM must pay for playing pre-1972 music. The district court reasoned that “the plain meaning of having ‘exclusive ownership’ in a sound recording is having the right to use and possess the recording to the exclusion of others,” and further explained that there is “nothing in that phrase to suggest that the legislature intended to exclude any right or use of the sound recording from the concept of ‘exclusive ownership.’” The district court looked to individual dictionary definitions of the words “exclusive” and “ownership” to craft a broad meaning for the phrase “exclusive ownership,” ultimately finding that it must include the “right of public performance.” Sirius XM appealed.
In an opinion artfully embroidered with classic rock references, the Ninth Circuit found that the district court erred in finding that “exclusive ownership” under § 980(a)(2) included the right of public performance and remanded for entry of judgment consistent with the parties’ contingent settlement agreement. The Court faulted the district court’s dictionary-based approach to statutory interpretation, instructing that “[d]ictionaries and tools of grammatical construction can help determine plain meaning of specific words, but some phrases have a separate or more specialized ‘term of art’ meaning that cannot be stripped away from its historical context or subject matter area.” To that end, the Court took an expressly textualist approach to interpreting California’s law, looking back to common law in the 19th century when California first used the term “exclusive ownership” in its copyright statute in order to inform the understanding of that term as used at the time.
Based on this inquiry, the Ninth Circuit found that there was no recognized right of public performance for music and that California only protected unpublished works. The Court explained the distinction, stating that “[c]ommon law provides a perpetual copyright for unpublished works, but Congress alone determines the length of a monopoly for published works.” The Court reasoned that because the sale of a work has historically been construed as a “publication” of that work, the implication is that after the work has been validly sold to another, the author would no longer have any exclusive right to performance of the work. Further, given the “deeply rooted common law understanding of copyright protection,” and California law that “statutes are not presumed to alter the common law unless expressly stated,” the Court was unwilling to find that California meant to supplant the common law when using the term “exclusive ownership” in its 1872 copyright statute.