Lewis Black Hits Pandora with $10 Million Copyright Lawsuit

Comedian Lewis Black has slapped subscription-based streaming service Pandora with a $10.2 million copyright infringement lawsuit. Black becomes the latest humorist to take legal action against an audio streamer for unauthorized use of their work. Earlier this year, comedians Nick Di Paolo and Andrew Dice Clay — and the estates of Robin Williams and George Carlin — sued Pandora, which is owned by SiriusXM. Black is represented by the rights organization Spoken Giants, which is not a party to the suit, while the others are on the Word Collections roster.

Lewis’ complaint, filed Thursday in federal court in California, alleges 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.”

“It is the latest escalation in the messy fight between comedians, streamers, and the performing rights organizations that have recently stepped in to standardize spoken-word copyright in the digital age,” reports The Verge. “This suit, along with several others filed against Pandora, seeks back pay for millions of dollars worth of publishing royalties and to fundamentally change the way copyright for comedy functions. If the comedians win, it could have major ramifications for Pandora, Spotify, and other audio streamers.”

“The action arrives as a number of comedians, corralled by newly minted rights-administration companies like Spoken Giants and Word Collections, are taking aim at music streaming services in an attempt to receive royalties for their work’s underlying compositions (besides existing compensation for the actual recordings),” says Digital Music News.

In other words, comedians are fighting to get paid for writing their jokes, much like lyricists get paid publishing royalties for writing songs. “Like in music, comedy albums have two copyrights for which streamers must pay royalties: one for the recording and one for the publishing, or the written work of the material that was recorded,” The Verge reports, noting that while comedians and their labels typically receive royalties for their performance rights, “publishing rights for spoken-word content (like comedy) have been largely ignored, and sometimes outright denied, by the streamers.”

Pandora, which launched a countersuit, is using the defense that it was not wrong in failing to pay royalties on comedy recordings because traditionally that hasn’t been done, and also because the comedians get promotional value from the exposure.

In the U.S., over-the-air radio stations don’t pay musicians performance royalties, having established (at the dawn of the broadcast era) that radio airplay amounts to commercials that promote record sales. Broadcasters do pay songwriting royalties, however. After lengthy litigation, subscription-based digital streaming services were required to pay both writing and performance royalties.

In Q4, Spotify removed from its lineup comedy performances by Kevin Hart, John Mulaney, Tom Segura, Joe Rogan, Black and others in an effort to avoid litigation.