Does Remastering Change Copyright? CBS Radio Says Yes…

CBS v. ABS: The Battle Over Remastering

And the latest inextricably complicated royalty mess featuring legal warfare over unpaid royalties?

For that, Digital Music News brings you to the US District Courthouse in Los Angeles, where ABS Entertainment is battling CBS Radio over its use of pre-1972 classic recordings.  ABS says CBS isn’t authorized to play the recordings given a lack of federal copyright protection, while CBS Radio is trying to toss the case based on bogus claims.

As a quick primer, 1972 is the year when United States federal copyright protection started covering recordings, a shift that replaced a patchwork of statewide statutes (or lack thereof) on the matter.  That was the focus of a recent battle between pre-1972 band The Turtles, who successfully litigated against Pandora to secure internet radio royalties on their works (and others similarly situated).

That may seem irrelevant to ‘terrestrial,’ or traditional broadcast radio, given its special exemption from paying performance royalties on recordings (note that terrestrial radio stations like CBS Radio pay royalties on underlying compositions, i.e., the notes and lyrics, but not the actual rendition of those notes and lyrics).

But what if CBS Radio is over-extending its exemption, and playing pre-1972 music without authorization?

That’s exactly the claim of ABS, whose oldies catalog includes artists like Al Green, Andy Williams, the Chi-Lites, Jackie Wilson, Ray Stevens, the Everly Brothers, the Chordettes, and King Floyd.  “CBS admits that it broadcast or streamed at least 57 sound recordings that Plaintiffs’ claim to own,” ABS’ complaint reads.  “Substantial evidence shows that CBS broadcast or streamed significantly more.”

That potentially crosses the federal-to-state line, and could leave CBS liable for performance infringement.  But CBS Radio argues that if those recordings were remastered after 1972, then federal copyright law applies.  That is the basis of CBS’ request for summary judgment, which would essentially toss the case.

ABS is aggressively fighting that claim, contending that a rework that doesn’t fundamentally change the original doesn’t qualify as a new recording.  “CBS is wrong on the law,” the latest filing continues.  “Remastering a pre-1972 sound recording does not convert it into a post-1972 sound recording or create a derivative work protectable under the federal copyright act—even if the remastered copy is not “identical” to the original master recording.”

The legal battle comes as CBS is apparently mulling an spin-off of its CBS Radio division, possibly in a public offering (IPO).  The full filing, entered this week, follows.


12 Responses

  1. GGG

    Jesus, arguing a remaster is a new recording? What’s next, every live version of very song needs to by copyrighted because someone plays a different note or slightly different rhythm each time?

    Sometimes I hate this industry.

    • Anonymous

      It’s not a new argument. The major labels have successfully used the same logic in the past to screw over their artists. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

      • GGG

        Successful by way of saying it’s an actual new copyright? Or just saying a remaster is a new recording so artists can’t get out of cross collatoralization, etc?

  2. Paul Resnikoff
    Paul Resnikoff

    This is an interesting counter-argument from CBS Radio. A recording is remastered to attract buyers who will respond more positively to a better quality recording, and it is often accompanied by a marketing campaign that can resemble a new release push. I haven’t heard of a new copyright being granted however, so it’s different than an updated book in which aspects of the copy are changed.

    • Remi Swierczek

      Remixing or remastering is the biggest opportunity of new discovery moment driven music industry. Folks will start collect them like coffee mugs! Wecan not allow for this opportunity to be streamed away into the tubes.

      Money should go to original creator, remixer and the DISTRIBUTOR!

      There is $200B of music out there and we need Larry Page and his Google to start the biggest industrial harvest of DIGITAL ERA.

    • [email protected]

      “who will respond more positively to a more heavily compressed and distorted, louder recording”

      I fixed that for you.

  3. Anonymous

    I turned the treble and bass up on my stereo and thus “remastered” a Turtles album. Sorry Flo and Eddie.

    This is one of the most ludicrous filings I’ve ever seen and that’s saying a lot.

  4. rikki

    what were the titles? i’ll bet they were all white artists….we live in a racial world today…and black people were never sued by the RIAA for stealing or selling stolen music on ebay or CL.

  5. Jose Fritz

    I suppose if I “remaster” the pre-972 tapes then I can own those… and can release them with a creative commons license? Their argument is idiocy.

    • Paul Resnikoff
      Paul Resnikoff


      But what are we really arguing about here? Music copyright is like tax code, it’s contradictory, makes no sense, and is clogging up courtrooms with endless, inane arguments. That’s why I’m guessing the Turtles won their suit, merely to offer some simplicity to recordings under US Copyright Law.

      I don’t think you can have it both ways: simple when you want more royalties, the complicated when some other group wants more royalties. Either way, none of this is growing the industry or creating a more transparent, clear body of rules.

  6. Chee

    With CBS’ logic in place, couldn’t the artists then sue for a derivative work and need clearance from the publisher of origin or the Harry Fox Agency? They are copying note for note the original music and lyrics. That ain’t right!


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