Lewis Black Files Copyright Infringement Suit Against Pandora Amid Broader Clash Between Comedians and Streaming Services

Lewis Black Spotify
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Lewis Black Spotify
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Photo Credit: Anirudh Koul / CC by 3.0

About seven months after asking Spotify to remove his comedy albums amid a broader royalties dispute, stand-up star Lewis Black has officially filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Pandora.

Lewis Black just recently submitted the firmly worded complaint on behalf of his Stark Raving Black Productions company. As mentioned, 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).

December saw Spotify pull down a series of comedy albums (prompting the mentioned response from Black), including efforts from John Mulaney, Tom Segura, Kevin Hart, and the Stockholm-based platform’s own Joe Rogan. Word Collections announced the completion of a $3.5 million raise that same month, and February brought with it multiple complaints (from Word Collections clients Andrew Dice Clay, Bill Engvall, Ron White, and the estates of Robin Williams and George Carlin) against Pandora.

Then, after facing yet another suit in March, this time from comedian Nick Di Paolo, Pandora fired back against each of the actions with a 40-page-long countersuit. Interestingly, the lengthy retort tackled the plaintiffs’ claims from an antitrust angle, described Word Collections as a “licensing cartel,” and indicated that the existing royalty system had “been working reasonably well for all involved for decades.”

Now, as disclosed at the outset, Lewis Black is also suing Pandora over allegedly unpaid royalties for his work’s underlying compositions.

The 73-year-old comedian, who has an array of shows scheduled for 2022’s final four months, filed the complaint in a California federal court. After recapping Black’s career beginnings and successes in detail – “Born in Washington, D.C. in 1948 and colicky as a baby, Mr. Black was destined to be angry and easily irritated” – the text targets the “industry giants” that have allegedly profited from the Inside Out voice actor’s stand-up work without paying the appropriate royalties.

“One would think that entertainment giants like Pandora would honor the legacy of such an amazing talent, but instead it chose to illegally profit from the creative mind and literary/comedic works of Lewis Black,” the lawsuit proceeds.

On the non-interactive side, Pandora is said to have made 68 Lewis Black recordings “available for dissemination to the public via their digital broadcast radio service” and 31 recordings available via its interactive streaming option, allegedly failing to pay non-recorded royalties for both.

“It is required by law, and fully understood, that digital service providers, like Pandora, must also get a mechanical digital reproduction license from the owner of the underlying composition in order to make the underlying composition of a recording available for reproduction and distribution through interactive streaming,” the complaint continues.

“Pandora has illegally made reproductions and digital broadcasts on its servers and provided streaming access to its users without a proper public performance license and, when applicable, a reproduction right license,” the text drives home, claiming also that “it was the responsibility of Pandora to seek out the copyright owners and obtain valid public performance licenses.”

“Mr. Black once famously quipped in the wake of the Enron Scandal: ‘You don’t want another Enron? Here’s your law: If a company can’t explain in one sentence what it does, it’s illegal.’ The exact same thing is true here: If a Company can’t explain in one sentence how it has a license to use copyrighted works, it’s copyright infringement,” Lewis Black’s Pandora suit concludes.

Spoken Giants – which, besides representing Black, counts as clients Mike Birbiglia, the Don Rickles estate, and others – reached out to Digital Music News with a statement about this latest lawsuit.

“For seeking equitable compensation for all comedy authors, companies like ours have been characterized as ‘cartel leaders’ for requesting the same royalties as songwriters. However, we are modeled after music PROs like BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC, which have existed since the 1930’s and with whom Spotify, Pandora, Sirius, and others work on a daily basis,” Spoken Giants CEO Jim King said in part.

“Pandora and others are simply delaying the inevitable by ignoring established legal precedents in music, and repeating similar losing arguments and red herrings from their attacks against songwriters. Not only is our work far from being a new concept, we operate on the legally-protected belief that requiring creators to choose between exposure and compensation is unacceptable,” concluded the former BMI exec King, whose current organization has added Richard Busch to its legal team.