Songwriter’s Estate to Sue Tech Giants

Some of the world’s biggest tech firms are to be sued for alleged piracy by the estate of the late Harold Arlen.

Mr Arlen wrote the American songbook classics, Over the Rainbow and Get Happy. His son Sam Arlen says he has discovered more than 6,000 unauthorised copies of the songs on Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft’s services and often at lower prices than the original.

As reported on the BBC, the ‘bootleg’ copies of the songs have deprived Arlen’s estate of royalties, according to legal papers filed in Los Angeles. Mr Arlen is seeking damages that could run into millions of dollars. The 148-page filed report provides examples of the alleged piracy.

Cheaper prices

One such is of a fan looking for the Ethel Ennis recording of the song For Every Man, There is a Woman which can be found under the official RCA Victor label for $1.29 on iTunes. A separate version on the Stardust Records label, which uses the same cover art with the RCA Victor logo edited out, costs $0.89.

The Benny Goodman album, Get Happy, which came out in 1955 is sold under the Capitol Records label at $7.99 on Google Play and Amazon, while a Pickwick Group copy sells for $6.99 on the same platforms.

The papers note that the alleged pirate copies contain the distinctive “skips, pops and crackles” sounds that come from vinyl, which suggests they have been copied from a record instead of the original master tapes.

Official record label

Arlen’s lawyers said it was hard to imagine someone walking into Tower Records carrying loads of CDs and vinyl records and being able to claim they represented the official record label for artists such as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. And yet this was the exact practice that happened all the time in the digital music business.

The statement added digital music stores and services showed a “complete willingness” to seek popular and iconic recordings from any resource as long as they were able to share the proceeds.

Harold Arlen’s song, Over the Rainbow won an Oscar for the best song in 1939. It was later named the song of the century by the US Recording Academy.

The BBC reports that part of the dispute arises because of copyright differences between the US and Europe. UK and Europe copyright for sound recordings expires after 70 years—thus putting Over the Rainbow into the public domain. In the US, however, the time period is generally 95 years.

Copyright in Europe

However, Arlen’s court papers point out that some of the recordings are still protected by copyright in Europe, and the compositions themselves are not in the public domain as a writer’s copyright continues for 70 years after their death.

As well as the online retailers, the estate is suing dozens of record labels it claims have continued to work with the alleged pirates despite knowing about copyright infringement “for several years”.

The lawyers claim songs such as Stormy Weather and Over the Rainbow are “monumental works of art” and “national treasures”. They seek damages of around $4.5 million, justifying the claim by saying anything less would only act as a “slap on the wrist” for multi-million and trillion dollar companies” for their “wilful infringement on a grand scale”.

The companies named have yet to comment.