US Supreme Court spurns copyright fight over concert recordings

By Blake Brittain

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a bid by Sony Music, Warner Music and other music publishers to hold the owner of Wolfgang’s Vault directly liable for copyright infringement for recordings by rock greats such as the Rolling Stones and the Who posted on the online concert archive.

The justices turned away an appeal by the music publishers of a lower court’s decision that spared Bill Sagan, Wolfgang’s Vault owner, of direct liability for copyright infringement. The Supreme Court announced its action on the first day of its new nine-month term.

The publishers sued Sagan and Wolfgang’s Vault in 2015, accusing them of violating their rights in 197 songs by music legends – who also included the Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Patti LaBelle and others – while seeking $30 million in damages.

They accused the site of distributing more than a thousand unauthorized performances of the songs, ranging from the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”

The publishers won $189,000 from the site in a 2020 jury trial. In that case, the presiding judge also found that Sagan was personally liable for direct copyright infringement.

The publishers appealed to the Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seeking a chance for a higher damages total. The 2nd Circuit in 2022 upheld the previous award and reversed the decision that Sagan was directly liable.

Wolfgang’s Vault hosts thousands of audio and video recordings of rock concert recordings collected by San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham. Sagan, who bought the collection in 2002, made the recordings publicly available on the website for a fee in 2006.

Sagan and Wolfgang’s Vault have faced multiple copyright infringement lawsuits, including one from musician Carlos Santana, members of the Doors and others that was settled in 2008 and another brought by musician Greg Kihn that was settled last year.

In its ruling in the publishers’ case, the 2nd Circuit found there was “no evidence that Sagan is the one who actually pressed the button” to make the infringing recordings available. The publishers had told the Supreme Court in a filing that the 2nd Circuit decision “cannot be squared with statutory text, settled law or common sense.”

“It would be absurd if a corporate executive who orders her staff to print a million infringing copies of a copyrighted work with full knowledge of their infringing nature could escape direct liability in lieu of the low-level employee who follows those instructions,” the publishers said in the filing.

The U.S. film and music industries had supported the publishers’ petition. The Motion Picture Association said the 2nd Circuit’s decision gives intellectual property pirates “a ready means at hand to evade responsibility.” A coalition of music industry groups said the ruling “provides a roadmap for parties to mastermind and profit from acts of copyright infringement.”

Sagan responded that there was “not a hole in the law, but a hole in” the legal reasoning by the publishers.

(Reporting by Blake Brittain in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)