Karaoke Compact Disc Infringes Song Copyrights

Intellectual Property Expert Witness This case involves a record company that owned the copyrights to seven musical compositions by a popular rock group. The record company had never licensed these songs for use in the karaoke industry. A karaoke company encoded compact discs with the audio version of the songs and with a contemporaneous video display of the songs’ lyrics. Karaoke enthusiasts who owned CD players with video outputs could then have the lyrics of the songs displayed on a video screen in “real time” as the songs were playing so that they could sing the lyrics along with the recorded artist. The karaoke company did not acquire synchronization licenses from the record company, but got compulsory licenses for the songs. The karaoke company had previously sent the record company a CD containing the songs and a notice of its intention to obtain compulsory licenses for the songs. The record company later informed the karaoke company that the CD infringed its copyrights in the songs. An expert in the music and pop culture industry and audio forensics/audio engineering was sought to opine on the issue.

Question(s) For Expert Witness

  • 1. Can a karaoke company use copyrighted songs on a CD by obtaining a compulsory license to use the songs?

Expert Witness Response

The CD’s that the karaoke company made in this case are called “Compact Discs + Graphics (more commonly called CD + G’s). These CD + G’s are similar to karaoke laser discs that are used for entertainment at parties and nightclubs. CD + G’s usually only display the song lyrics, while karaoke laser discs usually display some video image behind the song lyrics. Under the Copyright Act of 1976, a karaoke company must get a synchronization license from the copyright owners of songs to legally manufacture karaoke discs. A synchronization license is required where a copyrighted song is used in “synchronization” with an audiovisual work. The karaoke company in this case probably sought to get a compulsory license for a phonorecord under section 115 of the Copyright Act. A compulsory license allows a karaoke company to make a recording of a “cover version” of a popular song. The problem is that a compulsory license does not allow a karaoke company to use a copy of a song’s lyrics on a video screen. To do this, the karaoke company is required by the Copyright Act to get the separate permission of the copyright holder. Since CD + G’s are objects on which sounds and visual representations of song lyrics are fixed, they are not considered “phonorecords” under the Copyright Act. Karaoke companies must get synchronization licenses to make CD + G’s because the discs make a lot of money for these companies and a record company’s artists might be exploited in ways that the record company did not authorize if these types of licenses were not required. Because of this, the karaoke company probably committed copyright infringement in this case.

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