Wolfgang’s Vault looks buried in copyright dispute

May 2018

Recorded music, film and TV


U.S. District Court Judge Edgardo Ramos has made a monumental decision in favor of members of The National Music Publishers’ Association (incl. Sony/ATV & EMI Music Publishing, Warner/Chappell, ABKCO, peermusic, Spirit Music and Imagem Music). Judge Ramos ruled that the owners of Wofgang’s  – a collection of thousands of live concert performances such as those of legendary Rock and Rollers Keith Richards, David Byrne and Michael Stipe – had committed extensive copyright infringement by streaming the collection to the public.

Wolfgang’s (formerly Wolfgang’s Vault) is described as “a private music-focused company established in 2002 dedicated to the restoration and archiving of live concert recordings in audio and video format and the sale of music memorabilia. It began with the collection of the late promoter Bill Graham”.

This saga dates back to 2015, when the NMPA led its members to bring legal action, alleging that the licenses required to stream a collection of works that was acquired from promoter Bill Graham and other operators of concert venues, had not been obtained. The main issue in the case pertained to approximately 200 musical compositions (with a separate class action also pending).

As there was no question of exploitation of the relevant works, the main issue was whether William Sagan, who runs Wolfgang’s, held valid licenses.

In coming to his decision Judge Ramos made the following key points: 1) Audiovisual works (video recordings of songs being performed live at concert in this case) are not eligible for compulsory mechanical licenses under Section 115 of the U.S. Copyright Act. This meant that the defendants failed to properly license the concert videos. 2) There was no proof of consent from any of the record labels, the performers that the matter pertains to or the owner of the sound recording fixed prior to 1972 (as required by Section 115).

A trial is due to follow, which will determine the exact extent of the copyright infringement as well as the amount of damages Sagan will have to pay as a result of permitting performances by artists such as The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Ray Charles and The Who to be streamed and downloaded.

By Stacee Smith BSocSc (Hons), LLB(Hons)





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