ABKCO Music, Inc v. Stellar Records, Inc., 96 F.3d 60, 40 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1052 (2d Cir. 1996) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
The defendant, Performance Tracks, Inc. (“Tracks”), provided discs in what is known as CD+G format. These discs allow song lyrics to be displayed on a video screen as the songs are played. The technology is particularly useful for karaoke.
Tracks contended that its CD+G format did not require a "synch license" from the copyright owners of the songs, since the CD+Gs showed the words only, and not the words superimposed on a background video image — as commonly appears with laser disc karaoke systems.
Tracks claimed that the CD+G disc was a phonorecord. Under U.S. copyright law, the makers of new "cover" versions of previously recorded songs can market their products without permission from the song owners. They need only provide the statutory notice and pay the compulsory license fee.
Trial Court Proceedings Edit
ABKCO, the copyright holder in the songs recorded on the disc, sued for copyright infringement and received a temporary restraining order, which was later converted into a preliminary injunction. The trial court found that the visual depiction of the lyrics constituted an unauthorized publication of the lyrics, which infringed ABKCO's copyrights in the lyrics.
- A time-honored method of facilitating singing along with music has been to furnish the singer with a printed copy of the lyrics. Copyright holders have always enjoyed exclusive rights over such copies. While projecting lyrics on the screen and producing printed copies of the lyrics, of course, have their differences, there is no reason to treat them differently for the purposes of the Copyright Law.
Appellate Court Proceedings Edit
The appeals court concluded that traditional copyright law principles applied to defendant's product. The court held that "the court below properly found that Tracks' compulsory licenses do not give it the right to publish the compositions' lyrics on the screen." It allows recording of the cover version of the song only.
The court also ruled that the CD+G discs were not phonorecords within the copyright law. Phonorecords are defined as objects on which "sounds" are fixed; CD+Gs, however, are objects on which sounds and visual representations of song lyrics are fixed."