A funny thing happened on the way to the forum where big lawsuits often get decided. On Thursday, a bunch of joke tellers were accused of conspiracy — a price-fixing scheme that allegedly threatens the ability of streamers to access the comedy market. The development comes in an ongoing case that may forever change the laughter business.
Back in February, the estates of the late comedians Robin Williams and George Carlin, as well as living comics Andrew Dice Clay, Nick Di Paolo and Ron White each filed claims against Pandora Media. They’re upset over a lack of any payment to them for the use of old comedy routines. According to the since consolidated lawsuit in California federal court testing never-before-tried copyright theories, jokesters, like songwriters, are entitled to protect the composition of their work from being performed without license. For years, streaming services have ignored joke writers when clearing rights, but that may now change upon charges of mass infringement. “Pandora did what most goliaths do: it decided it would infringe now to ensure it had this very valuable intellectual property on its platform to remain competitive, and deal with the consequences later,” the complaint states. “Later is now.”
Pandora, represented by the firm of Mayer Brown, is now asserting a significant counterclaim against these same comedians and Word Collections, an upstart performance rights organization (PRO) aiming to win royalties for clients. “Word Collections and its co-conspirator comedians have not only engaged in naked horizontal price fixing,” states the counterclaim (read in full here). “In assembling its portfolio of the rights to the works of conspiring comedians, Word Collections also presents a genuine threat of achieving monopoly power in the market for the rights to perform, distribute, and reproduce the comedy routines embodied in comedy recordings, power that it can and will exert over Pandora and other services that offer comedy.”