For the past few weeks, music fans have been watching the Joe Rogan mess and marveling at the power held by India Arie, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and other musicians who are pulling their work from Spotify over Rogan’s past racist comments or his recent openness to anti-vaccine quackery. Not me. What I see are thousands of other pop, rock, and hip-hop stars who might be inclined to join the protest but, for various reasons, cannot. Why? The answer is complicated—and explained, in part, by the specter of Spotify’s next P.R. and business nightmare.
Today, I’ve learned, the estates of the late comedians Robin Williams and George Carlin, as well as the very-alive comics Bill Engvall, Andrew Dice Clay and Ron White, have all filed lawsuits against Pandora, one of Spotify’s chief competitors, over the streaming rights to comedy albums. The argument is that whatever audio Pandora has licensed from record labels doesn’t include the actual jokes. To quote one of the five complaints filed in California federal court, Carlin “retained all rights in the underlying literary compositions,” so Pandora, lacking a proper license, “chose to infringe.”
Expect more lawsuits from other top comedians. Pandora is the first target—for reasons I’ll explain later—but Spotify, SiriusXM, and perhaps others will inevitably become defendants as well. Two months ago, Spotify signaled that trouble was brewing when it pulled some comedy content after facing new royalty demands. But what few knew at the time was that attorney Richard Busch was preparing a litigation blitzkrieg.