Canadian record industry faces its own copyright infringement lawsuit

The Canadian Record Industry Association (CRIA), a group whose members include the largest record labels in the country, is facing what could be the largest copyright infringement lawsuit in Canadian history.

The action comes as a result of record companies not securing licenses to use artists’ copyrighted material and not paying artists for use over 300,000 musical works since the late 1980s.

CRIA includes the largest record labels in the nation like Warner Music Canada, Sony BMG, EMI and Universal Music Canada – the court document names explicitly these four companies as well as “their parent, subsidiary and affiliated companies.”

The amount of potential damages in this lawsuit could range from $50 million to nearly $6 billion if the amount charged for each of the 300,000 instances of copyright infringement is $20,000 as the document states the defendant record companies are “obliged” to award to the copyright-holding artists.

The $50 million value comes from what record companies have already admitted to owe artists as a result of “pending lists” dating back to 1988.

“Pending lists” are in basic terms a list of intentions to secure licenses to musical works and pay the artist royalties at a later date.

In the meantime, the record company produces and releases copies of the music without paying the artist anything.

Often the music on these lists was released in compilation CDs (like Warner Music Canada’s Big Shiny Tunes series) and the artists received no royalties from the distribution of their work to consumers.

The intended purpose of “pending lists” in Canadian copyright law is for cases when record companies are unable to locate the copyright owner in order to secure a license for the work or pay royalties for its distribution.

According to the legal action, there was insufficient or no attempt made to find, contact or pay the copyright holders or artists in cases when works were placed on these lists.

As well as not attempting to pay royalties to artists, the lawsuit states that the CRIA has restricted access to the contents of the lists, making it difficult for anyone to determine who is owed money or how many works have been used without appropriate payment.

The latest claim in this case filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice by the estate of the late jazz musician Chet Baker calls pending lists an “exploit now, pay later, if at all” approach by the record companies.

What makes this lawsuit of particular interest to the record-buying (or not-buying) public is the precedent it sets in a long series of actions by the record labels themselves against copyright infringement and non-payment for music.

While in Canada there have been no major rulings against copyright-infringing individuals who downloaded songs or albums from the internet without payment, in 2005 another case was brought before the Federal Court of Canada involving the CRIA.

The CRIA, the target of this latest case, was at the time battling with internet service providers trying to obtain subscription records of people suspected of copyright infringement with the intent to make these users accountable.

Several years later, the lawsuit against the CRIA for its own copyright infringement over a period of twenty or more years damages the “hardline” stance record companies have in regard to file-sharing and copyright infringement.

The CRIA’s American counterpart the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has prosecuted individuals in the past and forced payments of up to $80,000 per each instance of copyright infringement.

The effects that suits of this nature could have for Canadians in terms of copyright infringement legislation could be substantial as the government examines outdated policies that allow these sorts of actions to be carried out easily and without any accountability.

On Dec. 16, leaked documents suggested that Canada’s involvement in the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement would expedite changes in Canadian law.

The latest lawsuit describes the CRIA’s hypocrisy in scathing terms. Damages, including legal costs and profits from illicit use of copyrighted material are warranted by the “high-handed and arrogant conduct aggravated by record companies’ clandestine disregard for the copyright interests of artists.”

The companies’ own copyright infringement is, according to the suit “in contrast to their strict compliance enforcement policy and unremitting approach to consumers in the protection of corporate copyright interests.”