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Robin Williams’ estate sues Pandora over comedy licenses

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Other streamers could be next

Robin Williams at the European premiere of Happy Feet Two in 2011 in London. Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images

The estates of Robin Williams and George Carlin have filed lawsuits accusing Pandora of streaming the late comedians’ jokes without the proper licenses. The suits are joined by complaints from Andrew Dice Clay, Ron White, and Bill Engvall, who also allege they weren’t given “a fraction of a penny” for their work as a result of Pandora’s “willful” wrongdoing.

As explained by Puck, comedians are fighting for recognition of two copyrights on a comedic work: one for writing a joke and another for recording it. Companies have traditionally only purchased licenses for the recordings, not the jokes themselves. Puck points out that the argument streamers need both has never really been tested in court, so it’s not entirely clear if Pandora is in the wrong here (although the lawsuits allege Pandora didn’t “obtain any copyright” at all).

This is the same concept at the core of last year’s royalties dispute on Spotify, leading to the removal of work from Kevin Hart, John Mulaney, and Tiffany Haddish. If the legal action succeeds against Pandora, other services may be next in line.

Pandora saw a lawsuit like this come. The comedians’ allege Pandora “admitted” to not obtaining the correct licenses in filings (like this one from 2016) with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), listing as a risk that it doesn’t have “a specific license from any performing rights organization” for spoken-word comedy and that it “could be subject to significant liability for copyright infringement and may no longer be able to operate under [their] existing licensing regime.”

The lawsuits go on to say that Pandora “gained listeners, subscribers and market share with full knowledge it did not have licenses and made no royalty payments for the Works,” and used the content in question “to increase its stock price helping them to reorganize the company with Sirius XM” — Sirius XM purchased Pandora for $3.5 billion in 2018.

Williams’ estate is seeking $4.1 million in damages from the alleged copyright infringement, while Carlin’s estate is suing for $8.4 million. In 2015, Pandora paid $90 million for streaming songs recorded before 1972 without paying royalties. It was hit with another lawsuit in 2019 for displaying lyrics from Tom Petty, Rage Against the Machine, and Weezer without the proper license.