Skip to main content

Lewis Black sues Pandora for $10 million over copyright infringement

Lewis Black sues Pandora for $10 million over copyright infringement


He is the latest star comedian to pursue legal action against the streaming service

Share this story

Lewis Black on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Comedian Lewis Black is the latest comedian to sue streamer Pandora over publishing rights.
Photo by Paula Lobo/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Comedian Lewis Black filed suit against SiriusXM-owned audio streamer Pandora on Thursday, arguing that the company ran recordings of his performances without obtaining the copyright to his written work. 

It is the latest escalation in the messy fight between comedians, streamers, and the performing rights organizations that have recently stepped in to standardize spoken-word copyright in the digital age. This suit, along with several others filed against Pandora, seeks back pay for millions of dollars worth of publishing royalties and to fundamentally change the way copyright for comedy functions. If the comedians win, it could have major ramifications for Pandora, Spotify, and other audio streamers.

Publishing rights for spoken-word content (like comedy) have been largely ignored

Black, who rose to national prominence with his regular appearances on The Daily Show, is suing for a total of $10.2 million. “One would think that entertainment giants like Pandora would honor the legacy of such an amazing talent, but instead it chose to illegally profit from the creative mind and literary/comedic works of Lewis Black,” the suit says. Black and Pandora were not immediately available for comment.

The suit is based on the idea that, like in music, comedy albums have two copyrights for which streamers must pay royalties: one for the recording and one for the publishing, or the written work of the material that was recorded. Although comedians and their labels are normally paid royalties for their recording rights, publishing rights for spoken-word content (like comedy) have been largely ignored, and sometimes outright denied, by the streamers. 

Black’s lawsuit follows a slew of similar legal actions from comedians like Andrew Dice Clay and Nick Di Paolo as well as the estates of Robin Williams and George Carlin, which are represented by the performing rights organization Word Collections. Those suits, initially filed in February, were consolidated into one lawsuit by the judge in March. Black is represented by another performing rights organization, Spoken Giants, though it is not party to the suit. 

“The comedy community stands firm in their belief that their written work has value. Without the written work, there would be no recordings and no live performances,” said Spoken Giants CEO Jim King in a statement. “The staggering costs of this battle would be better spent simply paying for the intellectual property they stream to their millions of subscribers.”

Black first publicly entered the fray in December when Spotify removed disputed comedy albums from its platform by comedians like John Mulaney and Tiffany Haddish after negotiations between Spoken Giants and the streamer broke down. He asked that his albums be removed in solidarity. “It has taken a long time for comedy to be recognized as an art form,” he said at the time. “Therefore, Spotify should recognize that a joke is as powerful as a lyric of a song, which they do pay for.”

Pandora listed among its liabilities that it streamed comedy without obtaining publishing rights

The spat with Spotify has not yet resulted in a lawsuit. And part of the reason why the Pandora suit is moving more quickly (even if it is not as big a player as Spotify) could be because of language the company used in a financial filing predating its acquisition by SiriusXM. In 2017, Pandora listed among its liabilities that it streamed comedy without obtaining publishing rights. “Third parties could assert copyright claims against us as a result,” the company wrote. 

In its response to the combined lawsuits in May, the company argued that it has been correct in doing so because publishing rights for spoken-word content have not been the industry custom, comedians benefit from the exposure they get on Pandora, and Pandora is not profitable while the comedy record labels are. The company is also countersuing for damages.

Pandora’s arguments may not be strong enough to ward off the suits. “They’re saying that it would be hard to pay out the royalties. That’s unimpeachable — it will be hard,” said intellectual property litigator Terence Ross, who is a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman. “Unfortunately, that’s not a cognizable defense to a copyright charge.”

Losing is a very, very expensive proposition for Pandora. The comedians are suing for $150,000 for each allegedly infringed work for a total of more than $70 million. It could also set a precedent for other comedians to sue streamers for similar damages.

Aside from the immediate financial damage, a change in the way spoken-word copyright functions could also fundamentally change the way streamers do business. Spotify, in particular, has been leaning hard on talk content like podcasts and, soon, audiobooks because they are so much less expensive to stream than music. If those works are also entitled to publishing royalties, then that is another cost that Spotify and other streamers will have to take on.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 42 minutes ago The tablet didn’t call that play by itself

External Link
Russell Brandom42 minutes ago
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 19 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.

External Link
Emma Roth58 minutes ago
Netflix’s gaming bet gets even bigger.

Even though fewer than one percent of Netflix subscribers have tried its mobile games, Netflix just opened up another studio in Finland after acquiring the Helsinki-based Next Games earlier this year.

The former vice president of Zynga Games, Marko Lastikka, will serve as the studio director. His track record includes working on SimCity BuildIt for EA and FarmVille 3.

External Link
Andrew J. HawkinsTwo hours ago
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg.

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
James VincentTwo hours ago
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.

Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
The Verge
James VincentTwo hours ago
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.

External Link
Elizabeth LopattoTwo hours ago
Hurricane Fiona ratcheted up tensions about crypto bros in Puerto Rico.

“An official emergency has been declared, which means in the tax program, your physical presence time is suspended,” a crypto investor posted on TikTok. “So I am headed out of the island.” Perhaps predictably, locals are furious.

The Verge
Richard Lawler2:09 PM UTC
Teen hacking suspect linked to GTA 6 leak and Uber security breach charged in London.

City of London police tweeted Saturday that the teenager arrested on suspicion of hacking has been charged with “two counts of breach of bail conditions and two counts of computer misuse.”

They haven’t confirmed any connection with the GTA 6 leak or Uber hack, but the details line up with those incidents, as well as a suspect arrested this spring for the Lapsus$ breaches.

David Pierce12:54 PM UTC
Thousands and thousands of reasons people love Android.

“Android fans, what are the primary reasons why you will never ever switch to an iPhone?” That question led to almost 30,000 comments so far, and was for a while the most popular thing on Reddit. It’s a totally fascinating peek into the platform wars, and I’ve spent way too much time reading through it. I also laughed hard at “I can turn my text bubbles to any color I like.”

Thomas Ricker10:44 AM UTC
The Simpsons pays tribute to Chrome’s dino game.

Season 34 of The Simpsons kicked off on Sunday night with an opening credits “couch gag” based on the offline dino game from Google’s Chrome browser. Cactus, cactus, couch, d’oh! Perfect.

Thomas Ricker7:29 AM UTC
Table breaks before Apple Watch Ultra’s sapphire glass.

”It’s the most rugged and capable Apple Watch yet,” said Apple at the launch of the Apple Watch Ultra (read The Verge review here). YouTuber TechRax put that claim to the test with a series of drop, scratch, and hammer tests. Takeaways: the titanium case will scratch with enough abuse, and that flat sapphire front crystal is tough — tougher than the table which cracks before the Ultra fails — but not indestructible.

Emma RothSep 25
Rihanna’s headlining the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Apple Music’s set to sponsor the Halftime Show next February, and it’s starting out strong with a performance from Rihanna. I honestly can’t remember which company sponsored the Halftime Show before Pepsi, so it’ll be nice to see how Apple handles the show for Super Bowl LVII.

Emma RothSep 25
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. Musk has big plans for the service, which he hopes to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses.

Musk recently said he’ll sidestep sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests. He followed through on his promise to bring Starlink to Ukraine at the start of Russia’s invasion, so we’ll have to wait and see if he manages to bring the service to Iran as well.

External Link
Emma RothSep 25
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.