On July 15, 2021, Sony Music Entertainment, one of the largest record labels in the world, sued Gymshark, the UK-based fitness apparel company, for allegedly violating federal copyright law by using unlicensed sound recordings in social media videos. Sony alleges that Gymshark infringed upon “hundreds” of its copyrighted sound recordings and seeks to recover actual damages or $150,00 per infringed sound recording—the maximum penalty under the law.
It is important to remember that these are only allegations and that Gymshark had not responded to Sony’s complaint at the time of writing. Still, this case remains a reminder of the changing landscape of music copyright obligations in a streaming world and the importance of obtaining all necessary music licenses.
The following are the five major lessons health clubs should take away from the case:
If you’re combining copyrighted music with audiovisual content, you must obtain a separate license for musical works and sound recordings.
You can be liable even if you’re not directly infringing.
Social media sites will not save you from liability.
Copyright infringement is expensive.
The best way to avoid liability is to secure licenses.
1. If You’re Combining Copyrighted Music With Audiovisual Content, You Must Obtain a Separate License for Musical Works and Sound Recordings.
Under the federal Copyright Act, a “song” has two distinct components: a musical work and sound recording. The musical work is the lyrics and melody of the music, while the sound recording is a specific performance of the musical work. In many instances, the same artist may have created the musical work and the most popular sound recording—e.g., Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” However, different entities almost always own the rights to musical works and sound recordings underlying popular songs. Generally, a music publisher owns the rights to the musical work, whereas a record label owns the rights to the sound recording. For instance, Bruce Springsteen wrote the musical work “Born to Run” and created its most popular sound recording. However, Universal Music Publishing Group—a music publisher—owns the rights to the musical work, while Columbia Records—a record label—owns the rights to the sound recording.
Under federal copyright law, copyright owners of musical works and sound recordings possess the exclusive right to synchronize their musical work or sound recording with visual content—i.e., the sync right. Sync rights are traditionally associated with the television and film industry, but they have become more relevant to the fitness industry in the streaming age. In March 2019, for instance, a group of music publishers sued Peloton for allegedly failing to obtain sync rights for more than 1,000 musical works used in its streaming fitness classes. The case ultimately settled out of court in February 2020 for an undisclosed amount.