According to a lawsuit filed this week by comedian George Lopez, all Pandora had to do to negotiate streaming rights for two of his popular comedy specials was contact him directly. Instead, Lopez’s complaint says that Pandora considered the comedian a “cash cow”—alleging that Lopez is yet another comedian whose copyrighted materials have been illegally streamed to Pandora listeners without the streaming service securing proper licensing or sharing royalties.
“Pandora found a cash cow in a new revenue stream, and in a brazen business decision determined that the risk was worth the gain—that is until now,” Lopez’s lawyer, Richard S. Busch of the Los Angeles law firm King & Ballow, wrote in the complaint.
Busch was already representing other comedians suing Pandora, including Lewis Black, Ron White, and the estates of late comedians George Carlin and Robin Williams. According to The Wrap’s exclusive report, all the lawsuits have been consolidated and will be heard in the California Central District Court before the end of August.
Lopez is seeking $5.5 million in statutory damages, which equates to $150,000 per comedy clip Pandora allegedly streamed. He alleges that, at minimum, if 37 comedy tracks made available by Pandora from two albums were streamed just once by his 117,000 monthly listeners, Pandora has broadcast nearly 1.5 million comedy clips without his permission annually. He says this has been happening for at least three years.
The total damages could go up, though, especially if the court hears evidence that Pandora profited more from Lopez’s comedy. Lopez could also seek higher damages if the lawsuit drags on and Pandora continues streaming his comedy. In both cases, the court can decide if Lopez is entitled to more compensation.
Lawyers for Lopez and Pandora Media did not immediately respond to Ars’ questions, but as of this writing, Lopez still has an active artist page on Pandora. By clicking the comedian’s face—which shows him grinning while clutching his own bobblehead—Pandora plays a short ad before many listeners can begin streaming popular bits from two of Lopez’s earliest comedy specials, “Right Now Right Now” and “Team Leader.”
Lopez retained exclusive copyrights on his materials and says he is the sole entity losing out when listeners stream those specials, which bothers him. “Unfortunately, Mr. Lopez has not received a fraction of a penny for any of these broadcasts or streams,” the complaint reads.
A Lopez victory could be a win for all comedians and podcasts
The Wrap reported that Pandora argues that if the court sides with Lopez and other comedians, that “would upend longstanding industry precedent.” The company “denies ever stiffing any comedian, claiming it has paid out millions in royalties via comedians’ record companies.”
Both Black and Lopez contest that they do not count among comedians who have been paid. In their consolidated lawsuit, both are suing Pandora for two separate instances of copyright infringement. First, distributing a copyrighted sound recording, and second, distributing a copyrighted spoken-word recording. If the comedians win, it’s possible, for the first time, that comedians and podcasters could begin enjoying the same rights and compensation as musicians when dealing with services streaming their recordings.
“Anyone wishing to obtain the right to do so, must get a license from the respective copyright owner in both of these copyrights, and pay agreed-to royalties,” Lopez’s lawsuit reads.
Comedy copyright infringement was “brazen”
The lawsuit also noted that Pandora used to be transparent about infringing on comedian copyrights in SEC filings. Lopez’s complaint claims that the company “admitted that it would very likely face copyright infringement liability as a result” of not contacting comedians like Lopez before streaming content. It alleges that the company only stopped admitting to this practice after SiriusXM acquired Pandora.
In 2021, SiriusXM reported that 74 percent of Pandora’s profits came from advertising. Previously, in 2017, Pandora reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission that streaming popular comedy and podcasts was considered critical to its perceived value to listeners of its ad-based services. In Lopez’s complaint, the comedian alleges that part of SiriusXM’s seeming strategy “to increase its stock price helping them to reorganize the company” with Pandora was to deprive comedians like Lopez of “hard-earned royalties” while the companies (which still operate separately) earned “billions.”
SiriusXM did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
In the same 2017 SEC filing, Pandora reported, “Failure to obtain or retain rights to comedy, podcasts, or other non-music content on acceptable terms, or at all, to successfully monetize and generate revenues from such content, or to effectively manage the numerous risks and challenges associated with such expansion could adversely affect our business and financial condition.”
Lopez alleges the practice has already harmed him, and it’s possible that by adding his heft as a leading comedian worldwide to the lawsuit, righting his wrong could protect much less famous entertainers who discover potential copyright infringements.
His complaint says that Pandora knew that Lopez—”an industry leading comedian, actor, and comedy writer for nearly 30 years”—”would suffer” and failed to ever reach out to him. Now he has joined up with other comedians to prove that he, “in fact, did suffer the brunt of the harm caused by Pandora’s unauthorized acts,” not just from alleged illegal streaming in California, but also “around the world.”