Karaoke Copyrights: Taking Back The Music

Karaoke machine manufacturers and the distributors of karaoke CDs have had an uphill battle fighting copyright infringement cases brought by music publishers. One player in the karaoke business is fighting a joint venture of Sony and the estate of Michael Jackson over a $1.28-billion bill. Host Scott Simon has more.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Maybe some of us can use a music diet, too. Make room in your life for a varied diet: jazz, classical, country, hip-hop and Tuva throat singing. Engage only moderately in karaoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY BEST FRIENDS WEDDING")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF")

CAMERON DIAZ: (Singing) ...to do with everything for you...

ERIQ GARDNER: Karaoke seems like a pretty simple thing, people singing over a backtrack. But in terms of the legal sphere it's anything but simple.

SIMON: That's Eriq Gardner.

GARDNER: I write about legal issues for the Hollywood Reporter.

SIMON: He's not keen about karaoke...

GARDNER: I usually go to karaoke only when dragged by friends.

SIMON: ...and has a low-risk strategy when the mic comes to him.

GARDNER: I try to stay away from the big Bon Jovi ballads. Anything that can avoid embarrassment is usually my goal.

SIMON: But Eriq Gardner is intensely interested in the legal implications of the form. Music companies and publishers don't like karaoke bars making money with music they own. And that's hard to ignore because karaoke has become an immensely popular pop entertainment.

GARDNER: Particularly after the movie "Lost in Translation," there's a big scene where Bill Murray goes to a karaoke joint in Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOST IN TRANSLATION)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE THAN THIS")

BILL MURRAY: (Singing) I could feel at the time there was no way of knowing...

GARDNER: It's estimated to be about a 10 billion dollar industry.

SIMON: Companies are beginning to cry copyright infringement and for their cut. How serious are they?

GARDNER: If you go into a restaurant and a bar and you see someone with a tape measurer, it's usually someone from ASCAP or BMI.

SIMON: Measuring to see if the place in which karaoke is being committed is so small it's just a bar, where you sing with friends, or so large it's has to be considered a stage, where you perform for strangers.

Penalties for violating copyrights may have to be paid. They can add up quicker than you can belt, "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT")

SIMON: For instance, if you sing over the original music by Pat Benetar's band, somebody owns that. There's an audience that's paid to be there, music companies expect to be paid, too. And if the music is matched to video, there's a synchronization license.

There are layers and layers of potential legal exposure and litigants.

GARDNER: There's at least five or six levels that you can hit.

SIMON: And now, one of the companies who manufacture karaoke CDs is trying to hit Sony Music with their best shot. Sony wants KTS Karaoke to pay over a billion dollars for thousands of alleged copyright infringements. KTS says that Sony is trying to...

GARDNER: Get multiple bites at the apple, going after the distributors, going after the restaurants.

SIMON: Charging a fee for each link in the karaoke chain, from Pat Benatar down to your local bar. A judge will decide this case; there may be appeals, there may be other cases. But until then, sing out, drive carefully and remember: tip your server.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT")

PAT BENATAR: (Singing) Why don't you hit me with your best shot? Hit me with your best shot. Fire away.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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