“Copyright Trolling” – How Connecticut Businesses Are Getting Burned For Streaming Music

You may have heard about restaurants and other small business in Connecticut being sued over playing music for their customers. It can be extremely damaging to a business, and it seems to be happening more and more. What’s going on?
Well, these types of actions tend to start off when a mass licensing agency sends one of its employees to a business location, and tells the employee to write down every song that is played while they are there. If someone had done this at your business, chances are good that you would never even have noticed them. The employee is typically instructed to act naturally, and to make full use of the establishment.  At a restaurant, the employee may sit down and eat; and at a store, he/she may actually shop (it sounds like a great job).
The employee then sends the list he made to his boss, who runs it through a computer and determines which of those titles the company owns a license to. If (or more likely, when – the registries are pretty extensive) there is a hit for a song that the licensing company has an interest in, legal action begins.
Generally, a cease and desist letter is sent to the business before anything gets taken further. Often times, this letter will include a settlement demand and a draft complaint of a complaint to be filed in Federal Court. These documents will typically allege a litany of Federal claims, most often involving copyright infringement (I call this practice “copyright trolling,” due to the similarities between it and patent trolling). While which particular law (if any) was violated depends heavily on the situation, the result is often the same.
If a business owner has not looked into the surrounding law (e.g., 17 U.S.C. § 110), the licensing company may have him or her “dead to rights.” Intellectual property law is astoundingly complex, and often requires oddly specific things (for instance, the number of speakers through which music is played may be the key to whether a business owner has to pay). Relatively few attorneys practice intellectual property law, and copyright is an area that is constantly changing to react to technology. Further, copyrights are governed by Federal law, and Federal Courts are notoriously slow, in part because of the complexity of their procedural rules (in contrast to those of State court).
The result of all this is that settlement is often times much cheaper than fighting. Between the complexity of governing law and the general practice of barring disclosure after settlement, many small business owners become aware of this problem after they have been sued.
So what can be done? Well, that depends on where you are in the process. If you are a business owner looking to avoid suit, contact an attorney for advice on how to avoid this and other common pitfalls. If you have received a cease and desist letter, take the letter seriously. Do not, under any circumstance, ignore it; doing so could result in increased damages. If you are unsure on how to proceed, contact an attorney.
Life’s not always fair, but it may be fairer than you think it is. If your business is in a bind, The Law Office of Christopher J. Mutchler may be able to help. Give us a call, shoot us a text, send us an email, or Contact Us.
By:    Christopher J. Mutchler, Esq.

What Is Injury Law?

“Injury Law” (or, more formally, “tort law”) is a collection of guidelines that are used to determine how society will respond to injuries inflicted upon one person by another. Put simply, when someone acts in a way that causes someone else to be injured, the law sometimes requires the injurer to pay money to his victim. This, of course, is distinct from any criminal charges that may arise as the result of the injurers actions.

Simple, right? Well, not always. If John Everyman down the road blows through a stop sign and slams into Little Susie on her bike, you don’t need to be a lawyer to know that John Everyman is probably going to be liable to Little Susie for her injuries. And generally speaking, this is correct. In all likelihood, what would happen here is that Little Susie’s mom would get on the phone with someone from John Everyman’s insurance company, and John Everyman’s insurance company would (eventually) agree pay for Little Susie’s treatment. Their offer might not be as much as Little Susie may be entitled to at law, but that’s another issue entirely.

But what about something a little more complicated? Take this hypothetical:

How about instead of your average neighbor down the street, Joe Blow is a classic car enthusiast. You know the type. He has a garage full of every tool imaginable, and every Sunday before the game he’s elbow deep in the hood of something different. He’s been working on a gorgeous 1967 in his garage for a few weeks, and has it almost ready-to-go. The neighborhood kids surround him, eager for a look up close. But because it’s not completely done, Joe hasn’t added it to his insurance policy yet. The premium on something like that costs a pretty penny, and so do its parts. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and that cost is better spent elsewhere.

One beautiful Connecticut summer afternoon, Joe Blow decides to take off from work an hour early and enjoy the weather. Somewhere along I-91 South, it occurs to Joe that it be really nice to go for a quick cruise around the block in his close-to-finished pride and joy. “Ya, it’s illegal,” he thinks, “but I’ll be fast. No one will know. No harm, no foul.” (On a side note, you should not do this. Driving without insurance in Connecticut is a crime.)

However, in an odd twist of legal fortune that would make any law school torts professor proud (they are known for writing the most obscure hypotheticals imaginable), it seems that everyone in Connecticut had the same idea as Joe. As soon as he nears Hartford, traffic comes to a dead crawl in typical Connecticut-rush-hour fashion. “Wonderful,” he sneers, “an accident.” After about an hour, traffic starts moving, and Joe is able to see what the excessive rubber-necking was all about (Joe heard on the radio that, thankfully, there were no serious injuries). “Oooooooh,” he moans to himself, “that looks just like my ‘76! I wouldn’t want to be that guy!” He continues on his way, and – as every Connecticut commuter has experienced – gets home around the same time he would have had he left work at the normal time.

When he opens his garage though, something is missing. Panicked, he looks quickly into his back yard, but sees nothing but some scraps of broken fence. He rushes inside to look for the keys. As he thrusts open the drawer he thought he put them in, his phone begins to ring. “Not now!!!” he screams at no one, and continues rummaging violently through his drawers. “AAAAAHHHGHH!!!” he yells, exasperatedly. He lower himself onto the kitchen floor, back against the refrigerator, and rests his head in his arms, defeated. Suddenly, he hears over the speaker of his home answering machine: “… the vehicle was totaled, and the suspects are in custody. Please give us a call when you get this, our number again is 555-555-5555. Thank you.”

Come to find out, some neighborhood kids broke into Joe’s garage and took his car for a joy ride. That traffic he was stuck in? You guessed it. Over the course of the next few months, everything is worked out with Joe’s insurance providers. For legal reasons far too complex to get into, the kids who stole Joe’s car turned out to be insolvent, so he couldn’t get any money from them, but he lawyered up and everything worked out.

Until one day Joe gets a demand letter in the mail from his neighbor, Ned Nabors. Those scraps of broken fence in the yard? Those were from Ned’s fence. It was destroyed in the theft, and Ned has been unable to get it paid for by the kids who did it. He’s demanded Joe pay for it. What happens here is not as obvious.

The answer, as always in law, is that it depends. As stupid as it sounds, there is a very real possibility that Ned may be able to recover from Joe, particularly if Joe was negligent (like if Joe left the keys inside of his convertible car which he stored with its top down under a tent outside). Complex problems like these are why injury lawyers can be helpful. Life’s not fair, but it may be fairer than you think it is. If you’ve been hurt or injured, M&M Legal LLC may be able to help. Give us a call, shoot us a text, or send us an email!

–    Christopher J. Mutchler, Esq.

* The above is provided as solely as a means of attorney advertising. Nothing contained herein should be taken to constitute legal advice, nor does it create an attorney client relationship. If you have a legal issue, it is important to contact and/or retain competent legal counsel.