Sony Music sues Whitney Houston biopic producers over alleged unpaid song licenses

Sony Music Entertainment (SME) has filed a lawsuit against the producers of the Whitney Houston biopic, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, alleging they failed to pay for the use of the late singer’s music in the film.

According to the lawsuit filed in a California federal court on Thursday (February 15), SME claims the producers, including Boston-based Anthem Films, NYBO Productions and Los Angeles-based Black Label Media, signed a sync licensing agreement on December 5, 2022, just days before the film’s release. 

This agreement allegedly granted permission to use over 20 of Houston’s iconic songs, including the global hit I Will Always Love You. However, Sony argues that despite the signed agreement, the producers have not paid any licensing fees for the music used in the film.

“Unlike other types of films, musical biopics by their nature require use of the subject musician’s music, as it is nearly impossible to explain the importance of a musician’s creative genius or unique style and talent without the use of the musician’s music,” SME’s legal team said in the complaint.

“To date, Anthem has not paid the fees, or any portion of the fees, due under the agreements,” they added.

SME considers the producers’ actions “willful and deliberate infringement” of its copyrights and is seeking unspecified damages, including potential lost profits. The lawsuit further alleges that the producers were aware of their obligations to secure the licenses, potentially indicating a deliberate attempt to avoid full payment.

In response to the lawsuit, Black Label Media, one of the producers, told Billboard that the company was “one of many investors in this film, should not have been named in the lawsuit, and looks forward to being dismissed from it promptly.” 

Other producers that are identified in the lawsuit have yet to publicly respond.

The legal battle highlights the complexities of music licensing in film productions. Copyright holders, like Sony Music in this case, control the rights to reproduce and distribute musical works, and filmmakers require licenses to use these works in their productions. Sync licensing specifically authorizes the synchronization of music with visual media, and failure to secure proper licenses can result in legal consequences.

If Sony prevails, it could set a precedent for stricter enforcement of music licensing agreements and potentially discourage similar future instances of alleged non-payment. Conversely, a victory for the producers could create legal uncertainties and potentially make it more challenging for rights holders to enforce their copyrights in film productions.

The lawsuit marks Sony’s latest legal battle after the company, along with Warner Music Group, sued internet service provider Altice USA in December over its alleged enabling of widespread music piracy through its service.

In November, SME lodged a complaint against US cosmetics brand OFRA for allegedly using its music in Instagram and TikTok ads without permission.

Beyond the legal aspects, this dispute casts a shadow over the biopic and the continuing commercialization of Whitney Houston’s music. In December 2021, an unreleased Whitney Houston recording, made when she was 17, was sold as an NFT for $999,999. The track was discovered by Primary Wave Music and Houston’s estate in 2020.

Primary Wave acquired a 50% stake in the Whitney Houston Estate in 2019.

Over a year ago, Primary Wave purchased copyrights to hit Whitney Houston songs under a deal for about 60 songs written by songwriters Shannon Rubicam and George Merrill, of American pop-music duo Boy Meets Girl.

Music Business Worldwide

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