Chet Baker was a leading jazz musician in the 1950s, playing trumpet and providing vocals. Baker died in 1988, yet he is about to add a new claim to fame as the lead plaintiff in possibly the largest copyright infringement case in Canadian history. His estate, which still owns the copyright in more than 50 of his works, is part of a massive class-action lawsuit that has been underway for the past year.
As my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes, the infringer has effectively already admitted owing at least $50 million and the full claim could exceed $6 billion. If the dollars don’t shock, the target of the lawsuit undoubtedly will: The defendants in the case are Warner Music Canada, Sony BMG Music Canada, EMI Music Canada, and Universal Music Canada, the four primary members of the Canadian Recording Industry Association.
The CRIA members were hit with the lawsuit [PDF] in October 2008, after artists decided to turn to the courts following decades of frustration with the rampant infringement (I am adviser to the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, which is co-counsel, but have had no involvement in the case). The claims arise from a longstanding practice of the recording industry in Canada, described in the lawsuit as "exploit now, pay later if at all." It involves the use of works that are often included in compilation CDs (ie. the top dance tracks of 2009) or live recordings. The record labels create, press, distribute, and sell the CDs, but do not obtain the necessary copyright licences.
Instead, the names of the songs on the CDs are placed on a "pending list", which signifies that approval and payment is pending. The pending list dates back to the late 1980s, when Canada changed its copyright law by replacing a compulsory licence with the need for specific authorization for each use. It is perhaps better characterized as a copyright infringement admission list, however, since for each use of the work, the record label openly admits that it has not obtained copyright permission and not paid any royalty or fee.