Publisher BMG has plunged itself into a copyright lawsuit with elements that are so bizarre it’s hard to fathom what the company was thinking of. According to the complaint, BMG illegally used a song owned by religious group Watchtower in a for-profit Christmas album, featuring songs from other faiths, which are set to be sung in cathedrals. Needless to say, Jehovah’s Witnesses are outraged.
Music publisher BMG is best known on these pages for its aggressive copyright infringement action against ISP Cox Communications in the United States.
After filing a lawsuit accusing the ISP of doing little to prevent its customers from pirating music time and again, the case went through a tortuous process that eventually led to a “substantial settlement.”
Given the nature of its business and a history of picking over the intricacies of copyright law, it was a surprise to see BMG named as a defendant in a US copyright lawsuit this week. Unusually, however, it’s not simply the copyright aspect of this case that makes it so unusual and interesting.
Singer Aled Jones Releases Album in November
Last month, Welsh singer Aled Jones, who shot to fame as a youngster in the 1980s, teamed up with BMG to release a new album titled ‘Blessings’. The album aims to be religiously inclusive by bundling songs associated with Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and Quakers. But trying to appeal to everyone can have its pitfalls, especially where religion is concerned.
The problem lies in a song on the album called “Listen, Obey and Be Blessed”, a work owned by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the supervising body and publisher for the Jehovah’s Witness religious group. The appearance of this song on a commercial album immediately raised alarm bells among the religion’s followers who, through their teachings and knowledge of their faith, knew this track shouldn’t have been used in this manner.
Multiple Blunders Considered Antithetical to The Faith
First of all and despite its attempts to be inclusive, Blessings is fairly obviously an album aimed at the Christmas market. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas, believing that the festival has pagan origins. Second, the religious group doesn’t allow its works to be exploited commercially, as per its own interpretation of the bible. Finally, Jehovah’s Witnesses reject all other religions, so being represented as a group alongside them in the album is offensive, to say the least.
Indeed, these topics and more have been the subject of intense discussion on various Jehovah’s Witness forums over the past several weeks. Many followers have been openly wondering why their leaders haven’t been following the rules, or at the least, why they aren’t doing anything to counter this affront to their religion.
As it turns out, those in command knew all about it well in advance and have been preparing a lawsuit.
Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Filed in the US
Filed this week in a New York district court, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania names BMG Rights Management (US) LLC, BMG Rights Management (UK) Limited, plus John Does and various corporations as responsible for infringing its copyrights.
“Without authorization, Defendants have recorded Plaintiff’s original and registered musical composition of ‘Listen, Obey and Be Blessed” in a sound recording, have reproduced, distributed and publicly performed Plaintiff’s musical composition in the infringing sound recording and are causing and purportedly licensing others to do the same,” it reads.
The complaint alleges that the song was published as part of a song book, for which the copyrights were officially registered in the US. To date, Watch Tower has only licensed other parts of its organization to use the work, and that necessarily does not include BMG. Nevertheless, BMG included the song in its album and listed itself as the copyright owner on cover art, while allowing various streaming services to offer the work too.
Aled Jones Was Warned Not To Use The Song
According to the complaint, before the album was released Watch Tower contacted Aled Jones’ manager to say that no permission had been granted to use the song in any manner. In a response from BMG UK, the company said that it had been given permission to use it by German rights society GEMA, another entity known for its own copyright infringement lawsuits.
Despite the claims from both music outfits, Watch Tower insists it never approved licenses. This appears to be supported in a response from GEMA, which told the religious group that BMG UK had asked for a license but the request was denied because GEMA had no rights to license the work.
The buck was then passed to BMG in the US, who were apparently in the process of obtaining a compulsory mechanical license to use the song. However, Watch Tower says the necessary procedures weren’t followed so that licensing opportunity failed. As a result, BMG is guilty of copyright infringement and causing reputational damage to the entire religion.
“Defendants’ infringing acts have caused and are likely to cause numerous Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the public to believe mistakenly that Defendants’ use of the Composition on the Infringing Sound Recording was licensed or otherwise authorized by Watch Tower,” the complaint reads.
“As noted above, such license or authorization would be antithetical to the teachings and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including a literal interpretation of the Bible, including by commercializing the Composition, allowing the Composition to be used in conjunction with works of other faiths on the Album and allowing the Composition to be used in connection with the Christmas holiday.”
Demand For Damages and an Injunction
As a result of the above, Watch Tower is now seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction to prevent any further distribution of “Listen, Obey and Be Blessed” plus either statutory damages or BMG’s profits generated by the infringing activity.
Whether BMG will be able to show the court it actually obtained some kind of license and therefore acted legally will be shown in due course. But even if that’s the case, the publisher should’ve known that religion is not only extremely complex, but the concept of an ‘inclusive’ album probably requires informed input from, or at least knowledge of, those being included
Unfortunately, as history painfully shows, it’s not uncommon for religions to mandate the rejection of all others. And not even copyright law can do much about that.
The full complaint can be found here (pdf)