UMG’s AI Music Lawsuit, Explained – Plus DJ Envy, Megan Thee Stallion & More Top Legal News

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This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings and all the fun stuff in between.

This week: Universal Music Group (UMG) and other music companies file a hotly-anticipated copyright lawsuit over how artificial intelligence (AI) models are trained; DJ Envy’s business partner Cesar Pina is hit with criminal charges claiming he ran a “Ponzi-like” fraud scheme; Megan Thee Stallion reaches a settlement with her former label to end a contentious legal battle; Fyre Fest fraudster Billy McFarland is hit with a civil lawsuit by a jilted investor in his new project; and more.


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THE BIG STORY: AI Music Heads To Court

When UMG and several other music companies filed a lawsuit last week, accusing an artificial intelligence company called Anthropic PBC of violating its copyrights en masse to “train” its AI models, my initial reaction was: “What took so long?”

The creators of other forms of content had already been in court for months. A group of photographers and Getty Images sued Stability AI over its training practices in January, and a slew of book authors, including Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin and legal novelist John Grisham, sued ChatGPT-maker OpenAI over the same thing in June and again in September. And music industry voices, like the RIAA and UMG itself, had repeatedly signaled that they viewed such training as illegal.

For months, we asked around, scanned dockets and waited for the music equivalent. Was the delay a deliberate litigation strategy, allowing the fast-changing market and the existing lawsuits to play out more before diving in? Was the music business focusing on legislative, regulatory or business solutions instead of the judicial warpath they chose during the file-sharing debacle of the early 2000s?

Maybe they were just waiting for the right defendant. In a complaint filed in Nashville federal court on Oct. 18, UMG claimed that Anthropic — a company that got a $4 billion investment from Amazon last month — “unlawfully copies and disseminates vast amounts of copyrighted works” in the process of teaching its models to spit out new lyrics. The lengthy complaint, co-signed by Concord Music Group, ABKCO and other music publishers, echoed arguments made by many rightsholders in the wake of the AI boom: “Copyrighted material is not free for the taking simply because it can be found on the internet.”

Like the previous cases filed by photographers and authors, the new lawsuit poses something of an existential question for AI companies. AI models are only as good as the “inputs” they ingest; if federal courts make all copyrighted material off-limits for such purposes, it would not only make current models illegal but would undoubtedly hamstring further development.

The battle ahead will center on fair use — the hugely important legal doctrine that allows for the free use of copyrighted material in certain situations. Fair use might make you think of parody or criticism, but more recently, it’s empowered new technologies: In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the VCR was protected by fair use; in 2007, a federal appeals court ruled that Google Image search was fair use.

Are AI models, which imbibe millions of copyrighted works to create something new, the next landmark fair use? Or are they just a new form of copyright piracy on a vast new scale? We’re about to find out.

More key details about the AI case:

– The timing of the lawsuit would suggest that UMG is aiming for a carrot-and-stick approach when it comes to AI. On the same day the new case was filed, UMG announced that it was partnering with a company called BandLab Technologies to forge an “an ethical approach to AI.” Hours later, news also broke that UMG and other labels were actively negotiating with YouTube on a new AI tool that would allow creators to make videos using the voices of popular (consenting) recording artists.

-The huge issue in the case is whether the use of training inputs amounts to infringement, but UMG’s lawyers also allege that Anthropic violates its copyrights with the outputs that its models spit out — that it sometimes simply presents verbatim lyrics to songs. That adds a different dimension to the case that’s not present in earlier AI cases filed by authors and photographers and could perhaps make it a bit easier for UMG to win.

-While it’s the first such case about music, it should be noted that the Anthropic lawsuit deals only with song lyrics — meaning not with sound recordings, written musical notation, or voice likeness rights. While a ruling in any of the AI training cases would likely set precedent across different areas of copyright, those specific issues will have to wait for a future lawsuit, or perhaps an act of Congress.

Go read the full story on UMG’s lawsuit, with access to the actual complaint filed in court.

Other top stories this week…

MEGAN THEE SETTLEMENTMegan Thee Stallion reached an agreement with her record label 1501 Certified Entertainment to end more than three years of ugly litigation over a record deal that Megan calls “unconscionable.” After battling for more than a year over whether she owed another album under the contract, the two sides now say they will “amicably part ways.”

DJ ENVY SCANDAL DEEPENS – Cesar Pina, a celebrity house-flipper with close ties to New York City radio host DJ Envy, was arrested on  federal charges that he perpetrated “a multimillion-dollar Ponzi-like investment fraud scheme.” Though Envy was not charged, federal prosecutors specifically noted that Pina had “partnered with a celebrity disc jockey and radio personality” — listed in the charges as “Individual-1” — to boost his reputation as a real estate guru. The charges came after months of criticism against Envy, who is named in a slew of civil lawsuits filed by alleged victims who say he helped promote the fraud.

FOOL ME ONCE…Billy McFarland, the creator of the infamous Fyre Festival who served nearly four years in prison for fraud and lying to the FBI, is facing a new civil lawsuit claiming he ripped off an investor who gave him $740,000 for his new PYRT venture. The case was filed by Jonathan Taylor, a fellow felon who met McFarland in prison after pleading guilty to a single count of child sex trafficking.

AI-GENERATED CLOSING ARGS? – Months after ex-Fugees rapper Prakazrel “Pras” Michel was convicted on foreign lobbying charges, he demanded a new trial by making extraordinary accusations against his ex-lawyer David Kenner. Michel claims Kenner, a well-known L.A. criminal defense attorney, used an unproven artificial intelligence (AI) tool called EyeLevel.AI to craft closing arguments — and that he did so because he owned a stake in the tech platform. Kenner declined to comment, but EyeLevel has denied that Kenner has any equity in the company.

ROLLING STONES GET SATISFACTION – A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit accusing The Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of copying their 2020 single “Living in a Ghost Town” from a pair of little-known songs, ruling that the dispute — a Spanish artist suing two Brits — clearly didn’t belong in his Louisiana federal courthouse.

JUICE WRLD COPYRIGHT CASEDr. Luke and the estate of the late Juice WRLD were hit with a copyright lawsuit that claims they unfairly cut out one of the co-writers (an artist named PD Beats) from the profits of the rapper’s 2021 track “Not Enough.”

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