In 2014 Universal became the second major label, after Sony, to battle airlines' rights to in-flight music. The recording giant filed suit that September over the use of music and videos by Taylor Swift, Weezer, Kanye West and other artists.
It first filed against the music service Inflight and its parent company Global Eagle, later adding American Airlines to the suit. Inflight's role in getting Yeezus and 1989 into airline armrests is securing licenses for content from labels and rights organizations, then providing the music to airlines.
Universal claims the service infringed its copyrights of musical recordings and publications. Inflight is now fighting back.
In counterclaims filed in California federal court, the companies say Universal "changed its tune" after allowing Inflight to use its music for years and even giving them music to provide to airlines.
"Universal music knew, expected and, indeed, hoped that these sound recordings (or at least some of them) would be used by CSPs and their airline customers in connection with inflight audio entertainment services provided by airlines to their passengers, who were essentially a captive audience for hours at a time," reads the complaint.
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According to Inflight, represented by Sheppard Mullin's Martin Katz, the company contacted Universal in 2009 to fill "gaps" in its worldwide licensing coverage. The label allegedly agreed to a licensing fee and promised to send Inflight a licensing agreement, but never did. In the next four years, Inflight continued to distribute Universal's music to airlines.
"During this time frame, Universal Music assured IFP that its continued reproduction and distribution of Universal Music's works in the United States for use on airlines was acceptable," reads the complaint.
Then in November 2013 the label suddenly sent them a cease-and-desist letter, which they claim has interfered with their contractual relationships with airlines.
They speculate Universal changed its tune in response to changes in the music industry. They claim the label followed the example of Sony's suit in 2013 against Inflight and United Airlines specifically over Irish licenses (the case eventually settled). Then they claim Universal wants money in settlements "in the wake of a substantial decline in the music business" and want to establish its own business to provide music to airlines.
They're claiming misrepresentation, concealment, interference with contractual relations and interference with prospective business advantage.
The music services also provide affirmative defenses to Universal's claims that include the doctrine of implied license in addition to the more conventional defenses of estoppel and laches.
Universal could not immediately provide comment.