Music can be as important to a movie or television show as a character, or a piece of dialogue. Films like Jaws, for example, sold the menace of the lurking great white shark with the ominous repetition of John Williams’ iconic score. But just because a snippet of music worked once doesn’t mean that studios have the right to use it over and over again – as a new lawsuit points out.
According to THR, the major Hollywood studios – from Sony and Paramount Pictures to Universal and Walt Disney Pictures – are being sued by The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada for "violating the terms of a collective bargaining agreement by going beyond the allowance for the re-use of previously recorded film soundtracks." In other words, studios are recycling musical cues way more often than they should.
I’m sure that you have run into this from time to time. You’ll hear a familiar piece of music from a classic film soundtrack. Maybe it’s used to emphasize a joke. Normally, it’s used to put an audience member in a distinct frame of mind. But the musicians’ federation is arguing that "already recorded music" can only be used for the times where the music has been recorded for, and they are trying to legally prevent future use of the music from happening.
According to the complaint, laid out in THR, the instances are brief. As they report:
For instance, 1 minute and 10 seconds of music from Titanic was allegedly used in This Means War; 47 seconds of music from Die Hard and 30 seconds of music from The Bourne Identity was allegedly used in episodes of The Office; 18 seconds of music from Jaws was allegedly used in Little Fockers; 33 seconds of music from Cast Away was used in Bridesmaids; 35 seconds of music from Battle for the Planet of the Apes was used in Argo ... and so forth."
It happens. Little Fockers definitely isn’t the first, last or only movie to use the Jaws theme to make a water-related joke. Hell, the brilliant Airplane! used the music as a running gag in its opening credit.
The disagreement stems from what looks like a legal loophole that there are "limited exceptions" to the statute that studios can use up to 2 minutes of recorded music without having to pay (or to pay something pre-determined between both parties). The complaint, which has been filed in California federal court, goes to great lengths to lay out "alleged failings of each of the studios to live up the agreement."
It’s going to be tough to prove. But if it goes through, this could lead to changes to the way that music is made – and used – in our movies and television programs in the future.