Why In-Flight Music Is in Trouble

Airlines have been accused of playing illegally copied music on their flights.

Passengers who want to listen to Taylor Swift on their next long flight had better make sure their iPods are charged before boarding.

A tangle of copyright lawsuits between airlines, in-flight entertainment providers, and the music industry has complicated the licensing process for music on airplanes, leading some airlines to cut back on their in-flight offerings.

Travelers who try to access the music library on trans-Atlantic carrier Icelandair, for example, are currently met with an apology rather than an extensive list of albums.

"Due to significant changes in music-licensing requirements, airlines worldwide cannot provide an extensive on-board music selection at this time," reads a message on the airline's in-flight entertainment system. "We apologize for any inconvenience. Since airlines all over the world are facing the same issue, the matter's resolution is not in our hands, but we hope it will be successfully resolved within the next few months."

At the center of the lawsuits is a company called Global Eagle Entertainment, which handles in-flight music, TV, and movies for more than 150 airlines worldwide. Global Eagle and a subsidiary, Inflight Productions, were sued by Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group, the world's two largest entertainment companies, and then by American Airlines, all in the past two years.

Global Eagle's trouble began when Sony Music brought suit against a subsidiary in October 2013, claiming its music was being stolen. Filing in a New York federal District Court, Sony said Inflight Productions was providing airlines with illegally copied music and music videos by artists such as Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and One Direction. The lawsuit also named United Airlines as a defendant.

Just over half a year later, Global Eagle got hit with similar suit, this time from Universal Music. The May 2014 suit, brought in front of a California federal District Court, accused the provider of stealing Universal artists' music, and was directed also at American Airlines.

The rampant litigation is partly due to Global Eagle's apparent flaunting of licensing laws, but it's also a reflection of the music industry's decision to crack down on the company for trying to take advantage of the murky environment surrounding in-flight music. At a time when streaming is shaking the foundations of the legacy music-licensing system, labels and studios may be looking to close any loopholes where they feel they may be losing out.

To address the situation, some airlines are turning to vendors other than in-flight entertainment providers for their music. Southwest Airlines last year began offering its customers access to playlists curated by Beats, the online music service that was acquired by Apple. And JetBlue in May entered into an agreement with Amazon to stream music from its extensive library.

Meanwhile, the music industry's suits are winding down, but Global Eagle's troubles are not.

Sony Music's case against Global Eagle and United was settled out of court in September 2014. Global Eagle and Sony reached a licensing agreement as part of the settlement, and Global Eagle is now the music provider for most of United's flights, according to Jay Itzkowitz, senior vice president of Global Eagle.

Universal Music's case against Global Eagle and American seems to be wrapping up as well. In that case, Global Eagle was given until next week to firm up its legal argument after the federal judge overseeing the case was unsatisfied with its recent counterclaim.

In that counterclaim, Global Eagle said it had been "assured" by Universal Music for years that it could use its music, before suddenly receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the music group. Last month, however, the presiding judge indicated that she will not side with Global Eagle's counterclaims, and she gave the company 20 days—until Monday, July 13—to strengthen its argument.

But her criticism of the case—that it "failed to plead the 'who,' 'what,' and 'why'" of why Universal Music's claims are foundless—indicates Global Eagle has a lot of ground to cover.

We would very much like to bring that case to a reasonable conclusion, as we did with the Sony case.

"We would very much like to bring that case to a reasonable conclusion, as we did with the Sony case," Itzkowitz said.

To make matters worse for the entertainment provider, as Global Eagle fights the music industry's claims, it's also being sued by American Airlines in a Texas District Court. The airline, in an October 2014 complaint, says Global Eagle violated the terms of its agreement with the airline by providing it with illegally obtained music, and is asking for more than $1 million in monetary relief.

Add that to the private settlement Global Eagle reached with Sony and the damages Universal Music is seeking—up to $150,000 per infringement—and these lawsuits could spell trouble for the company, and for traditional music licensing on airplanes.

Until the case is decided and new agreements are reached, it might be easier just to pack a good book.

This story was corrected to remove a reference to United Airlines as a litigant against Global Eagle.