Broadcast Law Blog

Broadcast Law Blog

Plan Your April Fools’ Day On-Air Pranks with the FCC in Mind

Posted in AM Radio, FCC Fines, FM Radio, Programming Regulations, Public Interest Obligations/Localism

With April Fools’ Day only a few days away, we need to play our role as attorneys and ruin the fun by repeating our annual reminder that broadcasters need to be careful with any on-air pranks, jokes or other bits prepared especially for the day.  While a little fun is OK, remember that the FCC does have a rule against on-air hoaxes. While issues under this rule can arise at any time, broadcaster’s temptation to go over the line is probably highest on April 1.  The FCC’s rule against broadcast hoaxes, Section 73.1217, prevents stations from running any information about a “crime or catastrophe” on the air, if the broadcaster (1) knows the information to be false, (2) it is reasonably foreseeable that the broadcast of the material will cause substantial public harm and (3) public harm is in fact caused.  Public harm is defined as “direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties.”  Air a program that fits within this definition and causes a public harm, and expect to be fined by the FCC.

This rule was adopted in the early 1990s after several incidents that were well-publicized in the broadcast industry, including one case where the on-air personalities at a station falsely claimed that they had been taken hostage, and another case where a station broadcast bulletins reporting that a local trash dump had exploded like a volcano and was spewing burning trash.  In both cases, first responders were notified about the non-existent emergencies, actually responded to the notices that listeners called in, and were prevented from responding to real emergencies.  In light of this sort of incident, the FCC adopted its prohibition against broadcast hoaxes.  But, as we’ve reminded broadcasters before, the FCC hoax rule is not the only reason to be wary on April 1.  Continue Reading

Bill Proposes to Make the Register of Copyrights a Presidential Appointee

Posted in Broadcast Performance Royalty, Intellectual Property, Music Rights, On Line Media

The Copyright Office is now a part of the Library of Congress, with the Register of Copyrights (the head of the Copyright Office) appointed by the Librarian of Congress. As part of its plans to review the Copyright Act, the House Judiciary Committee asked for comments earlier this year about structural reform of the Copyright Office, including whether the Register of Copyrights should be appointed by the President rather than by the Librarian of Congress (see our article here). In a very straightforward and direct bill, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the Ranking Democratic Member of the Committee have started the process of reform of the Copyright Office by proposing to make the Register a Presidential appointment. These Congressmen, along with the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement asking that this bill be moved expeditiously. As the Register position is currently vacant, quick action on the bill may determine how that vacancy is filled (note, as we wrote here, the Librarian of Congress has moved forward with her plans to select a new Register, soliciting public comment on what she should look for in making the appointment of the new Register).

What would this change mean? Certainly, the Register is an influential position that helps shape the direction of US Copyright policy though, as we have written before, the Copyright Office is for the most part not an administrative agency that makes rules governing the substance of Copyright law, but instead it is an agency that administers existing law and recommends changes to Congress. In the past, the Register has taken positions on issues that affect broadcasting, for instance, supporting the imposition of a general public performance right in sound recordings which would make radio stations pay royalties not only to the composers of songs which they now do, but also to the artists who record those songs and the record labels that usually hold the copyrights to the songs (see our post here). Would the policy positions of the Register change if the position was changed to one that the President appointed? Interestingly, both the recording industry and the broadcast industry have issued statements applauding the bill (here and here), possibly concluding that a political appointment is more likely to be a compromise appointment that both parties can live with rather than one who may come from one industry or the other. Some public interest groups, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have argued just the opposite – that making the Register a Presidential appointee will make the job more political and subject to influence by special interests (see their blog post here).  We’ll be watching as this process plays out in the near future.

Edited, 3/29/2017 to include reference to EFF position. 

April Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and Children’s Television Reports, Incentive Auction Closing Notice, AM Translator Site Relocation Relaxation Effective Date

Posted in Children's Programming and Advertising, EEO Compliance/Diversity, FM Radio, FM Translators and LPFM, General FCC, Incentive Auctions/Broadband Report, Noncommercial Broadcasting, Programming Regulations, Public Interest Obligations/Localism, Television

April has many important dates for broadcasters – both radio and TV.  This includes both regular regulatory obligations and dates unique to this April for both radio and TV – including the release of the FCC’s Closing Notice for the TV incentive auction and the effective date for the new rules liberalizing the location of FM translators used to rebroadcast AM stations.

The regular dates include the requirement for commercial and noncommercial full-power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM Radio Stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas that they, by April 1, add to their public file (and upload to their websites for stations that have not yet converted to the FCC’s online public file) their Annual EEO Public File Report if the station is part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees.  For Radio Stations in Texas which are part of an employment unit with 11 or more full-time employees; and for Television Employment Units with five or more full-time employees in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, by April 3 (as April 1 is on the weekend), these stations must file with the FCC their EEO Mid-Term Reports (see our summary of this requirement here).  The Mid-Term Report includes the last two EEO public file reports for these stations and other information about the station’s EEO program.  Continue Reading

Court of Appeals Rules that Over-the-Top Video Service is Not a Cable System Entitled to Statutory License to Retransmit TV Station Programming

Posted in Cable Carriage, Internet Video, On Line Media, Television

In a decision released this week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a District Court decision (about which we wrote here) that had found that a video service provided by Aereokiller was a “cable system” as defined by Section 111 of the Copyright Act. That decision had held that, as a cable system, Aereokiller was entitled to retransmit the programming broadcast by a television station under a statutory license, without specific permission from the copyright holders in that programming. The Court of Appeals, while finding that the wording of Section 111 was ambiguous, determined that the consistent position taken by the Copyright Office, finding that cable systems as defined by Section 111 had to be local services retransmitting TV programming, with some fixed facilities to a defined set of communities was determinative of the issue. The Copyright Office’s interpretation was given particular deference as Congress had been well-aware of this interpretation of the statute in other contexts, had in the past amended the Copyright Act to accommodate other new technologies that the Copyright Office found to be outside its definition of a cable system, and had taken no action to amend the statute to include Internet-based video transmission services.

The issue in the case is whether the broad definition of a cable system included in Section 111 would include an over-the-top system such as that offered by Aereokiller. The definition contained in Section 111 is:

A “cable system” is a facility, located in any State, territory, trust territory, or possession of the United States, that in whole or in part receives signals transmitted or programs broadcast by one or more television broadcast stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, and makes secondary transmissions of such signals or programs by wires, cables, microwave, or other communications channels to subscribing members of the public who pay for such service. For purposes of determining the royalty fee under subsection (d)(1), two or more cable systems in contiguous communities under common ownership or control or operating from one headend shall be considered as one system.

The question of whether this definition includes Internet-based video systems has been raised many times since the Supreme Court’s Aereo decision (about which we wrote here), which found that the retransmission of television signals by such systems were “public performances” that needed a license. After the Supreme Court’s determination in Aereo, which had language comparing these over-the-top systems to cable systems that need a statutory license to cover their public performances, these services argued that they were in fact cable systems entitled to rely on the Section 111 statutory license to cover their public performances of the TV station’s programming. These systems argued that they made “secondary retransmissions” of television signals “by wire, cables, microwave or other communications channels” – the Internet argued to be one of those other communications channels. While most courts have rejected this argument (see our articles here and here), a District Court in California was an exception, finding that the statutory language was broad enough to cover these Internet-based systems. Continue Reading

New Wrinkle in Pre-1972 Sound Recording Cases – Georgia Supreme Court Holds that iHeart Streaming Does Not Violate State Criminal Statute

Posted in Broadcast Performance Royalty, Intellectual Property, Internet Radio, Music Rights

The Georgia Supreme Court this week issued a decision holding that the streaming of pre-1972 sound recordings by iHeart Media does not violate the state’s criminal statutes against the “transfer” of recorded sounds without the permission of the owner of the master recording. While many trade press articles have lumped this decision in with the ongoing litigation about the public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings, this case is actually dealing with a different issue – and does not even mention the words “public performance” that were the center of debate in the Flo & Eddie cases against Sirius XM and Pandora, leading to the decisions that we wrote about in New York (here and here), California (here), and Florida (here).

What is at issue in the Georgia case is a criminal statute similar to those found in many states that prohibits the unauthorized transfer of various recordings, including pre-1972 sound recordings, without permission of the owner of the master recording. The plaintiff in this case, argued that the illegal transfers violated criminal law, and thus gave rise to a claim of civil liability under state racketeering statutes which provide for civil recovery against a defendant engaged in multiple criminal activities. By finding that there was no criminal violation here, the Georgia Supreme Court effectively ended the racketeering claim. Continue Reading

Radio Ownership Subcaps on the Table for FCC Review

Posted in AM Radio, FM Radio, Multiple Ownership Rules, On Line Media

We’ve written (see, e.g. our articles here, here and here) about the pending petitions asking the FCC to reconsider decisions reached last year to end the UHF discount, to leave the TV local ownership rules in place and to make attributable new TV Joint Sales Agreements, and to not adopt any change in the FCC radio ownership rules in “embedded markets.” Recently, that list of items on the table before the FCC has expanded, with a number of radio groups making a concerted push to change the FCC rules on ownership “subcaps” – limiting the number of AM or FM stations that can be owned in a single market. Thus, while a broadcaster can own up to 8 radio stations in the largest markets, no more than 5 can be either AM or FM. In the smallest markets, broadcasters can own up to 3 as long as they do not exceed half the stations in a market, but only 2 can be of the same service. The new petitions seek to eliminate those subcaps, allowing owners to own up to the maximum number of stations in a market without regard to whether those stations are AMs or FMs.

A group of radio broadcasters have filed a letter with the FCC asking that these subcaps be abolished, citing the change in the media landscape in the 20 years since the rules were adopted. A more detailed economic study was submitted by a Syracuse radio broadcaster, here, showing that the growth in digital and mobile advertising to local companies already exceeds the share of advertising enjoyed by radio generally, and is likely to grow in the coming years. Google alone, according to this analysis, has as much local advertising in Syracuse as the entire radio industry. To compete against these growing new media entities that are eating into local advertising dollars, the radio broadcasters have asked that they be allowed to own more radio stations in a single service – AM or FM – than currently allowed.

As the FCC has told the Court of Appeals (where some parties filed an appeal of last September’s ownership decision) that they plan to review the entire ownership decision, not just those areas singled out by petitions for reconsideration, the radio ownership issue is now before the FCC. There has been some limited grumbling against these new proposals, some observers suggesting that AM radio would be further imperiled if big broadcasters gave up their AM holdings to pursue the ownership of more FM stations. Of course, if that were to happen, there would be nothing stopping ethnic programmers and others who are making more and more uses of the AM spectrum to acquire more AM stations, perhaps at lower prices, to pursue their innovative programming. This is an issue that will be debated in the coming months, as broadcasters adjust to the reality that all of the old rules are now subject to reexamination by this new FCC.

Relaxed Rules for Location of FM Translators to Rebroadcast AM Stations Effective April 10

Posted in AM Radio, FM Translators and LPFM

We wrote here and here about the FCC’s new rules to relax the limits on where licensees of AM stations can use FM translators to rebroadcast their stations. The new rules allow the location of these translators so that their 1 mv/m coverage area does not extend beyond 25 miles from the AM station or beyond the AM station’s 2 mv/m contour – whichever is greater. Up to now, the translator had to stay within the lesser of those two areas. According to a Federal Register publication today, the new rules are effective on April 10. No doubt, many AM broadcasters can hardly wait to take advantage of these new rules, and they will be able to do so starting April 10. Watch for more from the FCC on this effective date.

Update, 3/16/2017, 2:00 EDT – The FCC has released a Public Notice, here, confirming this April 10 effective date. 

More on Flo & Eddie: Federal Court Certifies to California State Court Question of Whether There is a Public Performance Right in Pre-1972 Sound Recordings

Posted in Broadcast Performance Royalty, Intellectual Property, Internet Radio, Music Rights

The music battle continues over the question of whether state laws provide a public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings. While, as we wrote here and here, the highest court in New York has determined that there is no such right in that state ending the litigation there, cases continue in other states, notably California (where a Federal Court determined that there was a state right, see our summary here) and Florida (where the Federal Court determined that there was not, see our summary here). The Florida case has been referred to that state’s highest court for an advisory ruling on the state of the state’s law on the issue, and earlier this week, the same thing happened in California. The US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which was hearing an appeal of the Federal District Court decision that there was a performance right under California law, decided to turn to the experts in California state law – the California Supreme Court – and ask for an interpretation of California law to determine if there is indeed a public performance right in these pre-1972 recordings.

Flo & Eddie, the performers behind the 1960s band the Turtles, stirred up a major music rights controversy several years ago by their high-profile lawsuits against music services including Sirius XM and Pandora as to whether there is a state law public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings (see our article here on the first of these suits). Those recordings are not covered under Federal Copyright law, so Flo & Eddie had the novel idea of bringing state law actions to enforce a purported state law performance right in these recordings – even though no such right had been enforced against any music service in the 45 years since Federal Copyright law decided to cover all new US sound recordings, and even though Federal law did not itself create any performance right in sound recordings until 1995, and then limited it solely to digital performances under a very carefully crafted statutory license scheme. Even though no state law explicitly states that there is a performance right in these pre-1972 law, in California, the band has relied on a very general statutory grant of property rights in pre-1972 sound recordings to conclude that this broad grant included a performance right – even though there were no indication as to how such a performance right would function, or what limitations would apply, as are specified under Federal law. The US Court of Appeals, in its order referring this question to the California Supreme Court, noted the general nature of this statutory grant, and asked the state court for an interpretation as whether it really is meant to include a performance right. Continue Reading

It’s March Madness! … It’s April Madness! … Be Wary of Using the NCAA’s Trademarks

Posted in Advertising Issues, Trademark

Less than a week ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association filed a trademark infringement action in federal court against a company that runs online sports-themed promotions and contests under the marks “April Madness” and “Final 3.”  The NCAA is seeking injunctive relief, damages, the defendant’s profits, punitive damages and an award of attorneys’ fees.

Last year, I wrote about the risks of publishing ads or engaging in promotional activities that “play off” the NCAA Collegiate Basketball Playoffs.  Clearly, such activities continue to carry great risks.  Accordingly, I am republishing last year’s blog post on this subject:

It’s March Madness!  Know the NCAA’s Rulebook or Risk A Foul Call Against the Unauthorized Use of Its Trademarks

With the NCAA Basketball Tournament about to begin, broadcasters, publishers and other businesses need to be wary about potential claims arising from their use terms and logos associated with the tournament, including March Madness,® The Big Dance,® Final Four® or Elite Eight,® each of which is a federally registered trademark.

The NCAA Aggressively Polices the Use of its Trademarks

It has been estimated that, last year, the NCAA earned $900 million in revenue associated with the NCAA Basketball tournament.  Moreover, its returns from the tournament have historically grown each year.  Most of this income comes from broadcast licensing fees.  It also has a substantial amount of revenue from licensing March Madness® and its other marks for use by advertisers.  As part of those licenses, the NCAA agrees to stop non-authorized parties from using any of the marks.  Indeed, if the NCAA did not actively police the use of its marks by unauthorized companies, advertisers might not feel the need to get a license or, at least, to pay as much as they do for the license.  Thus, the NCAA has a strong incentive to put on a full court press to prevent non-licensees from associating their goods and services with the NCAA tournament through unauthorized use of its trademarks. Continue Reading