This week, the Copyright Royalty Board issued an Order denying a request by SoundExchange for rehearing of certain aspects of the decision released last month setting the royalties for satellite radio – XM and Sirius.  These are the royalties for the use of sound recordings by these services on their digital systems.  The decision, which set royalties at 6 to 8% of revenues of these services, and the denial of the rehearing motion, provide examples of how the CRB applies the 801(b) standard of the Copyright Act.  In setting royalties, that standard assesses not only the economic value of the sound recording, but also the public interest in the wide dissemination of the copyrighted material and the impact of the royalty on the service using the music.  The satellite radio decision sets a royalty far lower than that assessed on Internet radio – where the royalty is set using a "willing buyer, willing seller" standard looking only at the perceived economic value of the sound recording.  That willing buyer, willing seller standard is also proposed for broadcast radio in the recently introduced performance royalty bills now pending before Congress (see our summary here) - so it could be expected that any royalty set using that standard would be higher than that set for satellite radio. 

The initial Copyright Royalty Board decision, the full text of which is available here, first made a determination of how to compute the royalty.  While both the satellite radio companies and SoundExchange initially suggested a percentage of revenue royalty given that satellite radio can’t count specific listeners, the parties later amended their proposals (after the Internet radio decision) to include a computation based on the frequency of a song’s play, to try to more closely approximate the Internet radio performance-based model (about which we wrote here).  In addition to the suggestion that this metric more closely approximated that used in the Internet radio decision, the satellite radio companies suggested that a metric based on the songs played would give them the opportunity to adjust their use of music to reduce their royalty obligation.  The satellite companies suggested that, if the royalty was too high, they could reduce the number of different songs that they played.  While not specifically referenced in the decision, it is possible that they also considered the possibility of getting waivers from artists to encourage playing particular songs, which could further reduce a royalty based on a per song computation.  The Board declined to provide that option, finding that the percentage of revenue option best took into account the business of the companies.  The Board also suggested that it doubted that satellite radio really had the ability to lessen the use of music in reaction to a high royalty rate.  (The Board does not discuss the possibility of royalty waivers, which are essentially worth nothing in a situation where the royalties are based on a percentage of a service’s entire revenue). 

In the denial of the rehearing motion, the Board rejected SoundExchange’s request that the royalty adopted by the Board excluded too much of the revenue of the services.  In the decision, the Board determined that advertising and other revenues specifically tied to those channels with no music, or where music was just incidental to the service provided, could be excluded.  As much of the music programming provided by these services is commercial free, much of the advertising revenue could be excluded from the revenue computation.  However, the Board pointed out in its decision that the advertising revenues constitute but a very small part of all revenues of the services (by far the largest coming from subscriptions), so the exclusion of this revenue would not make a significant difference in the royalty.  The Board also alludes to an argument that, as the non-music services do not rely on sound recordings, and as it could not be said that listeners come to these non-music services only because of the use of sound recordings on other music channels provided by the services, there was no reason to include the revenues that come specifically from the non-music channels in the base from which the royalty for the use of music is assessed.

In the initial decision, the Judges distinguished the percentage of revenue royalty used in satellite radio from that used in the Webcaster decision, finding that in the Webcaster case, there was difficulty in determining what revenue would be subject to the royalty.  In doing so, the CRB ignored the formulation offered by the Small Webcasters in the Internet radio case who had proposed a more inclusive royalty than that adopted in this case – a royalty on the entire amount of revenue that a service generated.  The satellite radio companies offer different lines of business not subject to the royalty (selling equipment, data services, and music services to satellite television companies) and have the issue of many channels that do not feature music, requiring the rate adjustments discussed above, while the Small Webcasters generally do not offer such other lines of business.

The rate that was set for the satellite radio services was based on a process similar to that which they used for setting the Internet radio royalty – the Board looked for comparable marketplace transactions on which to base a rate.  In assessing the rates that would be charged to the services in a marketplace transaction, the Board came up with a 13% rate.  That rate would be higher – probably over 20% – if it was based on just music programming.  But as a significant part of the satellite radio programming is not music oriented, the percentage of revenue (principally the subscription revenue) was adjusted to conclude that the sound recordings were worth about 13% of the services gross subscription revenues in a marketplace transaction.  However, as Section 801(b) applied to this case, the Board looked at the possible disruption to the satellite radio services that would occur if that rate was to be applied.  As the Board found that a 13% royalty would cause substantial disruption, it adjusted the rate to one that begins at 6% and increases to 8% over the term of the royalty.

This computation has significant implications for broadcasters who may be concerned about a potential performance royalty on over-the-air radio for its use of sound recordings.  The currently pending performance royalty bills recently introduced in Congress propose a willing buyer, willing seller model.  If those bills were adopted, and the same methodology were applied to broadcast radio as was used here, music radio might well end up with a 20% royalty (which we suggested was what SoundExchange might seek, see our post, here).  Imagine what such a royalty would do to the business of terrestrial radio – if 20% of music radio revenues were skimmed off the top to go to pay a performer’s royalty.

The final issue raised by SoundExchange’s rehearing motion was the claim that the Board should have taken into account the planned merger of the satellite radio companies, and their potential for cost-savings and increased profitability, which should have been factored into a lessening of the adjustment made to account for the potential disruption.  The Board rejected this argument, finding that the savings (and the merger itself) were speculative, and could not be assessed at this time. 

A close reading of the decision and rehearing denial should be of interest to broadcasters interested in what a sound recording royalty could do to their businesses, to webcasters to see what a difference a standard makes in determining a royalty, and by those interested in fairness in music licensing.  While SoundExchange is arguing to Congress about the "unfairness" of radio not paying a royalty when digital services do, no one seems to recognize the inherent unfairness of differing standards as applied to different services.  Even the new broadcast performance royalty bills perpetuate that unfairness – allowing broadcasters with less than $1.25 million in revenue to pay a flat $5,000, while webcasters with the same revenue would pay royalties twenty-five times that amount, even under the small webcasters deal offered by SoundExchange (see our post here).  Where is the fairness in music licensing?