In one more indication that the Broadcast Performance Royalty (or "performance tax" as opponents of the legislation call it) is not dead yet is an article in yesterday’s New York Times reviewing the issues at stake in the proceeding. What was perhaps most interesting about that article was the fact that it appeared only one page away from an article about Internet Radio service Pandora, and a discussion of how that hugely popular service was almost driven out of business by music royalties set by the Copyright Royalty Board in their 2007 royalty decision. The article about the broadcast performance royalty mentions that one of the difficulties in assessing the impact of the proposed royalty is that no one knows how much it will be, as it would be set by the Copyright Royalty Judges on the CRB. Yet the Times makes no mention of the controversy over the previous decisions of the Board in the context of the Internet radio royalties, and how such royalties almost impacted services such as Pandora.
How much would the proposed royalties on broadcasters be? We have written before on that subject,here. Under previous decisions using the "willing buyer, willing seller" royalty standard which is set out in the legislation that has passed House and Senate Judiciary committees dealing with this issue, the lowest royalty for the use of music in any case before the CRB has been 15% of gross revenues. Even using a standard seemingly more favorable to the copyright user (the 801(b) standard that assesses more than the economic value of the music but also looks at the impact that the royalty would have on the stability of the industry on which it is imposed), the royalties have been in the vicinity of 7% of gross revenues for both satellite radio and digital cable radio, the two services that are subject to royalties set using the 801(b) standard. This is more than broadcasters currently pay to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC – rates which are also currently the subject of proceedings to determine if these rates should be changed (see our posts here and here).
In fact, several trade press articles today suggest that the NAB is at least talking to record company executives about a way to resolve the issue in a "revenue neutral" manner. This would presumably mean that broadcasters would pay no more for music than they are currently paying – seemingly meaning that ASCAP, BMI and SESAC would have to take less than they are currently. As the current broadcaster negotiations with ASCAP and BMI may well be headed toward a trial, this may be a difficult negotiation. But, in the world of copyright law, the negotiations all seem difficult, as the users of copyrighted materials and the copyright owners quite often seem to have vastly different views on the value of copyrighted materials, and their relative contributions toward the value of that material. In the broadcast debate, broadcasters contend that copyright owners would have less value in their copyrighted material without the promotional value conveyed by broadcast airplay, while the copyright owners contend that broadcasters could not profitably operate their stations without the use of the copyrighted music. Music composers and publishers (represented by ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) also would argue with those who own the copyrights in the sound recordings (usually the record companies) about whether it is the song or the performance of that song that conveys more value. These debates are not easy ones to resolve.
We have also seen articles in trade publications that suggest that the broadcast performance royalty issue is dead for this Congressional session, given the other issues that Congress has to deal with, and the over 255 signatures in the House of Representatives on a resolution opposing the royalty. But, as we have written before, there is still the fear that the bill could be added as a rider to some other piece of unrelated legislation that must pass Congress and against which some of the resolution’s signers could not vote. Clearly, given the Times article, and the continuing push given this issue by the Music First Coalition supporting the imposition of the royalty, broadcasters cannot sit back and assume that the issue is dead. That was one reason why this was such an important issue on the agenda of broadcasters who visited Congress last week during the NAB’s Leadership Conference in Washington, and behind ads that have run on stations over the last month bringing the issue to the attention of the public. It is an issue that cannot be overlooked.