We’ve previously written about the value of music in connection with the royalties to be paid by Internet Radio and the performance royalty (or "performance tax" as it’s labeled by the NAB) proposed for broadcasters. One of the questions that has always been raised in any debate about royalties, and one often dismissed by the record industry, is to what extent is there a promotional value of having music played on the radio or streamed by a webcaster.  In discussions of the broadcast performance royalty, record company representatives have suggested that, whether or not there is promotional value of the broadcast of music, that should have no impact on whether the royalty is paid. Instead, argue the record companies, the creator of music deserves to be paid whether or not there is some promotional value. The analogy is often made to sports teams – that the teams get promotional value by having their games broadcast but are nevertheless paid by stations for the rights to such games. The argument is that music should be no different. That contention, that the artist deserves to be paid whether or not there is promotional value may be tested in connection with what was once thought to be an unlikely source of promotional value for music – the video game Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero, in its various versions released over the last few years, has proven to be a very effective tool for the promotion of music – with various classic rock bands experiencing significant sales growth whenever their songs are featured on a new version of the game. The use of a sound recording in a video game is not subject to any sort of statutory royalty – the game maker must receive a license negotiated with the copyright holder of the recording – usually the record company.  In previous editions of the game, Guitar Hero has paid for music rights. However, now that the game has proved its value in promoting the sale of music, the head of Activision, the company that owns the game, has suggested in a Wall Street Journal interview that it should be the record companies that are paying him to include the music in the game – and no doubt many artists would gladly do so for the promotional value they realize from the game. 

If this stratagem were to succeed, there may be an impact far beyond this particular game. In any decision of the Copyright Royalty Board as to the value of music in assessing what a willing buyer and a willing seller would agree to in a marketplace, the Board has always assumed that there would be some agreed upon value of music, as interactive or on-demand providers of music, such as video game makers, have traditionally paid for the use of the music they feature. Were this paradigm to change, music services could well argue that Internet radio and other services that are subject to the royalty should pay little or nothing for that royalty given the promotional value that they deliver. Of course, part of any such analysis would be proof. In the case of Guitar Hero, which features a limited selection of music, Activision can show that the sale of the featured music climbs coincident with a new release of a version of the game that features that music. Internet radio, on the other hand, which features a wide variety of music over a prolonged period, music that may also be featured on other services, has a harder time demonstrating the direct connection between airplay and music sales. But tests could be conducted (see RAIN’s proposal for the Three Dog Night test, here). It may very well benefit companies to conduct such tests before the next CRB proceeding, scheduled to begin next year.