In discussing music royalties, the controversy that usually makes the news is the dispute between music services and copyright holders – with services arguing that the royalties are too high and rightsholders contending that they are underpaid. The introduction of the Songwriters Equity Act in Congress earlier this year seems to point toward a new area of dispute – one between the various rightsholders themselves.  This issue was one that was much discussed on a panel that I moderated last week at the RAIN Summit West (audio of that panel is available here).  What is this conflict?

The Songwriters Equity Act, while not explicit in identifying the controversy, does point to the dispute. As we have written many times before, in any piece of recorded music, there are two copyrights – the sound recording copyright (also known as the “master recording,” the recording of a particular song by a particular artist, rights usually held by the record label), and the right to the musical work (or “musical composition,” the words and music to a song, usually held by a publishing company).  The proposed legislation suggests that the amount of the royalties for the public performance of sound recordings can be taken into account in setting the royalties that are payable to songwriters for the public performance of the songs that they have written.  This would amend Section 114(i) of the Copyright Act, which currently prohibits the consideration of the sound recording royalty in determining the rates to be paid for the public performance of musical works.  The proposed legislation would also substitute the “willing buyer, willing seller” standard for the 801(b) standard in setting rates under Section 115 of the Copyright Act, the mechanical royalty (see our discussion of the difference between these standards, here).  While this does not sound like a big deal, it may have a significant impact.
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Social media and other digital platforms are playing a more and more important part of the business of traditional media companies.  In the last few weeks, I’ve participated in two seminars, looking at the legal issues that arise in these areas.  At the Winter Convention of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, I conducted a seminar outlining the legal issues that broadcasters need to consider in their digital media endeavors.  The slides from that presentation are available here.  We talked about many issues, some of which I write about regularly (e.g. music rights), and others that I will write about more in coming weeks, including privacy, online sponsorship attribution, user-generated content, and other issues that arise in the online world.  One issue that we spent a significant amount of time discussing was copyright – including specifically concerns that can arise when stations take content found on the Internet – pictures, videos, music or other creative works – and appropriate it for their websites or other digital properties, without bothering to get permission. 

Many broadcast employees, as well as many others throughout society, think that if something is on the Internet, it is there to be used by others, and no rights need to be obtained to use that material.  That is incorrect, and can get users into trouble.  In recent months, we have seen many lawsuits filed against broadcasters, including against some of the biggest broadcasters in the country, over improper use of photographs found on the Internet.  What often happens is that someone at a station is putting together some content for a station website – say the arrival in town of some band whose music the station plays.  Rather than calling the band’s management company or the concert promoter to get pictures to use in the article about the artist or the upcoming show, the station employee finds some picture on the Internet, copies it through a simple mouse click or two, and pastes it onto the station’s website.  A few months later, a cease and desist letter arrives, or worse, an immediate demand is made for a significant sum of money, claiming that the use of the photo infringed on the copyright of the photographer who took the pictures.  How can this be, asks the station employee?  When someone posts something in the Internet, isn’t it free for anyone to use?
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50 years ago the Beatles invaded America, stacking up Number 1 hit records by the dozens, and creating music that, even today, remains incredibly popular with many Americans.  But go to many of the interactive or on-demand music services, like Spotify, and search for Beatles music, and what will you find?   Mostly cover tunes by sound-alike bands rather than the original hits.  But yet, on services where you can’t designate your next song, like Pandora, you can hear the original songs.  Why the difference?

As we wrote two years ago, when the Beatles first announced that their catalog would be licensed to iTunes as the first interactive service to get access to their music, such services need to get licenses from the copyright holder of the sound recordings (or “master recording” – a song as recorded by a particular artist) in order to play those songs. By contrast, the non-interactive services operate under a statutory license, where a digital music service pays a royalty set by the Copyright Royalty Board (or a negotiated rate agreed to in lieu of litigation before the CRB see our article here about the various rates that are currently available to webcasters, and our article here about the start of a new proceeding to determine what those rates will be from 2016-2020). If the service pays that royalty, and observes the requirements of the license (like the “performance complement” that limits the number of songs from the same artist that can be played in a given time period, the prior promotion of the playing of a song, and certain other matters – see our article on the performance complement here) – they can play any legally available sound recording available in the US, and the sound recording copyright holder can’t object.


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Another radio topic sure to be discussed at the NAB convention this week is the ongoing story of the thousands of FM applications translators still pending at the FCC from the 2003 FM translator window. While this has been a topic at many of the NAB Conventions in the last 10 years, it looks like the end is near. On Tuesday, the FCC adopted yet another order in the processing of these translators, allowing applicants who specified that they were noncommercial operators to amend their applications in a window from April 8 to April 17 to specify commercial operations. That is important to such applicants as, soon after these applications were filed back in 2003, the FCC adopted a policy that said that applicants who elect noncommercial processing could not participate in an auction – and that they would be dismissed if they were mutually exclusive with commercial applicants. Not allowing these applicants the opportunity to amend (as the FCC has done in several other auctions from this period), would mean that the applicants would be dismissed for a defect that had not been announced at the time of their filing.

This is but one more step in the ongoing attempts to complete the processing of these applications so as to permit a new LPFM window later in the year. This will probably mean that thousands of new FM translators will be granted in the coming months – providing opportunities for the expansion of broadcasters’ signals, either in the traditional way of filling in holes in the coverage of FM broadcast stations, or by allowing for the retransmission of AM and FM-HD signals. This should prompt many discussions at the NAB Convention as broadcasters look at the opportunities that these new translator stations will present.


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Broadcasters are inevitably moving toward a digital future – exploiting new Internet and mobile platforms to supplement their traditional over-the-air operations.  Last week, I conducted two sessions in Salt Lake City for the Utah Broadcasters Association, one on the legal issues to be considered in connection with broadcasters’ use of the digital media, and a second updating broadcasters on all the legal and regulatory issues that they face from Washington with their over-the-air operations.  Slides from the digital media presentation, Broadcasters Online: Legal Issues in the Cyber Jungle, are available here, and those from the broadcast update, the Top Ten Washington Issues that Should Keep Broadcasters Awake at Night, are available here.

To show how quickly things move in Washington, since the seminar, there have been two new developments that relate to topics discussed at the seminar.  On the day of the seminar, the Commission’s Enforcement Bureau came out with a policy statement about a certification that broadcasters need to include in all of their advertising contracts certifying that the advertising was not sold with a discriminatory purpose – as there will be a specific question about the certification in all license renewal applications.  We have summarized the requirements for the clause to be included in the advertising contract here


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Public performances, synch and master use licensing, sound recordings, musical compositions – what are all these terms, and how does a digital media company make sense of them and figure out where to go get permission to use music in their business?  These issues were discussed in a webinar that I did with my partner Rob Driscoll

Fines for noncommercial broadcasters who air acknowledgments of their donors and contributors that sound too much like commercials have been a problem area for many noncommercial educational radio and television stations, and have resulted in significant fines from the FCC.  The FCC allows "enhanced underwriting announcements" that identify a sponsor, what their business is,

The nuts and bolts of legal issues for broadcasters were highlighted in two sessions in which I participated at last week’s joint convention of the Oregon and Washington State Broadcasters Associations, held in Stephenson, Washington, on the Columbia River that divides the two states.  Initially, I conducted a seminar for broadcasters providing a refresher on their

The NAB Radio Show in Washington two weeks ago was a upbeat reflection of the present state of the broadcast industry.  But sandwiched around that conference, in the last three weeks, I have spoken at three digital media conferences – and as someone who has grown up on over-the-air radio, and based a career on representing radio stations, the discussions at these conferences raised many questions about the future of the radio industry. At the Radio and Internet Newsletter (RAIN) Summit East in DC, prior to the NAB Radio Show, I gave a summary of the royalty issues facing Internet Radio operators. At the Future of Music Policy Summit in DC the next week, I spoke on a panel on the Future of Radio. And at the Digital Music Forum West in Los Angeles last week, I moderated a panel on music licensing issue for digital media companies. At each of these conferences, the focus was on the digital media, not on over-the-air broadcasting, and many times the question was raised as to whether traditional radio was still relevant in the digital age. I’m not sure how many times I was asked, when I told someone that I am a lawyer who represents radio stations, what I plan to do next when my clients are extinct? Even in media-related industries, many seem to regard radio broadcasters as old-school – a throw back to some other entertainment era. Yet, what surprised me was how these same people who questioned the relevance of radio were all able to talk about what songs were or were not being played on the local rock station, or about the crazy thing some local DJ said that morning and the contests running on radio stations in their market, or about the story on NPR that kept them in their car seats when they were sitting in their driveway at home the night before.

At each of these conferences, in listening to the discussions of the issues facing all the new media (like how to make money), the dark view of radio seemed overblown.  Radio still seems to be a vital medium, especially if it can emphasize the advantages that it has. Harnessing the power of radio with digital media creates platforms that neither has on its own. In many ways radio, of all the traditional media, is best able to use its place in the media landscape to expand in the digital world. Radio has always excelled in reaching niche audiences, in much the same way that the Internet now does. By playing to its strengths, whether that be music, news, talk or sports, or some combination thereof, radio can expand its connection and provide broader and deeper services to its listeners, and serve its audiences like never before.  And all the digital media companies seem to recognize this potential, but seem to be discounting radio’s ability to capitalize on its advantages. 


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So you want to start streaming your radio station on the Internet?  Or maybe you want to start a whole new Internet radio station.  In a session at last week’s Texas Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention in Austin, Dave Oxenford talked about the legal considerations starting an Internet radio station, while Chris Dusterhoff