Broadcast Performance Royalty

Once upon a time, August was a quiet month in Washington, when everyone went on vacation. Sure, there are plenty of vacations that will happen this coming month, but it seems that regulatory activity no longer takes a break. For example, August 1 is the due date for the filing with the FCC of license renewals for all radio stations (including translators and LPFM stations) in North and South Carolina, and the filing of associated EEO forms for all full power radio stations in those states. With the renewal filing comes the obligation that these stations start airing, on August 1 and August 16, their post-filing announcements informing the public about the submission of the license renewal applications. Radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, who filed their renewals on or before June 2, also need to keep running their post-filing announcements on these same dates. Radio stations in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, who are in the next license renewal group with their renewal applications to be filed by October 1, need to start broadcasting their pre-filing announcements this month, also to run on the 1st and 16th of the month. See our post here on pre-filing announcements.

Commercial and noncommercial full power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM radio stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin that are part of an employment unit with five or more full-time employees must place their annual EEO public inspection file reports in their online public file. Links to those reports should also be placed on the home pages of these station’s websites, if they have a website. The effectiveness of these EEO public file reports, and the EEO programs of which they are a part, are being reviewed by the FCC in a proceeding started by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about which we wrote here. Comments on this notice asking for suggestions about how to make the EEO rules more effective are due August 21, with reply comments due by September 5.
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In a very important proceeding we summarized here, the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division is reviewing the antitrust consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI – the decrees that require that these performing rights organizations treat similarly situated licensees (and artists) in the same way and which allow a Court to review the reasonableness

The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division yesterday announced that it was starting a review of the ASCAP and BMI antitrust consent decrees that govern the United States’ two largest performing rights organizations for musical compositions (referred to as the “musical work”). The DOJ’s announcement of the initiation of the examination of the consent decrees poses a series of questions to which it invites interested parties – including users, songwriters, publishers and other interested parties – to file comments on the decrees, detailing which provisions are good and bad and, more broadly, whether there is a continuing need for the decrees at all. Comments are due on July 10.

This re-examination of the decrees has been rumored for many months. Back in March, we wrote about those rumors and the role that Congress may play in adopting replacement rules should the DOJ decide to fundamentally change the current provisions of the consent decrees. The DOJ itself just recently looked at the consent decrees, starting a review only 5 years ago with questions very similar to those it posed yesterday (see our post here on the initiation of the last review 5 years ago). That review ended with the DOJ deciding that only one issue needed attention, whether the decrees permitted “fractional licensing” of a song. We wrote about that complex issue here. That issue deals with whether, when a PRO gives a user a license to play a song, that user can perform the song without permission from other PROs when the song was co-written by songwriters who are members of different PROs. The DOJ suggested that permission from one PRO gave the user rights to the entire song, an interpretation of the decrees that was ultimately rejected by the rate courts reviewing the decrees (see our article here).   So, effectively, the multi-year review of the consent decrees that was just concluded led nowhere. But apparently the DOJ feels that it is time to do it all again. To fully understand the questions being asked, let’s look at what the consent decrees are, and why they are in place.
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Recently, the Radio Music License Committee sent out a memo to broadcasters about a July 8, 2019 SoundExchange payment deadline for pre-1972 sound recordings.  As with everything in copyright law, the issues surrounding pre-1972 sound recordings are complicated, and the RMLC notice, while seemingly straightforward, still resulted in our receiving lots of questions.  These questions may have been compounded because of notices sent to broadcasters back in April about another filing deadline concerning these recordings which caused much consternation for what was, for most broadcasters, a matter of little concern.  For most broadcasters, neither of these dates are of particular concern unless the broadcaster has been identifying pre-1972 sound recordings and not paying SoundExchange royalties when those songs are streamed, and we understand that most broadcasters have in fact been paying SoundExchange for these recordings.  But let’s try to explain what is going on in a little more detail.

First, let’s look at the basics.  Sound recordings (the recording of a particular band or singer performing a song) were originally not covered by federal copyright law.  The law provided protections for “musical works” (i.e. the musical composition, the words and musical notes of the song), but the mere recording of that work was initially not seen as a creative work.  It was thought of more as a mechanical rendering of the real creative work – the underlying song.  So when recordings came to have real value in the first half of the last century, recording artists had to rely on state laws to prevent other people from making and distributing copies of their recordings. Laws against what we would refer to as bootlegging or pirating of recordings were passed in most states, and lawsuits against bootleggers would be brought under these state laws.  It was not until 1972 that Congress, through an amendment to the Copyright Act, recognized that the recordings were themselves creative works entitled to copyright protection.  But that amendment did not fully make all pre-existing recordings subject to the Copyright Act, instead leaving most sound recordings first recorded in the United States prior to the adoption of the amendment to the Act in February 1972 subject to state laws until 2067.
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This week, the lawsuit brought by the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) against new performing rights organization GMR (Global Music Rights) for alleged violations of the antitrust laws was determined by a court in Pennsylvania to have been brought in the wrong place – and transferred to a court in California.  This case has been on hold for well over two years while this procedural question was ironed out.  Now that the case has been transferred to California, the litigation that has been on hold while the jurisdictional issue was resolved can begin – but don’t expect quick results as these complicated cases can take years to resolve.  What is involved in this case?

Back in 2016, when RMLC concluded that it was not likely to reach a negotiated royalty rate for radio’s use of the musical compositions controlled by GMR songwriters and publishers, it brought the Pennsylvania court action.  In that action, it argued that the rates that GMR wanted were an abuse of the market power that GMR was able to exercise by banding these songwriters together and offering a license to radio stations on an all-or-nothing basis (see our articles here and here for more on the initial suit).  As it had done successfully with SESAC (see our article here), and as has been the case for decades with ASCAP and BMI, RMLC had hoped to have the court declare that GMR’s unrestrained royalty demands were contrary to the antitrust laws, and that some limits should be imposed on those rates.  The RMLC suit against GMR was brought in the same Pennsylvania court in which RMLC had sued SESAC, which led to the settlement subjecting SESAC rates to arbitration if the parties could not voluntarily agree on rates (and the arbitration process ultimately resulted in significantly lower rates for commercial radio than SESAC had previously received – see our article here on the results of the arbitration).
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In the last few weeks, the press has been buzzing with speculation that the Department of Justice is moving toward suggesting changes in the antitrust consent decrees that govern the operations of ASCAP and BMI.  Those consent decrees, which have been in place since the 1940s, among other things require that these Performing Rights Organizations treat all songwriters alike in distributions based on how often their songs are played, and that they treat all services alike with users that provide the same kind of service all paying the same rate structure.  Rates are also reviewed by a court with oversight over the decrees when the PROs and music services cannot come to a voluntary agreement to arrive at reasonable rates.  The decrees have also been read to mean that songwriters, once part of the ASCAP or BMI collective, cannot withdraw with respect to certain services and negotiate with those services themselves while still remaining part of the collective with respect to other music users (see, e.g., our articles here and here about the desires of certain publishing companies to withdraw from these PROs to negotiate directly with certain digital services while still remaining in these PROs for licensing broadcasting and retail music users).

With this talk of reform of the consent decrees, Congress, particularly the Senate Judiciary Committee under the leadership of Senator Lindsey Graham, has reportedly stepped in, telling DOJ not to move to change the consent decrees without giving Congress the chance to intervene and devise a replacement system.  In fact, under the recently passed Music Modernization Act, notice to Congress is required before the DOJ acts.  Already, both the PROs and user’s groups are staking out sides.  What are they asking for?
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This week, the Radio Music License Committee issued a press release that states that Global Music Rights (“GMR”), the new performing rights organization that collects royalties for the public performance of songs written by a number of popular songwriters (including Bruce Springsteen, members of the Eagles, Pharrell Williams and others) has agreed to extend their

Last week, we noted that the Copyright Royalty Board had a notice on its website saying that, because of the government shutdown, it could not publish its notice soliciting petitions to participate in WEB V, the case to set webcasting royalties paid to SoundExchange by noninteractive webcasters (including broadcasters who simulcast their programming on the

Yesterday, I noted a news story about a bar that stopped hosting live music when it was hit with a lawsuit by BMI because it had not paid royalties for its use of music.  The issue of music in bars and restaurants also came up in a continuing legal education seminar on music licensing that I moderated the week before last.  Given that I have not written on this topic in some time, I thought that it was worth a reminder that retail outlets, including bars and restaurants, have to pay music royalties to ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and perhaps GMR for the performance of music in their venues, except if they fit within very detailed exceptions that allow for certain businesses to avoid those payments.

We wrote an article here that goes into detail on the exceptions.  Basically, for very small businesses, their employees can use a single device of the type used in a home to play music.  This exception was designed to allow businesses to allow their employees to have personal audio devices to entertain themselves.  So that portable radio on the counter of the dry cleaner or at the secretary’s desk can play music without paying royalties.  For larger businesses there is a different exception that allows them to avoid liability but only if they meet very specific rules. 
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Last week, the Copyright Royalty Board announced its calculations for whether there would be a cost of living increase in the 2019 rates that Internet radio stations pay to SoundExchange for the public performance of sound recordings. In its initial release on the subject, the CRB’s announcement indicated that commercial webcasters would continue to pay at the rate of $.0018 per performance (set after a cost of living increase last year – see our post here). But that same notice indicated that the per performance rate would be $.0019 for noncommercial webcasters with substantial listening (i.e., those that stream more than the 159,140 aggregate monthly tuning hours that noncommercial webcasters receive for a $500 yearly payment), causing some concern among noncommercial webcasters as their per performance rates were supposed to be based on what commercial webcasters paid. That notice was revealed to be a typo according to a Federal Register correction published today – keeping the noncommercial rates at $.0018 once the noncommercial webcaster exceeds the initial complement of streaming hours it gets for the $500 yearly minimum payment (see our initial article on that decision here, and one that provided more details here).

While the rates stay the same for 2019, and will stay substantially the same for 2020 (subject only to a cost of living increase, if any), 2019 will begin the CRB proceeding for the setting of webcaster’s SoundExchange royalty rates for 2021-2026. The CRB sets rates in 5 year increments. But the proceedings to set those rates normally take two years to complete, so the proceeding to set the rates to be effective in 2021 will begin with interested parties filing petitions to participate in the proceeding following a CRB invitation to file, likely to be released at the beginning of 2019. Once parties have filed to participate, the CRB will announce a mandatory 90 day period in which the parties are to try to settle the case. If there is no settlement, the litigation will run through the remainder of 2019 and 2020, with a decision to be issued by the end of 2020.
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