When the President issues an Executive Order asking for examination of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which permitted the growth of so many Internet companies, broadcasters and other media companies ask what effect the action may have on their operations.  On an initial reading, the impact of the order is very uncertain, as much of it simply calls on other government agencies to review the actions of online platforms.  But, given its focus on “online platforms” subject to the immunity from liability afforded by Section 230, and given the broad reach of Section 230 protections as interpreted by the Courts to cover any website or web platform that hosts content produced by others, the ultimate implications of any change in policy affecting these protections could be profound.  A change in policy could affect not only the huge online platforms that it appears to target, but even media companies that allow public comments on their stories, contests that call for the posting of content developed by third parties to be judged for purposes of awarding prizes, or the sites of content aggregators who post content developed by others (e.g. podcast hosting platforms).

Today, we will look at what Section 230 is, and the practical implications of the loss of its protections would have for online services.  The implications include the potential for even greater censorship by these platforms of what is being posted online – seemingly the opposite of the intent of the Executive Order triggered by the perceived limitations imposed on tweets of the President and on the social media posts of other conservative commentators.   In a later post, we’ll look at some of the other provisions of the Executive Order, and the actions that it is asks other government agencies (including the FCC and the FTC) to take. 
Continue Reading The President’s Executive Order on Online Media – What Does Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act Provide?

Rights of publicity and privacy can present issues for podcasters and other media companies who feature people in their productions.  Almost two years ago, we wrote about the lawsuit brought by the surviving family members of the character who was central to the S-Town podcast. The podcast focused much of its attention on the life of this individual who was not an elected official or any other sort of public figure. As the individual died before the podcast’s release, the family sued on his behalf, arguing that the podcast violated his rights of publicity.  The lawsuit now has reportedly been settled.  That settlement suggests that we should repeat the advice that we gave when the suit was first filed, as that advice remains relevant today.

Various states grant individuals rights of publicity to exploit their names, likeness, or stories – essentially barring others from exploiting that person without his or her permission. Other state laws grant individuals a right of privacy to keep private facts private. While the details and exceptions to these rights differ from state to state, they generally do not restrict bona fide news stories about public figures or reporting on other matters that are in the public interest – and the First Amendment provides broad protections for truthful stories about public figures.  Most broadcasters and other media companies don’t routinely run up against the restrictions set out in these laws in their day-to-day coverage of news events. But the analysis may be significantly different when a podcast or other media production gets into the stories of individuals who are not public figures.
Continue Reading S-Town Podcast Lawsuit Settled – Reminder on Getting Releases from Podcast Subjects

Music licensing issues are always confusing.  At the request of streaming service provider Live365 which hosted World Audio Day as a virtual substitute for our all getting together at last month’s cancelled NAB Convention in Las Vegas, I participated in a discussion of those issues, trying to provide the basics as to who gets paid

This week, the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Significant Viewing was published in the Federal Register, setting a comment deadline of May 14, with reply comments due by June 15.  The NPRM asks for comments as to whether the FCC should update its rules for establishing whether or not a TV station is “significantly viewed” in a market other than the one in which it is located, and whether the FCC has the statutory authority to make changes to these rules that have largely been in effect since 1972.

A determination of significantly viewed status is important for determining whether a cable system or satellite television company will carry a TV station in areas that are not part of its home market.  For FCC purposes, significantly viewed stations generally are not subject to the network nonduplication and syndicated exclusivity protections provided to home market stations – meaning that their programming that duplicates that of a local station need not be blacked out by the MVPD at the request of the local station that has the rights to such programming in that market.  For copyright purposes, if a station has significantly viewed status, the MVPD pays at the low rates applicable to a local station pays for the compulsory copyright license needed to carry all of the programming of a television station.  If the station is not significantly viewed, the much higher “distant signal” rate applies, giving the MVPD far less incentive to carry such stations.
Continue Reading Comment Dates Set on Possible Revision to Rules on Significantly Viewed Television Stations for MVPD Carriage Purposes – What Is Being Asked?

In an interesting Court decision from the Southern District of New York, a judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by a photographer for the use of her photo without permission by the website Mashable.  Mashable defended against the claim by arguing that it did not need a license directly from the photographer as it had not posted her photo on its website but had instead embedded that photo using an API from Instagram.  An API allowed the photo to display on the user’s computer with content from the Mashable site, even though the photo was actually coming from Instagram.  Thus, Mashable did not itself host the photo – the photo was hosted and served by Instagram pursuant to the rights that the photographer had granted to Instagram by posting a public photo to that site.  As the Instagram Terms of Use give the company a license to make photos posted on its site available through its API, the Court found that the use of the photo by Mashable was permissible as it had a valid sublicense to use that photo from Instagram through use of the API.  As it had a valid sublicense, it did not need a license directly from the photographer.  The photographer had authorized Instagram to sublicense her photos by agreeing to Instagram’s Terms of Use and not restricting the viewing of that photo to private groups.

This Court’s decision is interesting for two reasons.  First, it seems to contradict a decision about which we wrote here that suggested that the use of an embedded photo was not enough to defeat a claim of liability where the embedded photo was posted on a site to appear to the public to be part of that site.  That other decision focused more on how content appeared to the end-user than it did on the issue of a sublicense as does this case.  Even so, it is likely that there will need to be more litigation and some higher court decisions before there is any final resolution of just how safe it is to embed content from a social media site on your website without permission of the creator of that content.
Continue Reading Court Decision Dismissing Photographer’s Lawsuit Shows Breadth of Rights Granted to Social Media and Denies Infringement Claim for Instagram Embedded Photo

The judge presiding over the royalty litigation between BMI and the Radio Music Licensing Committee (RMLC) approved the settlement between these parties by an order released on March 23.  At the same time, the judge approved an order keeping the specifics of the approved settlement confidential for 30 days while the settlement is being implemented

As Washington reacts to the coronavirus, there are certainly regulatory implications to broadcasters and other media companies.  The FCC Thursday announced that its headquarters is closed to visitors and that its employees should begin to telework.  Many FCC employees regularly took advantage of telework options before the current situation, so it can be expected that many routine application processing activities (particularly those involving electronically filed applications) should be able to proceed with relatively minimal delays.  What remains to be seen is the ability of the FCC to handle more complex matters that often involve meetings with stakeholders and among FCC staff before decisions are made.  While these too can be handled electronically and telephonically, the speed of FCC actions may well be slower than normal as technological issues are worked out and as the FCC may be called on to address telecommunications matters related to combatting the virus.

The FCC’s Audio Division, on Friday, released a Public Notice describing some special processes it will use in light of the teleworking policy.  First, college and university stations can rely on the FCC rules that exempt these stations from the FCC’s minimum operating schedule during recess periods without the need for a special temporary authority.  The current college shutdowns will be treated as recess periods.
Continue Reading Washington Reacts to the Virus – FCC Closed to Visitors and Its Employees Told to Telework; Audio Division Issues Guidance for Radio Regulatory Filings, and Copyright Office Postpones Webcasting Royalty Trial

The Radio Music License Committee yesterday told members that Global Music Rights (“GMR”), the performing rights organization that began a few years ago to collect royalties for the public performance of songs written by a select number of popular songwriters (including Bruce Springsteen, members of the Eagles, Pharrell Williams and others who have withdrawn from ASCAP and BMI) has agreed to extend its interim license for commercial radio stations until March 31, 2021. The notice says that GMR will be contacting stations that signed the previous extension (through March 31 of this year) to extend the interim license for another year on the same terms now in place. If you don’t hear from GMR by March 15, the RMLC suggests that you reach out to GMR directly (do not contact RMLC as they cannot help) to inquire about this extension.

As we have written before (see our articles here, here and here), GMR and the RMLC are in protracted litigation over whether or not the rates set by GMR should be subject to some sort of antitrust review, as are the rates set by ASCAP, BMI and even SESAC (see our article here on the SESAC rates). GMR has counterclaimed, arguing that RMLC is a “buyer’s cartel” in violation of the antitrust laws.  Earlier this year, the lawsuits were consolidated in a court in California, where litigation is ongoing (see our article here about the transfer).  In our most recent article about the litigation, we noted that the court rejected motions from each party asking that the other’s claims be dismissed.  Thus, unless there is a settlement, the case will go to trial.  The decision to extend the interim license for a year, instead of the six-month period in previous extensions, may indicate that GMR at least expects that the litigation will continue.
Continue Reading Another Interim License Extension Offered by GMR to Radio Broadcasters – This Time for a Full Year – An Indication of the Status of the Litigation With RMLC? 

Global Music Rights, the relatively new performing rights organization that signed a number of composers of popular songs away from ASCAP and BMI in order to seek higher music royalties for the public performance of their works on radio stations and other media platforms (see our articles here and here), lost one round in its litigation with the Radio Music License Committee in RMLC’s attempt to bring GMR under some sort of rate review under the antitrust laws.  RMLC has alleged that GMR, by combining multiple artists in a single essentially take-it-or-leave-it package, is able to charge rates well above what any artists could receive on its own, thus violating the antitrust laws (see our articles here and here).  This is a theory like the one which lead to an arbitration with SESAC dramatically lowering royalty rates the radio industry pays to that organization (see our articles here and here).  In a decision released Friday, the Judge presiding over RMLC’s case rejected GMR’s arguments that the suit should be dismissed without a trial.   The Judge, in a short three-page opinion, said that viewed in their most favorable light to RMLC (which is the standard used in deciding on such motions), the facts alleged by RMLC were enough to support the claims it made in the lawsuit, so the case will go to trial.

But this is not necessarily a great victory, as the Judge notes that it remains to be seen whether, when the full facts are introduced at the trial and challenged by GMR, these facts will in fact be enough to sustain the claims of RMLC.  A similar finding was made in GMR’s countersuit – arguing that RMLC formed an illegal buyer’s cartel in violation of the antitrust laws by trying to negotiate royalty rates for most commercial radio operators (see our article here on that countersuit).  The Court rejected RMLC’s argument that the GMR suit should be dismissed, finding that there were enough facts raised to potentially support GMR’s claims, though also warning that it remained to be seen if, once the facts were presented and challenged at trial, whether they indeed would sustain GMR’s claims.
Continue Reading Litigation Continues as Court Rejects GMR Motion to Dismiss RMLC Lawsuit – and RMLC’s Request to Dismiss GMR Claims

BMI and the Radio Music License Committee announced a settlement of their rate court litigation over the royalties that commercial radio will pay for the public performance of musical compositions licensed by BMI.  While we have not yet seen the agreement, the press release already raises one issue likely to sew confusion in the broadcast industry – the extent to which the agreement allows the use of music in podcasts.  While the press release says that the BMI license includes the use of music in podcasts, radio stations should not assume that means that they can start to play popular music in their podcasts without obtaining the rights to that music directly from rightsholders.  They cannot, as BMI controls only a portion of the rights necessary to use music in podcasts and, without obtaining the remaining rights to that music, a podcaster using the music with only a BMI license is looking for a copyright infringement claim.

So why doesn’t the license from BMI fully cover the use of music in a podcast?  As we have pointed out before, a broadcaster or other media company that has performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and even GMR does not get the right to podcast music – nor do the SoundExchange royalty payments cover podcasts. These organizations all collect for the public performance of music. While podcasts may require a performance license (see our article here about how Alexa and other smart speakers are making the need for such licenses more apparent as more and more podcast listening is occurring through streaming rather than downloads), they also require rights to the reproduction and distribution of the copyrighted songs and the right to make derivative works – all additional rights given to copyright owners under the Copyright Act. These additional rights are not covered by the public performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR and SoundExchange, nor are the rights to use the “sound recording” or “master” in the podcast. What is the difference between these rights?
Continue Reading BMI Settlement of Royalty Battle with RMLC to Include Music in Podcasts? – Not So Fast….