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.
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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of popular songwriters (including Bruce Springsteen, members of the Eagles, Pharrell Williams and others who have withdrawn from ASCAP and BMI) has agreed to extend its interim license for commercial radio stations until March 31, 2021.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.
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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.
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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?
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Most years, at some point in January, we look into our crystal ball and try to see some of the legal and regulatory issues likely to face broadcasters.  We already provided a calendar of the routine regulatory filings that are due this year (see our Broadcaster’s Regulatory Calendar).  But not on that calendar are the policy issues that will affect the regulatory landscape in the coming year, and into the future.  This year, the biggest issue will no doubt be the November election.  Obviously, broadcasters must deal with the many day-to-day issues that arise in an election year including the rates to be charged political candidates, the access to airtime afforded to those candidates, and the challenges associated with the content of issue advertising that non-candidate groups seek to transmit to the public.  The election in November will also result in a President being inaugurated in just less than a year – which could signal a continuation of the current policies at the FCC or potentially send the Commission in a far different direction.  With the time that the election campaigns will demand from Congress, and its current attention to the impeachment, Congress is unlikely to have time to tackle much broadcast legislation this year.

The broadcast performance royalty is one of those issues likely on hold this year.  While it was recently re-introduced in Congress (see our article here), it is a struggle for any copyright legislation to get through Congress and, in a year like the upcoming one, moving a bill like the controversial performance royalty likely will likely not be high on the priorities of Congressional leaders.  This issue will not go away – it will be back in future Congresses – so broadcasters still need to consider a long-term strategy to deal with the issue (see, for instance, our article here on one such strategy that also helps resolve some of the music royalty issues we mention later in this article).
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For several years, I have posted guidelines about engaging in or accepting advertising or promotions that directly or indirectly reference the Super Bowl without a license from the NFL (see, e.g. our articles here and here).  It’s that time of year again, so here is an updated version of my prior posts.

The Super Bowl means big bucks.  It is estimated that each of the three television networks that broadcasts the Super Bowl pays the NFL over $1 billion per year for the right to broadcast NFL games through 2022, including the right to broadcast the big game on a rotating basis once every three years.  The investment seems to pay off for the networks.  The Super Bowl broadcast alone generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the networks from advertisers.  In addition to the sums paid to have their commercials aired (reported to be approximately $5.6 million for a 30-second spot), many advertisers spend more than $1 million to produce each ad.  In addition, the NFL receives hundreds of millions of dollars from licensing the use of the SUPER BOWL trademark and logo.

Given the value of the Super Bowl franchise, it is not surprising that the NFL is extremely aggressive in protecting its golden goose from anything it views as unauthorized efforts to trade off the goodwill associated with the game.  Accordingly, with the coin toss almost upon us, advertisers must take special care before publishing ads or engaging in promotional activities that refer to the Super Bowl.  Broadcasters and news publishers have greater latitude than other businesses, but still need to be wary of engaging in activities that the NFL may view as trademark or copyright infringement.  (These risks also apply to other named sporting events, for example, making use of the terms “Final Four” or “March Madness” in connection with the upcoming NCAA Basketball Tournament – see, for instance, our articles here and here.)
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In the last week, we have received many inquiries from radio stations that received a notice from attorneys for Global Music Rights (GMR) about document production in GMR’s litigation with the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC).  As we have written before (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), RMLC and GMR have for several years been engaged in antitrust litigation.  RMLC is seeking to impose outside review on the rates that GMR can charge broadcasters for the public performance of the music written by the songwriters that they represent, while GMR argues that RMLC itself violates the antitrust laws by unifying competing broadcasters and preventing them from doing business with GMR.

The recent communications from GMR concern GMR’s obligation to produce documents to the RMLC’s attorneys in discovery in this litigation.  Because RMLC has not been directly involved in GMR’s dealings with radio stations over the interim license agreements (and because RMLC itself does not have copies of the interim licenses that stations entered into with GMR), RMLC’s lawyers asked GMR for the production of these licenses as part of their discovery.  Because the interim licenses contain some confidentiality language, GMR’s recent communications was to let stations know that they are planning to produce those licenses to the RMLC’s attorneys, subject to the Protective Orders that GMR attached to their messages.  These Protective Orders are designed to keep the information in those licenses out of the public record, to be reviewed only by a limited group of people including RMLC’s attorneys and expert witnesses. The GMR communications are asking broadcasters if they have objections to the production of these licenses to RMLC’s lawyers.     
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Late last month, the Ask Musicians For Music Act (the “AMFM Act”) was introduced in both the House and Senate. If enacted, the AMFM Act would impose on over-the-air broadcast radio stations a performance royalty for the use of sound recordings in their programming. This is yet another bill proposing that the current royalty that requires that digital music services pay royalties both for the use of musical compositions (as already paid by broadcasters) and the sound recording (currently paid by broadcasters only for the Internet streams of their programming) be extended to cover all over-the-air broadcasts by radio stations. Extending the sound recording performance royalty to over-the-air radio has been proposed many times before (see, for instance, our articles hereherehere and here), but this is the first time that the proposal has been advanced in the current session of Congress. Similar bills were introduced last session before the 2018 elections but were never brought to a vote in either the House or the Senate – see our post here.

As we’ve written before, the royalties that broadcasters pay to ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and even GMR are paid to the composers of music (and the copyright holders in the musical compositions, usually a publishing company). Sound recording royalties are paid to the performers (and the copyright holders in the performances, usually the record labels). These are the royalties that broadcasters pay to SoundExchange when they stream their programming on the Internet. Historically, in the US, broadcasters and other businesses who play sound recordings are not subject to a performance royalty for the use of those sound recordings (except for digital audio music services who do pay sound recording performance royalties in the US), though such royalties are paid in many other countries in the world. This bill proposes to make broadcasters pay for their over-the-air performances. Under the provisions of the bill, the Copyright Royalty Board would set these royalties along with those paid by digital audio services, and the royalties would be paid to SoundExchange.
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Global Music Rights (most commonly known as GMR), the newest of the major performing rights organizations (PROs) licensing public performances of musical compositions, filed a lawsuit against radio operator Entravision Communications earlier this month. The suit alleges that Entravision failed to pay GMR royalties for the public performance of hundreds of compositions written by GMR songwriters. According to the complaint, GMR sent Entravision several letters over the last few years, notifying Entravision that it was playing GMR music and asking that it enter into a license to play that music. When no license was signed or even requested after these multiple requests, the lawsuit was filed.

The suit seeks $150,000 for each copyrighted work that was allegedly infringed – the maximum set out by the Copyright Act for “statutory damages,” i.e. damages that can be collected even without providing evidence of actual harm caused by the alleged copyright infringement. While Courts have discretion to order far lower statutory damages than those being sought here, even the threat of such damages have been enough to put many of the original file-sharing music sites out of business. Of course, in this case, these damages are being sought not from some company that provides unlimited downloads of unlicensed music, but from a publicly traded radio company presumably already paying other performing rights organizations for the use of music.
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