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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At almost every broadcast conference, there is a discussion of using Alexa, Google Home and other smart speakers and digital assistants to increase the reach of broadcast radio stations. Discussions of how to get listeners to tune in and how to monetize the listeners on these new platforms are regularly included. But rarely is there a discussion of the music royalty impact of transitioning radio listeners to these digital platforms. Given these continuing discussions about smart speakers, and the apparent lack of focus on royalty issues, I thought that it was worth re-running this article that I posted earlier this year.

In the last year, the popularity of Alexa, Google Home and similar “smart speaker” devices has led to discussions at almost every broadcast conference of how radio broadcasters should embrace the technology as the new way for listeners to access radio programming in their homes. Broadcasters are urged to adopt strategies to take advantage of the technology to keep listeners listening to their radio stations through these new devices. Obviously, broadcasters want their content where the listeners are, and they have to take advantage of new platforms like the smart speaker. But in doing so, they also need to be cognizant that the technology imposes new costs on their operations – in particular increased fees payable to SoundExchange.

Never mentioned at these broadcast conferences that urge broadcasters to take advantage of these smart speakers is the fact that these speakers, when asked to play a radio station, end up playing that station’s stream, not its over-the-air signal. For the most part, these devices are not equipped with FM chips or any other technology to receive over-the-air signals. So, when you ask Alexa or Google to play your station, you are calling up a digital stream, and each digital stream gives rise to the same royalties to SoundExchange that a station pays for its webcast stream on its app or through a platform like TuneIn or the iHeartRadio. For 2018, those royalties are $.0018 per song per listener (see our article here). In other words, for each song you play, you pay SoundExchange about one-fifth of a cent for each listener who hears it. These royalties are in addition to the royalties paid to ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and, for most commercial stations, GMR.
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The US Court of Appeals today released a decision upholding the Copyright Royalty Board’s 2015 decision setting the SoundExchange royalty rates for 2016-2020. We wrote about that decision here, and provided more details here. In any appeal of an agency decision, the Court routinely affords the agency deference in reaching its decision. The Court will not overturn that decision unless it has no basis in the record developed on the matter before the agency, or unless the agency decision was arbitrary and capricious – in plain English, the agency did not reach a logical conclusion based on the facts before it. That means that the Courts will not overturn a decision just because the agency might have logically reached another decision – but instead it will only intervene where the agency came to a conclusion that could not be logically supported. In this case, no reason to overturn the CRB decision was found.

SoundExchange on appeal had attacked the CRB decision on several grounds – arguing that several defects led to an inappropriate decision as to the rates that would have been determined by a “willing buyer and willing seller” in a marketplace, the standard to be used by the CRB in setting rates. SoundExchange attacked the benchmarks that were relied on by the CRB to set the rates (the direct licensing deals on royalties arrived at between webcasters Pandora and iHeart Media and various record companies) arguing that these rates were too low as they were negotiated in the “shadow of the statutory license.” They argued that the only direct deals that could have been done were ones that were lower than the rates established by the CRB during the prior rate term, as no music service would agree to higher rates. Arguments were also raised that these rates relied on “steering” – the prospect that labels who agreed to the rates had songs played more frequently than those that did not agree to lower rates. SoundExchange argued that not all labels could take advantage of steering (as a label can only get the benefit of steering when a service is playing less of the music of labels that did not pay for steering). The appeals also challenged the determination that a qualified auditor to check royalty compliance had to be a CPA licensed in the state where the audit was conducted.
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Two years ago, a District Court Judge, in a case brought against a broadcaster alleging that the broadcaster owed money under California state law for playing pre-1972 sound recordings, dismissed the suit finding that the broadcaster was playing digitized versions of those songs, created after 1972, which were covered under Federal copyright law (we wrote about that decision here). Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its decision reversing the District Court’s opinion and sending the case back to the District Court for additional hearings. The Court of Appeals concluded, for several reasons, that there was likely insufficient creativity in the remastering of the pre-1972 sound recordings to make them new post-1972 copyrighted works and that, even if they were creative enough to merit copyright protection as a derivative work, that did not end the discussion, as portions of the original pre-1972 work were included in any new work and those portions themselves had to be licensed. The decision looks like a simple premise that digitization is no magic bullet to defeat pre-1972 sound recording claims, but there is much to unpack in this seemingly straightforward decision.

First, we need to provide a little background on the litigation over pre-1972 sound recordings. Federal law did not recognize a copyright in sound recordings until 1972. So while the underlying musical composition in a song was protected under Federal law, a recording by a particular band or singer was not. When these recordings were federalized, the Copyright Act explicitly left all rights regarding pre-1972 sound recordings in the hands of state law until 2067. For over 40 years, that quirk in copyright law did not seem to have much relevance, though some US digital music services did not pay royalties to SoundExchange for digital performances of those recordings as they were not covered by Section 114 of the Copyright Act (the section creating the statutory royalty for sound recordings). About 5 years ago, the singers Flo and Eddie (formerly of the 1960s band the Turtles) started bringing lawsuits throughout the country alleging that they were owed performance royalties under state law for these pre-1972 recordings from both digital and analog services (see our article here when the first suit was filed). In most states, those suits have been dismissed with courts finding that state law did not provide for a performance right in these pre-1972 recordings (see our articles about decisions in New York, Florida and Georgia reaching that conclusion). The issue in California, however, is still open. For a deeper dive into these issues, see our article here.
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The FCC routinely, at the request of Congress, does a study of the Video Marketplace. That study is submitted to Congress so that Congress can use it as a factual basis for any legislative issues that may come up dealing with the TV marketplace. The FCC has not previously done this sort of routine study of the audio marketplace. However, in recent legislation, Congress included a requirement that the FCC, in the last quarter of every even numbered year, provide such a report. Yesterday, the FCC released a Public Notice asking a number of questions about the marketplace, to which they seek information to be included in the report.

The questions asked include:

  • The identification of players in the audio marketplace, and a description of their business models and competitive strategies
  • The trends in service offerings and consumer behavior
  • Whether or not there is competition between the players in the marketplace
  • Ratings, revenue and subscriber information about players in the market
  • Information about investment in the market, and the deployment of new technologies
  • Information about what is needed for entry into the market
  • Information as to who has recently entered the market, and who has exited it
  • Regulatory barriers to entry and competition in the marketplace

The FCC is looking for data from 2016 and 2017, as well as any new information that is available from this year.  What will this data be used for?
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Next Wednesday, July 25, I will be speaking at the Podcast Movement Conference in Philadelphia, as part of the Broadcasters Meet Podcasters Track, discussing legal issues that broadcasters need to consider as they move some of their content into podcasts. One of the topics that I will be discussing will be the music royalty obligations of podcasters who use music in their programs. A month ago, we wrote about how broadcasters’ streaming royalties are affected by smart speakers like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home, as these speakers play the digital streams of a radio station’s programs where SoundExchange royalties must be paid, as opposed to the over-the-air signal of the station, where no such royalties are owed. These smart speakers may have an impact on podcasters royalties, affecting who needs to be paid in connection with the use of music in podcasts.

When I initially started to write about issues of music use in podcasts, my emphasis was on the need to secure direct licenses from performers and composers (or their record companies and publishing companies) for the rights to make reproductions and distributions of music in podcasts. When digital content is downloaded, it triggers rights under copyright law implicating the reproduction and distribution rights of copyright holders (see our article here), as opposed to their public performance rights – the rights with which broadcasters are most familiar as those are the rights that they obtain when paying Performing Rights Organizations ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR in connection with their over-the-air broadcasts and those PROs plus SoundExchange in connection with noninteractive digital streaming. When podcasts were something that were downloaded, just like the purchase of a download of a song from the iTunes music store, it was the reproduction and distribution rights that were triggered, and conventional wisdom was that the PROs had no role to play in the licensing of downloaded media. As technology has changed, the analysis of what rights you need to use music in podcasts may well be changing too. The direct licensing of music for your podcast is still needed – but a public performance right may well also be necessary.
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By now, you have probably heard that the European Union (EU) has a new data protection law on the books, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – but what are the new rules, and how might they apply to broadcasters? Below we address these and other commonly asked questions about the GDPR.

What is the GDPR? The GDPR is a new European privacy law that, as of May 25, 2018, generally governs how organizations – including those EU-based and many that are not – collect, use, disclose, or otherwise “process” personal information. While some limited exceptions exist (e.g., businesses with fewer than 250 employees are exempt from some requirements), the GDPR imposes an array of obligations on companies subject to it.

Who does the GDPR apply to? The GDPR clearly applies to companies established in the EU that collect personal information about individuals in the EU, but it also claims a broad extraterritorial reach. Indeed, it can apply to organizations, including broadcasters, without an EU presence. For instance, it can apply to broadcasters who collect or use data to provide services like streaming TV or radio to individuals in the EU. It also can apply to broadcasters who use website cookies and other online tracking mechanisms to “monitor” individuals in the EU (e.g., profiling for behavioral advertising). That said, it remains to be seen whether regulators will enforce the GDPR against companies that for the most part are not serving EU citizens and do not have EU operations, but may occasionally and unknowingly acquire data of an individual in the EU or an EU citizen in the United States.
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In the last year, the popularity of Alexa, Google Home and similar “smart speaker” devices has led to discussions at almost every broadcast conference of how radio broadcasters should embrace the technology as the new way for listeners to access radio programming in their homes. Broadcasters are urged to adopt strategies to take advantage of the technology to keep listeners listening to their radio stations through these new devices. Obviously, broadcasters want their content where the listeners are, and they have to take advantage of new platforms like the smart speaker. But in doing so, they also need to be cognizant that the technology imposes new costs on their operations – in particular increased fees payable to SoundExchange.

Never mentioned at these broadcast conferences that urge broadcasters to take advantage of these smart speakers is the fact that these speakers, when asked to play a radio station, end up playing that station’s stream, not its over-the-air signal. For the most part, these devices are not equipped with FM chips or any other technology to receive over-the-air signals. So, when you ask Alexa or Google to play your station, you are calling up a digital stream, and each digital stream gives rise to the same royalties to SoundExchange that a station pays for its webcast stream on its app or through a platform like TuneIn or the iHeartRadio. For 2018, those royalties are $.0018 per song per listener (see our article here). In other words, for each song you play, you pay SoundExchange about one-fifth of a cent for each listener who hears it. These royalties are in addition to the royalties paid to ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and, for most commercial stations, GMR.
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Last week, it was announced that Google through its DoubleClick platform, would be offering programmatic buying opportunities for advertisers looking to place audio ads into online streams. While that system is initially being rolled out among the big digital audio services, if it or other similar platforms are expanded more broadly, it could bring more advertising into internet radio, podcasting and other digital audio program channels. But, being the spoilsports that we tend to be as lawyers, we wanted to pass on some issues to consider in accepting programmatic buys – whether in online streams or in over-the-air broadcasts. The immediacy of the audience’s perception of an audio insertion into a program stream can bring unintended results – some of which may have legal consequences.

We have already written about the issues for some of the programmatic buying platforms that are inserting ads into broadcast radio and television programming. As we wrote here and here, these ads can potentially impact a broadcaster’s legal compliance – particularly in the area of political broadcasting, where these ads could affect a station’s lowest unit rate, as well as reasonable access, equal opportunities and even political file disclosure obligations. While none of these FCC issues apply directly to online ads, as we wrote here, there are potential rules on political advertising that may soon be applied to online ads, either through actions by the Federal government or by the enactment of rules to implement a recently passed New York State law that compels disclosures for online political ads similar to those required by the FCC for broadcast ads. There are other considerations as well.
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With high profile primaries in numerous states and similar elections last week, and more coming over the next few months in preparation for the November election, broadcasters are dealing with the legal issues that arise with on-air advertising that either promotes or attacks candidates and which addresses other important matters that will be decided in the election – including ballot issues in a number of states. While we have addressed many of the legal questions that arise with on-air political advertising in other posts on this blog and elsewhere (see, for instance, our Political Broadcasting Guide here and these slides from my recent presentation on the FCC political advertising rules for the Washington State Association of Broadcasters), we thought that it was worth discussing some of the efforts that are underway to bring FCC-like regulation to the world of online political advertising.

Thus far, the FCC has tended to stay out of the online political broadcasting world. As we wrote a decade ago, other than having to give some consideration to the value of online advertising thrown into a package with over-the-air ads, the FCC avoids regulation of ad sales on websites and advertising delivered solely through other digital media platforms. So a broadcaster who sells stand-alone online ads to political candidates or issue advertisers need not worry about questions of lowest unit rates, reasonable access, or the political file.
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