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

With the Copyright Royalty Board now in the early stages of the next proceeding to consider webcasting royalties (see our article here) as well as other proceedings including the distribution of cable and satellite television royalties to TV programmers (see these CRB notices), the Chief Judge of the CRB, Suzanne Barnett, announced her

With the reopening of the Federal government (at least for the moment), regulatory deadlines should begin to flow in a more normal course.  All of those January dates that we wrote about here have been extended by an FCC Public Notice released yesterday until at least Wednesday, January 30 (except for the deadlines associated with the repacking of the TV band which were unaffected by the shutdown).  So Quarterly Issues Programs lists should be added to the online public file by January 30, and Children’s Television Reports should be submitted by that date if they have not already been filed with the FCC.  Comments on the FCC’s proceeding on the Class A AM stations are also likely due on January 30 (though the FCC promised more guidance on deadlines that were affected by the shutdown – such guidance to be released today).

February will begin with a number of normal FCC EEO deadlines.  Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM Radio Stations in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees need to include in their public files by February 1 the Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports.  TV stations in New Jersey and New York in Employment Units with 5 or more full-time employees also need to file their FCC Form 397 Mid-Term EEO Reports.  While the FCC appears ready to abolish that form (see our article here), it will remain in use for the rest of this year, so New Jersey and New York TV stations still need to file.  Note that the FCC considers an “employment unit” to be one or more commonly controlled stations serving the same general geographic area and sharing at least one common employee.
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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

Update – January 24, 2019 – the notice seeking petitions to participate has been published in the Federal Register, setting a filing deadline of February 4, 2019.  See our article here for more details.

In our summary of January regulatory issues for broadcasters, we suggested that the Copyright Royalty Board this month might start

In one of those year-end decisions that got lost in the holiday rush, in late November, the Copyright Royalty Board issued its final ruling on the rates to be paid to SoundExchange by “business establishment services” for the ephemeral copies of sound recordings when these music services transmit programming to their customers. We wrote about the CRB’s proposal to adopt these rules in May of last year, and our comments on the decision remain relevant to explaining this order. A slightly revised version of our May post follows.

While Copyright Royalty Board decisions on royalties for webcasters, Sirius XM and mechanical royalties get most of the attention, the CRB also sets rates paid by “business establishment services” for the “ephemeral copies” made in their music businesses. Business establishment services are the companies that provide music to businesses to play in retail stores, restaurants and other commercial establishments. These services have come a long way from the elevator music that once was so derided – and now set the mood in all sorts of businesses with formats as varied as the commercial businesses themselves.  While the rates paid by these services pay for music rights is a little off-topic for this blog, these rates are a bit unusual, so they are worth mentioning.  The Copyright Royalty Board in May announced a proposed settlement between the services that were participating in the CRB case and SoundExchange which will raise the rates gradually from the current 12.5% of revenue to 13.5% over the next 5 years, with a minimum annual fee of $20,000, up from $10,000. These rates, which apply to any company that does not negotiate direct royalties with the sound recording copyright holders, went into effect on January 1, 2019 and will be in place through 2023.
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