We summarized the provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on Monday, looking at the application of the law that the President has sought to change through the Executive Order released last week.  Today, it’s time to look at what the Executive Order purports to do and what practical effects it might have on media companies, including broadcasters.  As we noted in our first article, the reach of Section 230 is broad enough that any company with an online presence where content is created and posted by someone other than the site owner is protected by Section 230 – so that would include the online properties of almost every media company has.

The Executive Order has four distinct action items directed to different parts of the government.  The first, which has perhaps received the most publicity in the broadcast world, is the President’s direction that the Department of Commerce, acting through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA – the Executive Branch office principally responsible for telecommunications policy), file a petition for rulemaking at the FCC.  This petition would ask that the FCC review Section 230 to determine if the protections afforded by the law are really as broad as they have been interpreted by the courts.  The Executive Order suggests that the FCC should review whether the ability granted by the law for an online platform to curate content posted by others – the “Good Samaritan” provisions that we wrote about on Monday – could trigger a loss of protections from civil liability for third-party content if sites exercise the curation rights in a manner that is not deemed to be in “good faith”.  The Executive Order directs this inquiry even though the protections for hosting online content are in a separate subsection of the law from the language granting the ability to curate content, and the protections from liability for third-party content contain no good faith language.  The Order suggests that the FCC should find that there would not be “good faith” if the reasons given for the curation actions were “pretextual,” if there was no notice and right to be heard by the party whose content is curated, and if the curation is contrary to the service’s terms of use.  The Order suggests that the FCC should adopt rules to clarify these issues.
Continue Reading Looking at the President’s Executive Order on Online Media – Part 2, What Real Risk Does It Pose for Media Companies?

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?

Here are some of the regulatory and legal actions of the last week—and some obligations for the week ahead—of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The comment cycle was set in the FCC’s annual regulatory fee proceeding. On or before June 12, the Commission wants to hear from interested parties about the fees that it proposes to impose on the companies that it regulates – including broadcasters.  The FCC proposes to complete the implementation of its change to computing fees for television stations based on population served rather than on the market in which they operate, a move it began last year (see our Broadcast Law Blog article here on the FCC decision last year to initiate the change in the way TV fees are allocated).  The FCC also asks for ideas about how the Commission can extend fee relief to stations suffering COVID-19-related financial hardship.  Reply comments are due on or before June 29.  (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking)
  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Chris Krebs, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, wrote to the nation’s governors asking them to, among other things, declare radio and TV broadcasters as essential to COVID-19 response efforts and to afford broadcasters all appropriate resources and access. (News Release)
  • In a good reminder to broadcasters that transactions involving the sale or transfer of control of a broadcast station must be authorized in advance by the FCC, the Media Bureau entered into a consent decree with two companies that sold an FM station and FM translator without getting approval from the Commission. The parties mistakenly believed filing license renewal applications that reflected the assignment was sufficient approval.  The consent decree includes an $8,000 penalty.  (Consent Decree).  See this article on past cases where the FCC has warned that even transactions among related companies that change the legal form of ownership of a broadcast station without changing the ultimate control need prior FCC approval.
  • The Commission granted approval to Cumulus Media, Inc. to exceed the Commission’s twenty-five percent foreign ownership threshold. The Commission will allow Cumulus to have up to 100 percent aggregate foreign investment in the company, although additional approvals will be needed if any previously unnamed foreign entity acquires 5% or more of the company or if any foreign entity desires to acquire control.  (Declaratory Ruling).  This decision shows the process that the FCC must go through to approve foreign ownership above the 25% threshold and the analysis needed to issue such approvals.  See our articles here and here about the evolving FCC policy in this area.
  • President Trump signed an executive order that seeks to, among other things, address online censorship and rollback certain protections afforded to online platforms, which include social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, but which also protect any site that hosts content created by users – which could include the Internet platforms of many broadcasters. Under federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, these online platforms generally enjoy legal immunity for what users post on their platforms.  The President directed the Department of Commerce to ask the FCC to open a rulemaking to review this immunity and asked the FTC to review whether platforms were adhering to their terms of use when commenting on or limiting third-party content.  Other government entities, including state attorneys general and the Department of Justice, were also asked to review online platforms.  For his part, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “This debate is an important one. The Federal Communications Commission will carefully review any petition for rulemaking filed by the Department of Commerce.”  (Executive Order).  Watch for an article on the Broadcast Law Blog this coming week on implications of this order for broadcasters and other media companies.
  • Anyone looking to hand deliver documents to the FCC needs to learn a new address, and it is not, as you might expect, the address of the FCC’s future headquarters. Deliveries by hand must now be brought to 9050 Junction Drive, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701.  The address change is to enhance security screening and is part of winding down operations at the current 12th Street headquarters.  (Order)


Continue Reading This Week at the FCC for Broadcasters: May 23, 2020 to May 29, 2020

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

When a broadcaster files certain types of applications with the FCC, the public must be informed.  Last week, the FCC issued an Order which will change the rules regarding the public notice that must be given – consolidating what was a confusing process with different language and timing for notice about different types of applications into one providing standardized disclosures and scheduling for all public notices.  The decision (once it becomes effective) will eliminate obligations for the newspaper publication that was required for some public notices and also ended the obligation of broadcasters to give a “pre-filing public notice” before the submission of a license renewal application.  It will also require the inclusion of an “FCC Applications” link on the homepage of each commercial station’s website, whether or not they have any applications pending.  Let’s look at some of the changes adopted in last week’s Order.

First, the FCC did not change the requirements as to what applications require notice to the public.  Public notice is required for applications for new stations and major technical changes, for assignments (sales) or transfers of station licenses (except for pro forma changes where there is no real change in control over the station), for license renewal applications, minor change technical applications that involve a city-of-license change, and certain applications involving international broadcast stations or the export of programming to foreign stations to be rebroadcast back into the US.  Notice of designation for hearing of any application is also required.  We will concentrate here on the more common applications for changes to US stations, sale and license renewals.
Continue Reading Looking at Changes to the FCC’s Public Notice Requirements for Broadcast Applications

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

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

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….

Last week, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly was in the news for sending a letter to the major record labels asking for information about their practices in paying broadcast stations for airing the label’s music.  The letter follows correspondence last year between the Commissioner and the RIAA (the Recording Industry’s trade group) asking for similar information, which the RIAA claimed that it did not have.  This process began after a Rolling Stone magazine article suggested that “payola” was still a common practice in the broadcast industry.  These actions, and the press reports that followed, raise a couple of interesting questions including what the FCC rules are on payola, and how broadcast practices compare to those of online companies.

The Communications Act prohibits the practice of “payola” by requiring, in Section 317, that when any content is aired on a station in exchange for anything of value, the station must disclose that “consideration” has been paid by the person or entity that pays for the consideration.  Thus, “payola” arises when a broadcast station employee or contractor receives or is promised anything of value in return for putting any content on the air, and that payment is not disclosed to the public.  Payola usually occurs when someone makes a gift or payment to a person involved in station programming (i.e., station employees, program producers, program suppliers) in exchange for favorable on-air exposure of a product or service.  While the term “payola” is most often associated with the receipt by a station announcer or music director of money, trips or other value for playing songs on the station, the same prohibition applies whenever any station programming personnel receive anything of value in exchange for airing any content where a sponsorship identification is not broadcast.  For examples of fines for airing programming for which consideration was received without acknowledging the receipt of valuable consideration, outside the context of music, see our articles here, here and here
Continue Reading FCC Commissioner Asks Record Labels for Information About Payola Practices – What are the FCC Rules?  How Do These Practices Compare to Online Music Providers?

This weekend, the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of factWe have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.

As stated above, broadcast stations and local cable systems cannot censor candidate ads – meaning that they cannot reject these ads based on their content.  Commercial broadcast stations cannot even adopt a policy that says that they will not accept ads from federal candidates, as there is a right of “reasonable access” (see our article here, and as applied here to fringe candidates) that compels broadcast stations to sell reasonable amounts of time to federal candidates who request it.  Contrast this to, for instance, Twitter, which decided to ban all candidate advertising on its platform (see our article here).  There is no right of reasonable access to broadcast stations for state and local candidates, though once a station decides to sell advertising time in a particular race, all other rules, including the “no censorship” rule, apply to these ads (see our article here).  Local cable systems are not required to sell ads to any political candidates but, like broadcasters with respect to state and local candidates, once a local cable system sells advertising time to candidates in a particular race, all other FCC political rules apply.  National cable networks (in contrast to the local systems themselves) have never been brought under the FCC’s political advertising rules for access, censorship or any other requirements – although from time to time there have been questions as to whether those rules should apply.  So cable networks, at the present time, are more like online advertising, where the FCC rules do not apply.
Continue Reading Facebook Not Fact-Checking Candidate Ads – Looking at the Contrast Between Online Political Ads and Those Running on Broadcast and Cable