How do you advertise a business that sells tobacco products and has the word “cigarette” in its name? Apparently, you don’t, at least not on radio and TV stations – based on the teachings of the Public Notice released by the FCC this week, entering into a consent decree with a broadcaster. In exchange for

Using music in commercials and other broadcast station productions can be treacherous. As we’ve written before, contrary to what some stations might think (based on the questions we often get from broadcasters around the country), a station’s ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties do not give them the right to use popular music in their station productions – or in their commercials. Nor do they give you rights to use music in video productions used repeatedly on a station, or on a station’s website. Hearing an award winner at the recent broadcast awards banquet at the Montana Broadcasters Association annual convention thank the music publishers that gave her permission to change the lyrics of a well-known oldie for her PSA for a local animal shelter warms a lawyer’s heart, recognizing that there are broadcasters who understand the rights issues. But from questions that I get all the time, I fear that many other broadcasters don’t.

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are commonly known as the Performing Rights Organizations (or PROs), as they grant music users only a single right – the right to make public performances of musical compositions (or "musical works"). A musical composition is the words and music in a song – not the actual recording done by a particular singer or band. The composer and lyricist of the song have a copyright in the musical composition, though the right is usually assigned to a publishing company to administer. Each copyright in a composition gives its holder the right to exploit it in several different ways – and then user needs to get the rights to use the composition in any of these ways. The different rights include the right to publicly perform the composition (e.g. to play it before an audience or to transmit it to an audience by means of radio, the Internet or other transmission media). But the copyright holder also has the right to limit users from making reproductions of the composition (e.g. a recording of the song or any other “fixation” of the composition), distributing the composition (e.g. selling it or otherwise making it available to the public), or making a “derivative work” (taking the copyrighted work, using it, but changing it in some manner which, in the case of a musical composition, is probably most commonly done by changing the words of a song). So, for the Montana broadcaster to take a well-known song and to change the lyrics for her PSA required that the broadcaster get permission to make a derivative work (and probably to make reproductions, too, if copies of the re-recorded song were made).


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We’ve written many times before about those big name events, like March Madness, the Olympics and the Super Bowl. Events that you and your advertisers are just dying to tie into your own local event – a sale, a party or maybe the introduction of some special new product or service. Well, like the Super Bowl, March Madness is a trademarked term, and you need to exercise care in its use. While the company that owns the trademark (a company partially owned by the NCAA) may not be as aggressive as the NFL or the Olympic Committees in protecting its rights, it can still be an issue should you start promoting your March Madness sale without permission and get caught.

When we wrote our usual warning about the use of the term "Super Bowl" in advertising earlier this year, I received one message asking if I worked for the NFL. A reader who obviously had trademark law experience complained that I was too cautious in urging broadcasters to avoid the use of the term Super Bowl in a commercial. The argument from the reader was that, if used in the right way, not to name an event but just to say something like – "buy a big screen TV so that can watch the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and all the best television that is coming your way this year," your use of the term in a commercial could probably be justified should it be challenged. While that may be the case, making the distinction between this arguably permissible kind of use, and a more problematic use (like "come on down to Joe’s electronics for our Super Bowl Sale on big screen TVs") is a nuanced issue. By avoiding the trademarked term in advertising, and instead sticking with something more generic – like "it is tournament time again, and you can watch all the action with a new big screen TV from Joe’s Electronics" – avoids any of the issues that might arise if you use the trademarked term in your commercial.


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Earlier today, we wrote about the FCC’s reminder that TV broadcasters must, by February 4, complete the upload to their FCC-mandated online public inspection file all materials from the current renewal term that were created prior to the August 2 effective date of the online public inspection file requirement.  We noted that the FCC had not addressed the question of stations that had outstanding renewals from the last renewal term – which could potentially mandate that some stations upload as much as 16 years worth of material to their online files.  Well, today, the FCC issued another decision waiving its rules so that stations only need to post Quarterly Issues Programs lists from the current license term on their online public files – subject to some caveats.

There are certain limits on this waiver.  If the limits are not met, then all Quarterly Issues Programs lists, back to the last granted renewal, have to be posted to the online public file.  The limits include the following:

  1. The last renewal cannot have been opposed by a member of the public.
  2. The delay in the renewal cannot have been caused by issues relating to the public interest service of the station to its local service area
  3. The station must continue to keep the Quarterly Issues Programs lists from the last renewal cycle at the station in a paper public file.

This decision does not relieve stations from all obligations to post materials from prior renewal terms, as described below.


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With the league championship match-ups set, and the Super Bowl only 3 weeks away, broadcasters are once again getting ready for the onslaught of advertising opportunities that come with the big game. But, as we write every year at this time, broadcasters need to be extremely careful in using the term "Super Bowl" in any advertising by a sponsor who has not been authorized to use that term. Super Bowl is a trademarked term, meaning that its use, particularly for commercial purposes, is limited. Trademarked terms should not be used in commercial messages except by authorized advertisers. These advertisers have paid big bucks to be able to say that they are a Super Bowl sponsor. See this article from the New York Times about the pricing of Super Bowl advertising. As the NFL enforces its trademarks rigorously (so that they can get the big bucks from the official advertisers), don’t risk their use without official permission.

This does not prevent all discussions of the Super Bowl on the air. News reports about the game can still air, using the name of the game. DJs can still chat about who is going to win the Super Bowl. But don’t try to commercially exploit these terms (e.g. saying that you are "Springfield’s Super Bowl station") unless you really have really the rights to use the trademarked term. Be careful, as a cute promotional idea can end up costing your station far more than you intended.


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The CALM Act, meant to end the dreaded "loud commercial," is set to go into effect tomorrow, December 13. We summarized the requirements for compliance with the Act here. Basically, TV stations must adopt certain practices set out in a series of standards known as A/85 Recommended Practice, adopted by the ATSC (the Advanced Television Standards Committee). As we advised stations, the rules initially required any station needing more time was supposed to ask for a waiver of the rules by October 12. In an Order released on Tuesday, the FCC granted two waivers, and also decided that any other station needing more time could request a waiver as late as the compliance deadline date.

In the order, the Commission granted two waiver requests – one for just a month and a half as the cable system simply had a misunderstanding of what they needed to do to achieve compliance, and the second until the end of May because a TV station was in the middle of a studio move, and promised to install the new compliant equipment at the new studio. The Commission also reminded stations that there are two kinds of waivers available – automatic waivers, upon request, for small stations (those with under $14 million in annual revenue or in a TV market from number 150 to market 210) and small cable systems; and other waivers for stations facing specific problems, including financial hardships. Those who do not qualify as small stations would need to demonstrate the specific hardship justifying the waiver. So any stations or systems seeking a waiver have a last chance to do so, by Thursday.


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As personal marijuana use becomes decriminalized in the states of Washington and Colorado, we once again repeat our warning to broadcasters who may be looking to pot sales as a new source of advertising revenue – remember that the Federal government still thinks that the drug is illegal. The US Attorney’s Office in Seattle has reportedly issued a statement reminding residents in Washington State of that fact, and told Washingtonians that the Department of Justice plans to enforce Federal law on all Federal properties in the state. How does this affect broadcasters? 

Broadcasters are Federal licensees. Thus, there still is a concern that advertising for an activity that is considered a felony under Federal law might present problems if a license renewal is challenged or a complaint is filed.  It is Federal law, of course, that governs the issuance and renewal of FCC licenses. No FCC official has been willing to say that advertising medical marijuana is permissible (and, as we wrote last year, a US attorney in California threatened to prosecute media outlets advertising medical marijuana clinics and to possibly seize property used for such advertising). As Washington state officials discuss how to license stores to sell pot under its new laws, some broadcasters may eye these stores, once authorized, as a potential new source of advertising revenue.  Especially with license renewal now underway for radio stations in Colorado, and soon coming up for TV stations in Colorado and for broadcasters in Washington, now is probably not the time to press the limits of advertising a product with such an ambiguous legal status. 


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This Friday (October 12) is the deadline for requesting a waiver under the FCC’s Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (“CALM”) Act implementing procedures, intended to combat "loud commercials."  We wrote about the implementing rules and the obligations of television stations to come into compliance with the standards set out in the rules, adopting a protocol that seeks to maintain consistency between commercials and surrounding programs, here. The Commission’s order allowed for waiver requests by stations that would have a financial hardship in complying – with such waivers being due 60 days before the compliance deadline. As that deadline for compliance is December 13, the waiver requests are due on Friday.

All such waiver requests must be submitted through the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System.  Waiver applicants must demonstrate that purchasing the required equipment would result in “financial hardship.”  Such waivers, if granted, will be valid for one year and may be renewed for one additional year.  The FCC also retains the authority to issue a waiver for good cause.  “Small stations” are eligible for a streamlined waiver process for demonstrating financial hardship.


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In recent days we have seen political action committees (PACs) claiming they are "prohibited" from running political ads in primary states due to "new rules" regarding "electioneering communications."  As explained below, these claims are incorrect.  What they are really doing is trying to avoid the need to reveal the identity of their contributors, following a US District Court decision in March.

Under Federal Election law, an "electioneering communication" is a broadcast, cable or satellite communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, targeted to 50,000 or more people in the state or district the candidate seeks to represent. For President and Vice Presidential candidates, an "electioneering communication" is one that can be received by 50,000 or more people within 30 days of a state primary or the nominating convention.

By federal statute, sponsors of "electioneering communications" must disclose the names and addresses of each donor who contributed $1000 or more to the sponsoring organization. This is is the provision that led to the US District Court decision at issue.


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As we wrote about last year around this time, MARCH MADNESS is a term that is protected by trademark law.  It is owned by the March Madness Athletic Association (MMAA), a joint venture between the NCAA and the Illinois High School Athletic Association (IHSA).   The IHSA was actually first to begin using this mark to describe its high school basketball tournament in the 1940s. 

Brent Musburger brought MARCH MADNESS to public attention in using that term to describe the NCAA college basketball tournament, during which many hearts are broken each year….if you are lucky enough to have a team that made it this far. (Northwestern came this close to its first NCAA appearance.)

Normally, this would be a case of so-called "reverse confusion," in which the junior user of a mark (here, the NCAA) is so much bigger than the senior user of the mark (the IHSA) that the public thinks the mark belongs to the junior user.  In the typical reverse confusion case, the senior user can stop the junior user from using the mark.  But that did not happen here.  Why? 


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