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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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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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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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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