ascap antitrust consent decree

While this summer has perhaps not brought the big headlines in trade press about copyright issues involving broadcasters – particularly in the area of music rights – there still are many issues that are active. I addressed some of those issues in a presentation earlier this month at the Texas Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention. I did my presentation in conjunction with a representative of SoundExchange, where he covered the nuts and bolts of the obligations of broadcasters and webcasters to file royalties for the noninteractive digital performance of sound recordings (e.g. webcasting and Internet radio). While the rates for 2016-2020 are on appeal (see our articles here, here and here), these rates are effective pending appeal and webcasters need to be paying under them. In the Texas presentation, I covered some of the many other copyright issues that are on the horizon, many of which we have written about in the pages of this blog. The slides from my presentation are available here. They provide an outline of many of the pending matters.

The presentation covered the controversy about the Department of Justice decision on the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, about which I wrote about here. That controversy continues, as the PROs seek judicial or legislative relief from the new DOJ requirement for 100 per cent licensing of split works (see my article for an explanation of what that means). In the interim, the radio industry is negotiating new royalties with both of these organizations, as the current license agreements expire at the end of this year (see our article here).
Continue Reading What’s Up With Music Rights for Broadcasters and Webcasters? – A Presentation on Pending Issues

The DOJ yesterday issued its long-awaited review of the ASCAP and BMI antitrust consent decrees. We wrote about the issues raised by the DOJ in its initial inquiry here. The questions that had been advanced in DOJ’s initial notice included (1) whether to allow music publishers to partially withdraw their catalogs from one of the PROs (Performing Rights Organizations) to negotiate directly with some class of music users (principally a review to determine if certain big publishers could negotiate digital rights directly, while allowing ASCAP or BMI to continue to license less lucrative and more difficult-to-administer music users like bars, restaurants and retail establishments), (2) whether to strengthen the payment and enforcement rights of the PROs (including questions of how services should be paying before rates for a class of user are established, and whether rate courts were appropriate for all disputes over rates), and (3) whether the PROs should be allowed to license more than just the public performance rights (perhaps getting into licensing mechanical rights, as their Canadian counterpart SOCAN and their US competitor SESAC are now doing – see our article here). The DOJ’s report decided to hold off on addressing any of these questions, and instead focused solely on one issue – requiring that the PROs offer full-work licensing on all songs within their catalogs (which the DOJ raised in a second request for comments about which we wrote here).

Already, there has been much angst within the PRO and publishing worlds about this decision, while there has generally been relief among the users of music that there were no fundamental changes in the way that music is licensed through the PROs. But just what are the issues with full-licensing of musical works?

The concept is basically that, when a user pays ASCAP or BMI for the right to use their catalog, the user should get all of the rights they need to publicly perform all of the songs in that catalog. Most users probably already assumed that they were getting all of those rights when they paid the PROs their monthly fees. But the DOJ discovered that there was a basic conceptual question about just what the user was getting when they paid their license fee – and that question could prove even more problematic were the DOJ to agree to some of the requested more fundamental changes in the consent decrees, such as allowing partial withdrawal of catalogs by publishers. The question is whether a user gets all the rights to the songs that are listed in a PRO’s catalog, or merely the “fractional interest” that is owned by the songwriter or publisher who is a member of that PRO.
Continue Reading DOJ Recommends No Changes in ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, And Requires Full-Work Licensing – How It Affects Music Users

The legal issues surrounding the use of music in broadcast and digital media is one of those topics that is usually enough to make eyes glaze over.  The importance of understanding these issues is illustrated by this week’s request from the Department of Justice for more information about the rights of songwriters to authorize ASCAP and BMI (often referred to as Performing Rights Organizations or PROs) to license their works to services like radio stations and webcasters when there are multiple songwriters who may not all be members of the same rights organization.  While we try to provide some explanations of some of those issues on this Blog, I wanted to point to a couple of other resources available to address some of these issues and to, hopefully, help make some of those issues understandable.

First, I wanted to note that I’ll be moderating a panel on current music issues at the NAB Radio Show in Atlanta on Thursday afternoon (the panel is described here) featuring representatives of the NAB, RIAA, BMI, Pandora and the Copyright Office.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to unpack some of the motivations and directions of the music royalty debates that are going on in Washington DC.  For those of you not able to make that panel, and even those of you who are planning to attend, a new source of information that provides a very good summary of the many music licensing issues now being considered by Congress and the courts is a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service released last week, available here.  The report explains in relatively simple terms how music licensing works in the United States, and describes many of the current legislative and judicial issues that currently could affect that licensing.  While obviously not addressing all of the subtleties of the arguments of all of the parties to these proceedings, the report does at least give a relatively neutral summary of the arguments of the parties.
Continue Reading Understanding Music Royalties – Congressional Research Service Releases Summary of the Law, While DOJ Asks for More Comments on ASCAP and BMI Consent Decree Reform

Press reports indicate that the Department of Justice is nearing the completion of its study of whether to suggest the revision of the antitrust consent decrees that have bound ASCAP and BMI for over a half century (see our summary of the issues that DOJ is considering here). Much of the impetus behind this review comes from claims from songwriters and their associated publishing companies that they simply are not receiving enough money from digital music services. In the music industry trade press, one can barely go a day without seeing some article about a songwriter whose song was played a million times on a digital music service like Pandora or Spotify, with the artist only receiving some relatively small amount of royalty revenue from that seemingly large number of plays. In looking at this question, I think that there are a number of issues that are misunderstood – perhaps the greatest being the meaning of big numbers – what is really meant when a song is played a million times by a digital music service. I’ve moderated two panels in the last month where royalty experts debated royalties generally and this topic specifically, and I will be moderating another at the RAIN Summit West in Las Vegas on Sunday. Before that discussion, and for those who won’t be at the RAIN Conference, I thought that it would be worth exploring some of this confusion about this issue here.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee held a hearing on the DOJ’s review of the antitrust consent decrees (video of the hearing, and written witness statements, are available here). During the course of the hearing, a songwriter representative, when asked by a Senator about the alleged impact of digital royalties on the songwriting community, made the assertion that when his song was played a million times on terrestrial radio, he could pay his bills, but when that song was played a million times on a digital service, he received only a few hundred dollars. While this kind of claim is made every day by songwriter representatives, and has contributed to the examination of music royalties being conducted by Congress (see our articles here and here), the Department of Justice and the Copyright Office (see our article here), in many ways, these claims seem to evidence a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of digital services. It is truly a comparison of apples and oranges (or maybe apples and watermelons might be more appropriate) that has distorted the conversation about royalties. The claim was challenged at the Judiciary Committee hearing by a representative of Pandora, who pointed out that the million people reached by the million spins of a record on Pandora is the equivalent audience reached by something like 16 spins on a New York radio station. I thought that this exchange was crucial to the understanding of the issues involved in the examination of changes to the ASCAP and BMI royalty structure, yet I saw little or no coverage of the issue in press reports after the hearing.
Continue Reading How Misunderstandings about Big Numbers Distort the Debate over Songwriter Digital Music Royalties – As the DOJ Readies its Recommendations for Reform of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees

The Songwriter’s Equity Act has once again been introduced in Congress (see our article about that Act when it was introduced in the last Congress). It proposes to make changes in provisions of the Copyright Act governing the way that songwriters are paid for the use of their musical compositions – with the obvious intent of raising the songwriters’ compensation. This legislative proposal is one reflection of the complaints by songwriters that they are not sufficiently compensated for the use of their music. It is interesting that this bill was introduced during the same week that ASCAP announced its first year of billion dollar collection for songwriter’s public performance royalties, and at the same time that the Senate explores more comprehensive changes to the antitrust consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI through a hearing held last week, with the Department of Justice review of these decrees expected in the not too distant future (see our article here).

The Act makes seemingly small changes in legislation, but those changes could have a significant impact on how rates paid to songwriters are computed. The first change proposed is to allow the rates set for the public performance of sound recordings (those royalties that digital music services pay to SoundExchange for the public performance of sound recordings – the actual recordings of songs as opposed to the performance of musical compositions for which ASCAP, BMI and SESAC pay songwriters) to be used as evidence by the judges setting rates for the public performance of musical compositions. That has been prohibited under current law. It is interesting to note that, under Copyright Royalty Board precedent, the Copyright Royalty Judges have in the past determined that the rates paid by music services for the public performance of musical compositions are not a precedent for the public performance of sound recordings, as they are different rights that are not necessarily of the same value. Yet this legislation seems to assume that the royalties for sound recordings are in fact instructive as to what those rates should be for public performances. While seemingly acknowledging the relevance, the legislation does not allow the reverse – stating that the legislation should not be seen as having any effect on the precedent already established by the CRB for the rates for the public performance of sound recordings, so that the rates for sound recordings should not be affected by this legislation.
Continue Reading Songwriter’s Equity Act Reintroduced – What Does It Propose?

The Copyright Office this past week released its Report following its study of music licensing in the US; a comprehensive report addressing a number of very controversial issues concerning music rights and royalties.  Whether its release during the week of the Grammy Awards was a coincidence or not, the report itself, which takes positions on many issues, is sure to initiate lots of discussion and controversy of its own.  The report was issued after two rounds of comments (the questions that were asked in each request for comments are detailed in our stories here and here) and three roundtables held in three different cities where representatives of music companies provided ideas on the questions asked (I participated in the Nashville session).  As detailed below, the report addresses some of the hot button issues in the music royalty space including the broadcast performance royalty, publisher withdrawals from ASCAP and BMI (see our article here), and pre-1972 sound recordings.

Before getting into the details of the proposals, it is important to note that the Copyright Office, unlike many other government agencies, does not itself make substantive rules.  Instead, it merely makes recommendations.  For any of the substantive proposals that it suggests in the Report to become law, Congress must act – which is never easy.  In the Copyright world, it is particularly difficult, as the rules and industry practices are so complex and often obscure, and where any change can have a very dramatic effect on some industry player or another.  Often, a simple change in the rules can take money from someone’s pocket and deposit into someone else’s.  Moreover, copyright is not an area where there are clear partisan divides.  Oftentimes, it matters more where a Congressman’s home district is than his or her party affiliation in their leanings on copyright matters.
Continue Reading Copyright Office Issues its Report on Music Licensing – Issues Include Broadcast Performance Royalties, Publisher Withdrawals from ASCAP and BMI, and Pre-1972 Sound Recordings

Last month, we wrote about the FCC issues facing broadcasters in 2015.  Today, we’ll look at decisions that may come in other venues that could affect broadcasters and media companies in the remaining 11 months of 2015.  There are many actions in courts, at government agencies and in Congress that could change law or policy and affect operations of media companies in some way.  These include not just changes in communications policies directly, but also changes in copyright and other laws that could have a significant impact on the operations of all sorts of companies operating in the media world.

Starting with FCC issues in the courts, there are two significant proceedings that could affect FCC issues. First, there is the appeal of the FCC’s order setting the rules for the incentive auction.  Both Sinclair and the NAB have filed appeals that have been consolidated into a single proceeding, and briefing on the appeals has been completed, with oral arguments to follow in March.  The appeals challenge both the computation of allowable interference after the auction and more fundamental issues as to whether an auction is even permissible when there is only one station in a market looking to give up their channel.     The Court has agreed to expedite the appeal so as to not unduly delay the auction, so we should see a decision by mid-year that could tell us whether or not the incentive auction will take place on time in early 2016.
Continue Reading What Washington Has in Store for Broadcasters and Digital Media Companies in 2015 – Part 2 – Court Cases, Congressional Communications and Copyright Reform, and Other Issues

As we wrote in our previous articles on the music licensing issues being considered during this summer of copyright (here, here and here), one of the concerns driving many of the proposed reforms is the current demand of songwriters and publishing companies for a larger share of the music royalty pie.  In licensing the public performance of musical compositions, ASCAP and BMI represent the vast majority of songwriters, with SESAC representing far fewer writers (together ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are referred to as the “PROs,” the performing rights organizations).  ASCAP and BMI, having such a significant representation of musical compositions, have for over 50 years been subject to antitrust Consent Decrees that limit their operations and oversee the rates that they set for the use of their music.  Among the many requirements under the consent decree are those that obligate ASCAP and BMI to license all users of music who are similarly situated under the same rates and standards, and the oversight of a “rate court” to determine whether rates are reasonable whenever either of the PROs can’t agree on the amount of those rates with a class of music users.  In June, the US Department of Justice asked for public comment on several aspects of the consent decrees, and whether modifications of the decrees were called for.  Comments on the DOJ notice are due today.  Why was this proceeding started, and what is the DOJ looking at?

In two recent hearings examining music licensing, the motivations for ASCAP and BMI to seek changes in the consent decrees were discussed.  The first proceeding was a Copyright Office roundtable held in Nashville in June, in which I was a participant.  There, representatives of ASCAP discussed potential changes to the laws dealing with music licensing. The second was at the two part House Judiciary Committee hearing on music licensing held in late June.  ASCAP and BMI representatives in these forums suggested that there were several objectives in their seeking these reforms, and several specific changes that were requested in the Consent Decrees.  These include the following:

  • Replacing the rate court judges who determine rates when ASCAP or BMI don’t reach an agreement with a company that uses music (currently US Federal District Court Judges in the Southern District of NY) with an arbitration panel.
  • Instead of setting “reasonable rates” as required under the current consent decrees, the PROs request that a new standard be used to set rates – the willing buyer willing seller standard currently used in setting Internet radio sound recording performance royalty rates.
  • Allow publishers to withdraw some of their compositions from the PROs for licensing to certain classes of companies – specifically to withdraw so that the publishers can negotiate with digital media companies at rates that are not overseen by a rate court, while still leaving those same compositions with the PROs to collect from business establishment services (retail businesses that use “background” music) and potentially over the air radio stations – companies where there are lots of licensees who pay small amounts, making it difficult for anyone but a large, well-established company like ASCAP or BMI to pursue
  • Allow ASCAP and BMI to do more than simply license the public performance rights to music services – most likely allow them to provide reproduction and synch rights to the music that they license.
  • To impose interim royalties on any service that asks to be licensed, until an appropriate rate for that service can be set

What prompted this desire to change the consent decrees, and what will the DOJ be doing with the information it collects?
Continue Reading The Summer of Copyright Part 4 – The Department of Justice Reviews the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees – What Should Broadcasters and Music Services Know?

Time flies, and more regulatory requirements and comment deadlines in regulatory proceedings are upon us in the month of August.  The regular regulatory deadlines include license renewal for TV and LPTV stations in California, and EEO Public Inspection File yearly reports for stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.  Noncommercial TV stations in California and North and South Carolina all have ownership reports on Form 323E due on the August 1, and noncommercial radio stations in Wisconsin and Illinois have ownership report obligations too.  We can also expect that the deadline for submission of Annual Regulatory Fees will be set this month but, as we have not yet heard about that date, the deadline for the fees to be paid may not be until sometime in September.

In addition to the regular filings, there are numerous proceedings in which various government agencies will be receiving comments in proceedings that could impact broadcasters.  Next Wednesday, August 6, the FCC will be taking comments on it Quadrennial Review of the multiple ownership rules. The issues to be considered include the TV ownership rules (including the question of how to deal with Shared Services Agreements) about which we wrote yesterday.  Also to be considered in the proceeding are questions about the radio ownership rules, and the cross-interest rules – including whether to change the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules.  But the FCC is not the only one who will be receiving comments on issues that can affect broadcasters.
Continue Reading August Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Renewals and EEO, and Comments on Multiple Ownership, Music Rights, New Class of FM, and Much More

We’ve already written twice about the copyright issues being considered this summer before various agencies and branches of government – all dealing with music licensing issues (see our previous Summer of Copyright articles here and here).  The pattern continues, as the Copyright Office has now requested further comments on music licensing issues, following up on its roundtables held across the country during the month of June to discuss its music licensing inquiry begun in the spring (see our summary of the initial Copyright Office notice on its study, here).  In yesterday’s Federal Register, there is a notice asking a series of questions about specific issues that were raised in the roundtables which the Office apparently finds to be of significance.  Additional comments on these issues, and on any related issues affecting music licensing, are due on or before August 22.

What are the questions being asked by the Copyright Office, and what do they portend for its ultimate recommendations to Congress who, as we recently wrote, is itself considering music licensing issues and the potential for a comprehensive reform of music licensing in this country?  The areas in which the questions are being raised are not new ones, but instead continue the themes raised in other forums this summer.  They include questions as to how withdrawals of major publishers from the Performing Rights Organizations (ASCAP and BMI in particular) could affect those organizations.  We first wrote about potential publisher withdrawals and the impact that could have on music services back in 2011.  Also, on a related question, they ask why, when these organizations have collected record amounts of money in recent years, songwriters are complaining that they are economically struggling.  In addition, questions are asked about the procedures used by the Copyright Royalty Board in their rate-setting process and whether those procedures should be revised, how better identification of musical works and sound recordings could be adopted to make recordkeeping and royalty administration easier, how a system of setting mechanical royalties could work without a statutory license, and whether there are international licensing models that might be adaptable to the US market.  Some details below.
Continue Reading The Summer of Copyright, Part 3 – The Copyright Office Requests Further Comments in its Inquiry on Music Royalties and Licensing