The Canadian performance rights society SOCAN (essentially the Canadian version of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) has announced the purchase of Audiam, a private company that specialized in representing composers trying to maximize their music rights collections – both for performance rights and mechanical royalties – worldwide. Audiam also claims to provide a comprehensive database of rightsholders to both musical compositions and sound recordings – a valuable commodity in and of itself, as there is no uniform public registry for such rights. This follows SOCAN’s purchase of MediaNet, a company that specializes in obtaining clearances for music (including sound or master recordings – the musical compositions that SOCAN has traditionally licensed as recorded by a particular singer or band) so as to provide those rights to digital music stores or services, eliminating the need for these services to separately negotiate terms with sound recording performance rights holders. This consolidation under one roof of public performance and mechanical rights to musical compositions, along with rights to sound recordings, promises at some point in the future, a one-stop shop where music users (including digital music services like Spotify or Deezer, and perhaps even smaller music users like podcasters) can obtain all the rights that they need to use music in their businesses.

This same goal seems to be the motivation behind SESAC’s acquisition in recent years of the Harry Fox Agency (which also handles mechanical licensing – the rights to make reproductions of musical compositions needed for downloads and even on-demand streams) and Rumblefish, a digital service providing clearances for the use of sound recordings in videos, commercials and for other purposes. This same drive to consolidate music licensing services was also, to some degree, behind the push for revisions to the ASCAP and BMI antitrust consent decrees, as ASCAP and BMI wanted the clear right to license mechanical rights as well as the public performance rights they now provide. Even the publisher withdrawals from ASCAP and BMI by major publishing companies that are affiliated with major record labels may have had similar ideas behind them as some have speculated that these major music companies could bundle the licensing of sound recordings and musical compositions (see our article here where we made the same observation).
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In the last two weeks, we have seen Capitol Hill rallies by the Free Radio Alliance, opposing what they term the “performance tax” on radio, and yesterday by the Music First Coalition, trying to persuade Congress to adopt a performance royalty on the use of sound recordings for the over-the-air signal of broadcast stations. We’ve written about the theories as to why a performance royalty on sound recordings should or should not be paid by broadcasters, but one question that now seems to be gaining more significance is the most practical of all questions – if a performance royalty is adopted, how would broadcasters pay for it?

 The recording industry and some Congressional supporters have argued in the past that, if the royalty was adopted, stations could simply raise their advertising rates to get the money to pay for the royalty. While we’ve always questioned that assumption (as, if broadcasters could get more money for their advertising spots, why wouldn’t they be doing so now simply to maximize revenues?), that question is even harder to answer in today’s radio environment. With the current recession, radio is reporting sales declines of as much as 20% from the prior year. Layoffs are hitting stations in almost every market. In this environment, it is difficult to imagine how any significant royalty could be paid by broadcasters without eating into their fundamental ability to serve the public – and perhaps to threaten the very existence of many music-intensive stations. And the structure of the royalty, as proposed in the pending legislation, makes the question of affordability even harder to address.


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decision by a US District Court in New York was just released, setting the rates to be paid to ASCAP for the use of their composers’ music by Yahoo!, AOL and Real Networks.  The decision set the ASCAP rates at 2.5% of the revenues that were received by these services in connection with the music portions of their websites.  These rates were set by the Court, acting as a rate court under the antitrust consent decree that was originally imposed on ASCAP in 1941.  Under the Consent Decree, if a new service and ASCAP cannot voluntarily agree to a rate for the use of the compositions represented by ASCAP, the rates will be set by the rate court.  The Court explained that they used a "willing buyer, willing seller" model to determine the rates that parties would have negotiated in a marketplace transaction  – essentially the same standard used by the Copyright Royalty Board in setting the rates to be paid to SoundExchange for the use of sound recordings by non-interactive webcasters (see our post here for details of the CRB decision).  The ASCAP decision, if nothing else, is interesting for the contrasts between many of the underlying assumptions of the Court in this rate-setting proceeding and the assumptions used by the Copyright Royalty Board in setting sound recording royalty rates.

First, some basics on this decision.  ASCAP represents the composers of music (as do BMI and SESAC) in connection with the public performance of any composition.  This decision covered all performances of music by these services – not just Internet radio type services.  Thus, on-demand streams (where a listener can pick the music that he or she wants to hear), music videos, music in user-generated content, karaoke type uses, and music in the background of news or other video programming, are all covered by the rate set in this decision.  Note that the decision does not cover downloads, presumably based on a prior court decision that concluded that downloads do not involve a public performance (see our post here).  In contrast, the CRB decision covered the use of the "sound recording" – the song as actually recorded by a particular artist – and covers only "non-interactive services," essentially Internet radio services where users cannot pick the music that they will be hearing.


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