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.
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SESAC is the one major performing rights organization whose rates have not, until now, been subject to judicial review as part of an antitrust consent decree.  Perhaps because of that fact, broadcast stations have often complained about the rates they charge for the music that they license, as there is currently no cap on what SESAC can charge, and there is no requirement that SESAC treat all similar licensees in the same way.  In fact, because of this dissatisfaction, both the TV and Radio Music License Committees have filed antitrust suits against SESAC seeking relief from the rates they charge.  In a settlement announced this past week, the Television Music Licensing Committee has entered into a settlement by which SESAC will pay the TVMLC $58.5 million and agree that, over the next 20 years, SESAC will negotiate license agreements with TVMLC.  Under the agreement, if rates can’t be reached as a result of negotiations, SESAC and the TVMLC would submit to an arbitration process to arrive at the appropriate rates.  The full settlement can be found on the TVMLC website, here

Under the terms of the settlement, commercial TV stations (except for those owned by Univision, which appear to have opted out of the class of stations covered by the TVMLC settlement) will have their SESAC obligations covered for the rest of this year and next, including website SESAC music use and use in digital multichannel programming.  In 2015, TVMLC will negotiate with SESAC over rates for the period from 2016-2019.  If no rates are agreed to by the parties, an arbitration panel will set the rates.  The same process will continue for 4 year periods through 2035, as long as ASCAP and BMI are also subject to either rate court or arbitration review of the rates charged by those organizations.  While the Department of Justice is reviewing the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees that require rate court review of royalty rates charged by these groups (see our article here), it appears that they are not asking for an end to all rate review.  Instead, they are asking that the review be done by an arbitration panel, not the US District Court that currently reviews such rates.  So it would appear likely that the “out” in the deal would not give SESAC an escape from this agreement to be bound by arbitration any time soon.
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Deciding how to pay music royalties has always been difficult – trying to figure out what permissions are necessary, who has the rights to grant such permission, and how much the rights will cost. The one place where the rights were fairly simple – paying for the right to publicly perform musical compositions – may be getting more difficult. According to an article in the New York Post, Pandora may be getting a taste of that new reality, having to pay significantly more money to Sony ATV music publishers than it had previously paid for that same music when it was licensed by ASCAP and BMI

The rights to publicly perform musical compositions had until very recently been relatively straightforward. All a broadcaster, digital media company or other music user needed to do was to pay ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties (ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are often referred to as the PROs, or Performing Rights Organizations) – and the music service essentially had the rights to publicly perform virtually all the musical compositions in the world. And ASCAP and BMI were covered by antitrust decrees – so their rates were more or less known for most categories of music use – only subject to a rate court hearing once every now and then when these collection societies could not come to an agreement with the members of a particular class of music users. While SESAC is not subject to the antitrust consent decrees, and not necessarily as easy to deal with, most music services figured out a way to cut a deal with the society too.


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Just as webcasters thought that they had their royalty obligations figured out, there comes news that the already complicated world of digital media royalties may well become more complicated.  Last week, EMI, which in addition to being a record label is a significant music publishing company, has reportedly decided to withdraw portions of its publishing catalog from ASCAP – which had been licensing the public performance of these songs. The withdrawal from ASCAP applies only to "New Media" licensing.  What is the impact?  As of today, webcasters pay ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for the rights to play virtually the entire universe of "musical compositions" or "musical works" (the words and musics of the song).  By withdrawing from ASCAP, EMI will now license its musical compositions itself, adding one more place that webcasters will need to go to get all the rights necessary to play music on an Internet radio type of service.  In addition to royalties paid for the musical composition, webcasters also pay SoundExchange for public performance rights to the sound recordings (the song as recorded by a particular singer or band) – and by paying this one organization, they get rights to perform all sound recordings legally released in the US.   But any Internet radio operation needs both the musical composition (except for those compositions that have fallen into the public domain) and the sound recording performance rights cleared before they can legally play the music.

The news reports quote EMI as talking about the efficiencies that will be created by its licensing the musical compositions directly – in conjunction with the licensing of other rights – like the rights to make reproductions of its compositions, or the rights to publicly perform sound recordings to which its record label holds the copyright. But the whole idea of a performing rights organization with collective licensing is that it provides to digital music services the efficiencies offered by a one-stop shop for the purchase of rights to all a very large set of musical compositions.  Up to now, a digital music service knew that, by entering into licensing agreements with ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (the "performing rights organizations, or "PROs"), it had rights to virtually all the musical compositions that it would normally use (i.e. they received a "blanket license").  If these rights are balkanized, so that each significant publisher licenses their own music, the webcaster will have to make multiple stops to license all the music they need – which always leads to confusion.  The more places they have to go to license music, the more possibility that they will overlook a necessary rightsholder.  But there is even a bigger potential issue for webcasters – price.


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The Radio Music Licensing Committee ("RMLC") has announced that it has entered into agreements with both ASCAP and BMI for interim royalties to be paid by commercial radio stations until final royalties are set.  These royalties will be set either through negotiation or through litigation in Federal Courts which act as a "rate court" to determine what reasonable rates will be under the antitrust decrees that govern these organizations.  As we wrote here and here, the RMLC has been involved in negotiations seeking a significant reduction in the royalties paid by radio stations for the right to make a public performance of musical compositions (or "musical works").  Both organizations have agreed to a 7% reduction in the amount currently paid by radio broadcasters, to be reflected on the invoices sent by these organizations for 2010 royalties.  According to the press release on the ASCAP agreement, the discounts are interim agreements only, and will be subject to retroactive adjustment to January 1, 2010 once final royalties are set.

This money goes to composers of music, as contrasted to the controversial SoundExchange royalties that pay the performers of music (currently only in the digital world, but proposed in legislation pending before Congress to be extended to over-the-air broadcasting).   ASCAP and BMI are essentially collection agencies (called Performing Rights Organizations or PROs) for large groups of songwriters.  By signing up and paying royalties to these organizations and to SESAC, a smaller but still significant PRO, broadcasters obtain a "blanket license" to play all the songs covered by songwriters who are members of these organizations – which are essentially all of the songwriters whose songs are likely to be played by radio.  The existence of these organizations save radio stations from having to negotiate independently with the thousands of songwriters and publishing companies that own the copyrights to these compositions – an arduous task that might be almost impossible without the existence of the PROs. 


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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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