digital music royalties

The press has been full of reports over the last few weeks about Pandora and Amazon negotiating deals with record labels over music royalties, and some observers have expressed confusion – why don’t these services just rely on the rates set by the Copyright Royalty Board at the end of last year? The answer, as we have written many times before (see e.g. our articles here and here) is that the CRB rates apply only to noninteractive webcasters (companies that provide radio-like services where the listener cannot designate what song he or she will hear next). The services that rely on the CRB rates (which we summarized here and here) must abide by specific rules, including something called the “performance complement” which limits how frequently the service can play a particular artist or a particular song. Even the number of times that a listener can skip a song has been set by caselaw and industry practice (see our article here) – the fear being that if you allow unlimited skips the service becomes more like an interactive one.

So a service that wants to provide listeners with the ability to set up their own playlists or to choose to play songs on demand cannot rely on the license available through the CRB decision (the so-called “statutory license” – so named as the license and the CRB rate-setting process were created by a statute passed by Congress). Similarly, services relying on the statutory license cannot cooperate to allow copying of the songs that they play – so even setting up a service to allow the temporary caching of an Internet radio service so that listeners can hear it when they are offline, most likely cannot be done by simply paying the CRB-established rates. So what do music services that want to provide more functionality do?
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The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee last week finished its second hearing on music licensing (written witness statements and a link to the webcast can be found here).  Congressional hearings usually are not in-depth proceedings looking to establish detailed facts as done in a hearing in a court proceeding.  Instead, they are formalized proceedings where parties get to make their canned statements setting out positions on issues.  Congressional representatives themselves make statements setting out their positions on the issues, and ask pointed questions to selected witnesses to reinforce those positions.  Minds are rarely changed, and the truly undecided are rarely illuminated on the issues.  But the hearings do serve to set out the issues that are going to be considered by the Committee in ultimately crafting legislation.  And last week’s hearing did just that – highlighting the issues likely to be considered in legislation promised by the Committee Chair, Representative Goodlatte, who promised an omnibus bill on music licensing, dubbed the “Music Bus,” to address the many issues on the table.

Note that any bill that is ultimately introduced will address many seemingly minor issues – details of process and procedure that don’t make the headlines.  But the big issues are the ones that will cause the most industry argument before the lawyers work out the details.  It’s also important to note that it is very late in the legislative calendar right now, with the Senate not putting the same emphasis on copyright issues as it the House.  With elections coming up in the Fall, and scheduled upcoming summer recess, Congress has much must-pass legislation that will fill up their legislative days before the next Congress is sworn in in January.  The start of a new Congress means that all legislation will have a fresh start.  Thus, any Omnibus bill that is introduced this year will most likely not become law, but instead will set the agenda for discussions for next year in the new Congress.  Certainly, there may be more limited bills that sponsors may try to get stuck on other legislation that must move before the end of the Congressional session, so interested parties will remain vigilant during the final days of this session of Congress.  But what are the issues that are on the table for inclusion in any Music Bus?
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On Friday, the Copyright Office extended by one week the deadline for comments on its wide-ranging proceeding on the current music licensing regime and whether reforms are necessary or appropriate.  We wrote about the proceeding and the many questions that it raises here.  Comments are now due on May 23.  Comments can be filed on the Copyright Office website, here

In addition, the Copyright Office announced a series of three roundtable discussions to be held at different sites across the country – in Nashville, Los Angeles and New York.  At these roundtables, stakeholders in the music industry and interested members of the public can address the issues raised in the Inquiry.  Interested parties who want to be considered for guaranteed participation in the round table discussions need to sign up by May 20, using the form available here.  At that same link, the discussion topics for these roundtables are set out – covering the broad range of music royalty and licensing issues raised in the Inquiry.  Clearly, this is an important proceeding in which many in the music and media industries will want to participate – but it is just one of many proceedings that may affect the way that broadcasters and digital media services use music in the future.
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The broadcast and music trade press brought news of a settlement between music companies and digital media services regrading digital music royalties.  Some press reports jumped to the conclusion that the decision had something to do with the royalty rates that Internet radio companies pay SoundExchange for streaming their music on the Internet.  Others expressed disappointment that it did not seem to address that issue at all.  In fact, the reason that the settlement had nothing to do with webcasting was because it was a settlement of a Copyright Royalty Board proceeding involving a totally different right – essentially the right to reproduce a the musical work, i.e. the words and music to a song – not any public performance right that is involved in Internet radio streaming.

As we have written before (including the last time a similar settlement was announced), webcasters pay their royalties principally under Section 114 of the Copyright Act, which sets up a "statutory license" requiring that all copyright holders in a "sound recording" (a recording of a song by a particular artist) make their songs available for public performance to any digital music service that meets certain criteria – including principally that their service is a non-interactive one, where listeners cannot pick the particular song that they want to hear.  In exchange for this right, digital music services pay a fee set by the Copyright Royalty Board.  These fees cover liabilities for music use in a process where a service generates a product that goes from the service to many people, much like radio does in the traditional world, without making any sort of lasting digital copy that would be akin, in the physical world, to a CD or record.  The settlement that was just announced deals with rights that like those paid, in the physical world, by a record company to a music publisher for using a musical composition in a record or CD that the record company is recording with a particular artist, not with the public performance right.


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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 Copyright Office today announced an extension of time for the fling of comments in its inquiry into the possibe extension of Federal Copyright protection to pre-1972 sound recordings.  We provided a details of that proceeding here.  Internet radio operators and other digital music services that play significant numbers of pre-1972 sound recordings (particularly

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit today issued a decision basically upholding the royalty rates set by the Copyright Royalty Board due under Section 114 of the Copyright Act by satellite radio operators for the public performance of sound recordings.  The CRB decision, setting royalties for the years of 2007 to 2012, established rates that grew from 6% to 8% over the six year term. As we explained in our post, here, the Board looked at the the public interest factors set out by Section 801(b) of the Copyright Act, factors not applicable to Internet Radio royalties, in reaching the determination these royalties.  Particularly important was the factor which took into account the potential impact of the royalties on the stability of the businesses that would be subject to the royalty, resulting in a reduction of the perceived fair market value of the royalty from what the board determined to be about 13% of gross revenues to the 6-8% final royalty set by the Board.  The Court upheld the Board’s reasoning, rejecting SoundExchange’s challenge to the decision, though the Court did remand the case to the Board to decide the proper allocation of the royalty to the ephemeral rights covered by Section 112 of the Copyright Act.

What was perhaps most interesting about the Court’s decision was the concurring opinion of one of the three Judges, who stated that the fact that the Board’s judges were appointed by the Librarian of Congress, and not by the President, "raises a serious constitutional issue."   This was the same issue raised by Royalty Logic in challenging the constitutionality of the CRB in the webcasting proceeding (see our posts here and here).  The Judge concurred in the majority decision as none of the parties to the satellite radio case raised the constitutional issue, but this very question was squarely raised in the webcasting proceeding, and thus may well be resolved in the decision on that appeal.


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The Copyright Royalty Board today announced that it is taking comments on a settlement to establish royalties for the use of sound recordings to be paid by companies that are planning to provide audio services to be delivered with satellite and cable programming.  In contrast to the "preexisting subscription services" who were in existence at the time of the adoption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, who recently reached a settlement agreeing to pay 7 to 7.5% of gross revenues for royalties (see our post, here), this settlement is with "New Subscription Services" which did not offer these kinds of subscription services in 1998.  This settlement does not apply to subscription services provided through the Internet.  The covered "new subscription services" have agreed to pay the greater of 15% of revenue or a per subscriber fee that will escalate over the 5 years that the agreement is in effect.  Given that these new services will be providing essentially the same service as the Preexisting Services, why the difference in rate?  Perhaps, it is because the difference in the law.

As we wrote earlier this week, the Preexisting Satellite Service pay royalties set based on the standards of Section 801(b) of the Copyright Act, which takes into account a number of factors including the interest of the public in getting access to copyrighted material, the relative contributions and financial risks of the parties in distributing the copyrighted material, the stability of the industry, and the right of the copyright holder to get a fair return on their intellectual property.  By contrast, the new subscription services who entered into the settlement just announced, who weren’t around at the time of the drafting of the DMCA, use the "willing buyer, willing seller" standard also used for Internet radio.  And, because of the applicability of the willing buyer willing seller standard and the apparent uncertainties of the litigation process using it, these new services apparently decided to agree to a royalty double that of the preexisting services, even though they provide essentially the same service.


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With July 15 now less than a month away, the new Internet Radio music royalties are still scheduled to go into effect.  Congressional legislation is slowly being considered, and a Motion for Stay to put the regulations on hold pending appeal has been filed (see our post here).  Some discussions on settlement have also taken place, though no deals have been done.  Without some action, payments under the new rules will soon be due.  See our memo, here, for more details on the CRB decision, and all of our posts on this issue, here.  While the legal and legislative actions are still proceeding, and the clock is counting down, the coverage in the popular media continues to grow.  In two recent discussions of the issue, SoundExchange spokesmen seem to blame Internet Radio for the current woes of the recording industry and to justify the high royalty rates through comparisons to the illegal pirating of copyrighted music.  All of these issues will be discussed at a seminar that I am moderating later this week at the Digital Media Conference in the Washington DC area.

One example of SoundExchange’s recent claims can be found in a series of articles found on the Los Angeles Times website featuring a "Dust-up" exchange of viewpoints on the Internet radio issue,  between Kurt Hanson, owner of Internet radio broadcaster Accuradio and the publisher of the Radio and Internet newsletter, and Jay Rosenthal, a Board member of SoundExchange.  Mr. Rosenthal, in attacking the value of Internet radio as a promotional tool, said that while webcasters might excite people about new music, most new music is now illegally downloaded so that the promotion doesn’t actually help the artists.  But, as Kurt Hanson points out, that would essentially be an excuse for never promoting any music in any venue – in fact it seemingly would be an excuse for shutting down the recording industry.  If music promotion just leads to illegal file sharing sites, and little or no music is ever to be sold again, why bother?  Does the recording industry really expect to make up for lost sales by receiving royalties from Internet radio?  Yet the same point seems to be made by SoundExchange President John Simson in a piece done by the PBS program NOW.  That program focused on the Internet Radio station Radio Paradise and how its popular, eclectic music mix will be silenced if the new royalties go into effect.  In that story, Simson also points to illegal downloading as causing the woes of the music industry, seemingly implying that this justifies outrageous royalties – yet offers nothing to tie downloading to Internet radio.


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