direct music licensing

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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The royalties that Sirius XM will pay to SoundExchange for the next 5 years will be decided by the Copyright Royalty Board ("CRB") in December. To summarize the hearings that have been held over the last year, the CRB held an oral argument last week, where Sirius XM and SoundExchange presented their arguments as to what those royalties should be. Sirius argued that the rates should be decreased, while SoundExchange contended that the rates should go up significantly from the 8% of revenue that the service now pays (see our summary of the current Sirius XM rates here). How can these parties have such different perspectives on the value of music, and what did this argument say about the application of the 801(b) standard that applies to Sirius?  This standard is the standard that webcasters are seeking to apply to Internet Radio services through the Internet Radio Fairness Act which we wrote about here.  If the IRFA is adopted, it would apply when the CRB next reviews webcasting rates in a case that will be decided by the end of 2015.

Sirius XM and cable music provider Music Choice, which was also part of the proceeding, are both governed by the 801(b) standard rather than the “willing buyer, willing seller” standard that applies to Internet Radio. The oral argument made clear that the adoption of the 801(b) standard is not in and of itself a panacea for the concerns about the royalties that have been set by the Copyright Royalty Board. Last week’s argument focused on the value of music in a marketplace – essentially the “willing buyer, willing seller” question. While other 801(b) factors were discussed, they were seemingly passed over quickly, with most of the focus being on the questions of the marketplace value of the music.


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Last week, we wrote about the recently announced deal between Big Machine Records and Entercom Communications.  The day after we posted that article, Clear Channel announced another label deal – this time with Glassnote Entertainment Group, the home of bands including Mumford & Sons and Phoenix.  As with its Big Machine deal, the public releases suggest that the label agreed to lower digital performance royalties in exchange for a royalty on over-the-air performances by the company.  What impact do these deals have on the threat of a broadcast performance royalty, and why do the parties enter into these deals?

When the Entercom deal was discussed at the NAB Radio Show, the host of the session asked for a show of hands from broadcasters in the audience who were absolutely opposed to any performance royalty – and about a quarter of the hands in the room went up.  This is probably reflective of concerns that the break in the almost unanimous opposition of radio broadcasters to an over-the-air performance royalty for record labels and musicians could mean that the broadcast performance royalty (what used to be referred to as the "performance tax") would become inevitable. Will these deals embolden the recording industry to once again push Congress to move on the stalled effort to institute a performance royalty?  Perhaps not. At a Congressional hearing soon after the announcement of the original Big Machine-Clear Channel deal, Congressional Representatives were asking witnesses from the broadcast and music industries if the deal reflected a marketplace solution to the royalty issue, obviating the need for any government involvement. And that was certainly the message of the NAB at the Radio Show – these deals are unique deals by companies that can uniquely benefit from them as they have a large digital presence, not a template for universal extension to all broadcasters.


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SiriusXM announced that is has filed a legal action, including antitrust claims, against SoundExchange and A2IM (the American Association of Independent Music – the association of independent record labels), charging, according to a press release, these two organizations "with unlawfully interfering in SiriusXM’s efforts to secure, through a competitive market, copyrights critical to its business. The complaint contends that the conduct violates federal antitrust, as well as New York state law." The claim is essentially that these defendants conspired to prevent SiriusXM from negotiating direct licenses with musicians, licenses that could take music out of the royalty scheme administered by the Copyright Royalty Board, where royalties are paid to SoundExchange.  We wrote about the attempts by SiriusXM to negotiate such direct licenses, and the opposition of music groups to these agreements, last year. 

Why would SoundExchange and A2IM oppose direct music licensing?  One reason is that music licenses that are directly negotiated between music users and rights holders are traditionally the best evidence of the value of music.  In recent rate court cases involving performing rights organizations, direct licenses formed crucial evidence of the value of music rights.  In cases dealing with ASCAP and BMI royalties for "business establishment" or "background music" services, evidence of direct licenses at rates significantly lower than previously established resulted in court decisions dropping rates by as much as two-thirds from the rates that ASCAP and BMI had previously been charging.  Were SiriusXM to be successful in its suit, and if it is in fact able to negotiate direct music licenses for substantial catalogs of music at rates lower than what it has paid under previous rate decisions, it would presumably introduce such evidence in proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Board (which is now in the process of setting the rates for the public performance of sound recordings by SiriusXM over its satellite service for the next 5 years), and argue that these direct deals are the best evidence of what a willing buyer and willing seller would agree to in a competitive marketplace. While the rates set by the CRB for SiriusXM are not like Internet radio rates and established solely based on a willing buyer, willing seller test, the question of marketplace rates is still a very important component to any CRB decision setting those rates (see our article here on the rates that SiriusXM currently pays to SoundExchange and the standard used to set such rates). 


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There have been many reports about the attempts by Sirius XM Radio to license music directly from record labels, bypassing any royalty rates set by the Copyright Royalty Board.  Direct licensing would have Sirius pay the record labels or copyright holders for the rights to use music, avoiding any dealings with SoundExchange, which normally collects the royalties for the public performance of sound recordings under the statutory license.  The most recent report about Sirius’ efforts was in the New York Times, here.  Sirius, like webcasters, pays royalties set by the CRB (if they cannot be negotiated among the parties) that cover the public performance of all legally released sound recordings.  While webcasters currently have royalties that are in place through 2015, the royalties for Sirius end in 2012, and are being litigated now (see our story here on the last royalties set by the CRB for Sirius).  To avoid the uncertainty of litigation, with which webcasters are very familiar, Sirius has been attempting to license music directly from the copyright holders.  This is not a new story – Rhapsody reportedly tried the same thing earlier this year, and Clear Channel tried to get royalty waivers from independent artists several years ago in exchange for more exposure for their music (see our stories, here and here).  Each time a music service suggests that it might want to license music directly to try to recognize some savings over the rates established through CRB litigation, the music community objects – see, for instance, the statements of unions AFTRA and AFM here, that of SoundExchange here, and that of A2IM (the association of independent record labels), here.  But what is really wrong with the efforts of services to negotiate lower royalties?  If you believe the testimony of SoundExchange’s own witness in the Copyright Royalty Board proceedings – nothing at all.  In fact it is to be expected. 

In the CRB proceeding that was held in 2005-2006 (and from which, most of the settlements arose that now govern the royalties for sound recordings played by Internet radio stations), SoundExchange relied on a number of witnesses, including one expert, Michael Pelcovits, an economist whose model was the principal testimony relied on by the CRB in establishing the rates they determined to be reasonable.  In his written testimony, Mr. Pelcovits stated as follows:

…a rate that is set too low may have serious economic dangers.  By setting a rate too low, inefficient entry may be encouraged, and inefficient levels of production will be encouraged, which can hinder the development of an efficient market.  It is also worth noting that setting the statutory rate too high will not necessarily be harmful to the market.  If the price is too high, parties can (and are almost certain to) negotiate agreements for rates lower than the statutory standard.  Thus, a rate that is set too high is likely to "self-adjust" because of the sellers’ natural incentive to meet the market. 

(Emphasis added).  The statutory rate referred to in this quote is the rate that is set by the CRB.  What this quote says is that, if that rate is set too high, then parties will naturally negotiate after-the-fact to try to find what the real market rate should be, and that such negotiations should be expected – not feared as many seem to be claiming as these attempts to cut deals come to light.  In other words, the music community seemed to favor (and expect) such negotiations, before they were against them it in their statements today. 


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The NAB Radio Board today voted to adopt a Terms Sheet to offer to the musicFirst Coalition which, if agreed to by musicFirst and adopted by Congress, will settle the contentious issue of whether to impose a sound recording performance royalty (the "performance tax") on over-the-air broadcasters.  If adopted, that will mean that broadcasters in the United States, for the first time, will pay a royalty to artists and record labels, in addition to the royalties paid to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC that go to the composers of the music.  What does the Term Sheet provide, and what will this mean for broadcasters, webcasters and others who pay music royalties?

The Term Sheet sets out a number of points, including the following:

  • A 1% of gross revenue sound recording royalty to be paid to SoundExchange
  • A phase-in period for the 1% royalty, that will be tied to the number of mobile phones that contain an FM chip.  A royalty of one-quarter of one percent would take effect immediately upon the effective date of the legislation adopting it.  The royalty would rise in proportion to the number of mobile phones with enabled FM chips.  Once the percentage of phones with FM chips reached 75%, the full royalty would take effect.
  • The 1% royalty could only be changed by Congressional action.
  • The royalty would be lower for noncommercial stations and stations with less than $1.25 million in revenue – from a flat $5000 for stations making between $500,000 and $1.25 million in revenue down to $100 for those making less than $50,000 per year.
  • Broadcasters would also get a reduction in their streaming rates – but only when FM chips in mobile phones exceed 50% penetration.  The reduction would be tied to the rates paid by "pureplay webcasters" (see our summary of the Pureplay webcasters deal here), but would be set at a level significantly higher than pureplay webcasters, rising from $.001775 in 2011 (if FM chips were quickly deployed) to $.0021575.
  • Future streaming royalties would not be set by the Copyright Royalty Board but by a legislatively ordered rate court – presumably a US District Court similar to that which hears royalty disputes for ASCAP and BMI.
  • An acknowledgment by AFTRA that broadcasters can stream their signal on the Internet in their entirety – apparently agreeing to relieve broadcasters from any liability for the additional amounts due to union artists when commercials featuring union talent are streamed
  • An agreement that broadcasters can directly license music from artists and reduce their  liability for the new royalty by the percentage of music that the broadcasters is able to directly license
  • Agreements to "fix" issues in Sections 112 and 114 of the Copyright Act in making the provisions of these laws regarding ephemeral copies and the performance complement consistent with the waivers that major record labels gave to broadcasters when the NAB reached its settlement with SoundExchange on streaming royalties last year.  See our post here on the provisions of those waivers.
  • musicFirst would need to acknowledge the promotional effect of radio in promoting new music, and would need to work with radio in attempting to secure legislation mandating the FM chip in mobile phones.

[Clarification – 10/26/2010 – Upon a close reading of the Terms Sheet, it looks like the phase in of the 1% royalty and the delay in the streaming discount only kick in if Congress does not mandate active FM chips in cell phones.  If the mandate is enacted, then the full 1% royalty and streaming discount is effective immediately. Given the opposition of much of the wireless industry to a mandated FM chip, this may represent a recognition that the legislation requiring the active FM chip will not be enacted in the near future]

What does this all mean?


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According to British press reports, Warner Music’s CEO Edger Bronfman Jr. stated that it will cease making its music available to advertising supported streaming music sites.  This has prompted some questions about how this decision would affect services such as Pandora, Slacker, Accuradio and other Internet radio companies – would it deny them access to substantial amounts of music?  In fact, as these US services operate under a "statutory license", created by Congress, they get access to  all legally recorded music in exchange for the payment of a royalty established by the Copyright Royalty Board.  Essentially, under this statutory license (otherwise known as a "compulsory license"), a copyright holder cannot deny access to companies operating under the license, as long as those companies comply with terms of the license, and pay the established royalty.  Thus, even if the Warner Music decision really is true, this decision should have little or no impact on US Internet Radio stations operating under the compulsory license.

What would it affect?  Presumably it could hurt services that don’t rely on the statutory license.  Internet Radio operators who want to rely on the statutory license must meet a set of requirements set out by statute in order to qualify for the license.  We’ve written about those obligations before here, in connection with the waiver of some of these requirements in the royalty settlement between SoundExchange and the NAB.  Services operating under the license must meet the "statutory complement", meaning that they cannot play more songs from an artist or CD in a given time period than allowed by the law, specifically:

  • No more than 3 songs in a row by the same artist
  • Not more than 4 songs by same artist in a 3 hour period
  • No more than 2 songs from same CD in a row

In addition, Section 114 of the Copyright Act sets out other limitations on a service operating under the statutory license.  The service must provide the name of the artist, song and CD in text on its site, to the extent technically possible, while the song is playing.  There are also certain restrictions about tying the music being played to commercial content on the site, and requiring that sites take steps to prevent digital piracy.  And, most importantly, the service cannot be "interactive."


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The question of when a digital music service is “interactive” and therefore requires direct negotiations with a copyright holder in order to secure permission to use a sound recording is a difficult one that has been debated since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was adopted in 1998. In a decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals released today, upholding a jury decision in 2007, the Court concluded that Yahoo’s Launchcast service (now operated by CBS) is not so “interactive” as to take it outside of the statutory royalty despite the fact that the service does customize its music offerings to the tastes of individual listeners. To reach its decision, the Court went through an extensive analysis of both the history of the sound recording copyright and of the details of the criteria used by Launchcast to select music for a stream sent to a specific user. By determining that the service is not interactive, the service need only pay the SoundExchange statutory royalty to secure permission to use all legally recorded and publicly released music.  Had the service been found to be interactive within the meaning of the statute, the service would have to negotiate with each sound recording copyright holder for each and every song that it wanted to use on its service to get specific rights to use each song – potentially resulting in hundreds of negotiations and undoubtedly higher fees than those paid under the statutory license.

The issue in the case turned on an analysis of the DMCA’s definition of an interactive service.  The statute defines an interactive service as one where a user can select a specific song or “receive a transmission of a program specially created for the recipient.” It is clear that Launchcast did not allow a user to request and hear a specific song.  But, by specifying a genre of music, and by specifying favorite artists and songs and rating other songs played by the service, a listener could influence the music that was provided to it.  Was this ability to influence the music sufficient to make it an “interactive service” and thus take it out of the coverage of the statutory royalty?


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As reported in Digital Music News and other publications on Friday, Clear Channel Communications dropped its waiver of music royalties from its on-line agreement signed by musicians submitting songs to the Company in hopes that their music would be played on the Company’s radio stations.  In writing about this decision, most publications attribute the decision to the petition filed with the FCC by the Future of Music Coalition and other public interest groups arguing that the waiver requests constituted a form of payola – the giving of something of value (the waiver of the right to receive a royalty) in exchange for the playing of music.  However, on close inspection, that would appear to be a misunderstanding of the royalty, as there would seem to be no royalty that would be affected by the waiver in connection with the playing of this music by radio stations, and therefore there would be no payola over which the FCC has any jurisdiction.

According to the Future of Music petition, Clear Channel’s promise to play new music was made in connection with the payola settlement that it and other companies entered into with the FCC, and was apparently contained in a side letter filed with the FCC, as it was not spelled out in the settlement agreements themselves. See our analysis of the settlement agreements, here.  The side letter promised that the Company would dedicate a certain amount of radio airplay on the Company’s radio stations to new local music.  However, such play would not implicate any music royalties – so a waiver of royalties would not confer any benefit on the Company.  Broadcast stations pay no royalty for the use of a sound recording – thus the waiver that Clear Channel requested was without any value as there was no royalty to waive.  While broadcast stations do pay a royalty for the composition (the underlying words and music of a song), stations play flat fees to ASCAP and BMI that are a function of the station’s market size and power – not a function of how many songs are played.  Thus, as there is no sound recording royalty and a flat fee for the composition royalty unaffected by any waivers, the waiver did not confer any benefit to the Company in connection with its broadcast operations.  Thus, there where would appear to be no payola issue over which the FCC would have any jurisdiction.


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