DOJ review of antitrust consent decrees

Here are some of the regulatory and legal developments of the last week of significance to broadcasters – and a look ahead to the FCC’s consideration of two media modernization items in the coming week.  Links are also provided for you to find more information on how these actions may affect your operations.

  • This week,

Here are some of the FCC regulatory, legal, and congressional actions of the last week—and music licensing action in the coming week—of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The Media Bureau settled investigations into six major radio groups

The judge presiding over the royalty litigation between BMI and the Radio Music Licensing Committee (RMLC) approved the settlement between these parties by an order released on March 23.  At the same time, the judge approved an order keeping the specifics of the approved settlement confidential for 30 days while the settlement is being implemented

The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division is, as we reported here and here, conducting a review of the consent decrees which govern ASCAP and BMI. Comments were filed in August, and those comments have now been posted to the Division’s website and are available for review here (they are organized alphabetically in groups

In a very important proceeding we summarized here, the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division is reviewing the antitrust consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI – the decrees that require that these performing rights organizations treat similarly situated licensees (and artists) in the same way and which allow a Court to review the reasonableness

July is an important month for regulatory filings – even though it is one of those months with no FCC submissions tied to any license renewal dates. Instead, quarterly obligations arise this month, the most important of which will have an impact in the ongoing license renewal cycle that began in June (see last month’s update on regulatory dates, here).  Even though there are no renewal filing deadlines this month, radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and DC must continue their on-air post-filing announcements on the 1st and 16th of the month.  On these same days, pre-filing announcements must be run by radio stations in North and South Carolina, who file their renewals by August 1.  Stations in Florida and Puerto Rico, who file on October 1, should be prepared to start their pre-filing announcements on August 1.  See our article here on pre-filing announcements.

Perhaps the most important date this month is July 10, when all full power AM, FM, Class A TV and full power TV stations must place their quarterly issues/programs lists in their online public inspection files.  The issues/programs list should include details of important issues affecting a station’s community, and the station’s programming aired during April, May, and June that addressed those issues.  The list should include the time, date, duration and title of each program, along with a brief description of each program and how that program relates to a relevant community issue.  We have written many times about the importance of these lists and the fact that the FCC will likely be reviewing online public files for their existence and completeness during the license renewal cycle – and imposing fines on stations that do not have a complete set of these lists for the entire license renewal period (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here).  So be sure to get these important documents – the only official documents that the FCC requires to show how a station has met its overall obligation to serve the public interest – into your online public file by July 10. 
Continue Reading July Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Quarterly Issues Programs and Children’s Television Reports, Renewal Announcements, Copyright Filings, EAS, EEO and More

The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division yesterday announced that it was starting a review of the ASCAP and BMI antitrust consent decrees that govern the United States’ two largest performing rights organizations for musical compositions (referred to as the “musical work”). The DOJ’s announcement of the initiation of the examination of the consent decrees poses a series of questions to which it invites interested parties – including users, songwriters, publishers and other interested parties – to file comments on the decrees, detailing which provisions are good and bad and, more broadly, whether there is a continuing need for the decrees at all. Comments are due on July 10.

This re-examination of the decrees has been rumored for many months. Back in March, we wrote about those rumors and the role that Congress may play in adopting replacement rules should the DOJ decide to fundamentally change the current provisions of the consent decrees. The DOJ itself just recently looked at the consent decrees, starting a review only 5 years ago with questions very similar to those it posed yesterday (see our post here on the initiation of the last review 5 years ago). That review ended with the DOJ deciding that only one issue needed attention, whether the decrees permitted “fractional licensing” of a song. We wrote about that complex issue here. That issue deals with whether, when a PRO gives a user a license to play a song, that user can perform the song without permission from other PROs when the song was co-written by songwriters who are members of different PROs. The DOJ suggested that permission from one PRO gave the user rights to the entire song, an interpretation of the decrees that was ultimately rejected by the rate courts reviewing the decrees (see our article here).   So, effectively, the multi-year review of the consent decrees that was just concluded led nowhere. But apparently the DOJ feels that it is time to do it all again. To fully understand the questions being asked, let’s look at what the consent decrees are, and why they are in place.
Continue Reading DOJ Starts Review of BMI and ASCAP Consent Decrees – Exploring the Background of the Issues

Last week, after passage by both chambers of Congress and signature by the President, the ‘‘Orrin G. Hatch–Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act’’ became law. The law underwent a few changes on its journey to approval, adding new provisions in the Senate to those which we summarized here upon its initial passage by the House. The Act retained its same principal purposes. The driving force behind the Act was the desire to simplify the payment of “mechanical royalties” by digital music services for the reproduction and distribution of the millions of musical compositions that they use in the songs that they serve up to more and more consumers across the country. That simplification was accomplished through the creation of a new collective through which these royalties will be paid – essentially a one-stop shop where the statutory royalty will be paid. The collective will have the responsibility for finding the copyright holders and songwriters who share in the royalties – removing the need for the music services to have to identify and pay all of the appropriate rightsholders, a process that has resulted in legal claims for hundreds of millions of dollars against these services for not being able to find all the parties who are supposed to be paid for the mechanical royalties.

The general layout of the system for dealing with the payment of these royalties, through a collective to be established, remains essentially the same as in the initial House Bill. Other provisions were added in the Senate (and then approved again by the House) dealing with matters including pre-1972 sound recordings, Sirius-XM royalties, and the ability of existing music organizations to continue to do direct licenses for mechanical and other rights outside the new statutory system. We may write about those issues later. But the Senate addition likely to have the most significance for the most music users was one having nothing to do with mechanical royalties, but instead with the performance royalty for music works (musical compositions) that is paid by music services, radio stations, bars and restaurants and any other location that plays music that is heard by the public at large. The new language added by the Senate requires that, before the Department of Justice recommends any changes to the consent decrees governing ASCAP and BMI, the DOJ must first notify Congress of any changes that it will be suggesting to the courts that administer the decrees, so that Congress can decide if it wants to take action to block or modify any such changes. Why is that significant?
Continue Reading Music Modernization Act Becomes Law – Mechanical Rights To Become Easier Just As Performance Rights May Become More Difficult

On Saturday, RMLC announced that it has reached an “interim” agreement with the new performing rights organization Global Music Rights (GMR) for a license to perform musical compositions controlled by GMR.  This agreement (available on the RMLC website here) is an interim agreement for radio stations that elect to participate, and covers only the first 9 months of 2017.  To be covered by this license, a station must make an election by January 31, and pay the first month’s assessment to GMR by that date.  GMR has promised not to sue any stations in January while stations are deciding whether to opt into this agreement.  The amount to be paid by any individual station can be ascertained by communicating with GMR at an email address furnished by the RMLC in the notice distributed on Saturday.

This is an interim agreement as it removes the threat of a lawsuit for playing GMR music after January 1 that could potentially be faced by any radio station that does not have a license.  The rates paid by any station that opts in could be adjusted retroactively, up or down, based on the results of further negotiations between RMLC and GMR, or based on the results of the lawsuits currently being litigated between the two (see our article here on RMLC’s suit against GMR, and the article here about GMR’s follow-up lawsuit against RMLC, each accusing the other of violating the antitrust laws).  It would seem obvious that RMLC believes that the amounts being paid under this interim deal are higher than justified based on the percentage of music played by radio stations that is controlled by GMR.  If it was believed that the interim fee represented a fair price, then it would seem that RMLC would have entered into a permanent license at these rates – but instead the litigation continues.  What is a station to do?
Continue Reading GMR and RMLC Agree to Interim License for Commercial Radio Stations – Providing 9 Months to Reach Final Deal for Public Performance of Musical Compositions

On Friday, the US District Court judge who oversees the administration of the BMI Consent Decree rejected the recent Department of Justice interpretation that the antitrust consent decree required that, when BMI licensed music to music users, that license would embody the full musical work, not just a fractional interest that might be held by the songwriter who was the BMI member. DOJ’s decision stemmed from its review of the ASCAP and BMI antitrust consent decrees, which was initiated by ASCAP and BMI.  While ASCAP and BMI initiated the review looking for certain relief from provisions of the Consent Decrees that govern their operations (see our summary of the initial proposals here), in its decision, which we wrote about here, the DOJ decided that the only clarification of the consent decree that it would put forward was one that required 100% licensing by ASCAP and BMI.  100% licensing means that, if a song was licensed as part of the repertoire of ASCAP or BMI, the licensee would get rights to all of that song, even if there were multiple songwriters some of whom were not affiliated with ASCAP or BMI.  This interpretation was rejected by Judge Stanton, the Judge who oversees the BMI consent decree.  His decision can be found on the BMI website, here.

The Judge’s decision seems to be premised not on the policies and practicalities of licensing by ASCAP and BMI, but instead simply from an interpretation of the language of the BMI consent decree itself.  Moreover, the decision itself does not necessarily conclude that songs to which BMI holds less than a full right will necessarily be excluded from the BMI repertoire, only finding that “[i]f a fractionally-licensed composition is disqualified from inclusion in BMI’ s repertory, it is not for violation of any provision of the Consent Decree.”  The decision basically says that the rights conveyed by the BMI licenses to the songs in its catalog, and even the validity of the rights to even license any song in its repertoire, are not consent decree decisions, but instead decisions that are left to be determined in civil proceedings interpreting property and contract rights.  Seemingly, the Judge’s decision ends up raising more questions than it answers. 
Continue Reading BMI Judge Rejects DOJ Conclusion that Consent Decree Requires 100% of Songs – What Does that Mean for Music Services?