DOJ review of antitrust consent decrees

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. 
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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.
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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?
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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?
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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. 
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While this summer has perhaps not brought the big headlines in trade press about copyright issues involving broadcasters – particularly in the area of music rights – there still are many issues that are active. I addressed some of those issues in a presentation earlier this month at the Texas Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention. I did my presentation in conjunction with a representative of SoundExchange, where he covered the nuts and bolts of the obligations of broadcasters and webcasters to file royalties for the noninteractive digital performance of sound recordings (e.g. webcasting and Internet radio). While the rates for 2016-2020 are on appeal (see our articles here, here and here), these rates are effective pending appeal and webcasters need to be paying under them. In the Texas presentation, I covered some of the many other copyright issues that are on the horizon, many of which we have written about in the pages of this blog. The slides from my presentation are available here. They provide an outline of many of the pending matters.

The presentation covered the controversy about the Department of Justice decision on the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, about which I wrote about here. That controversy continues, as the PROs seek judicial or legislative relief from the new DOJ requirement for 100 per cent licensing of split works (see my article for an explanation of what that means). In the interim, the radio industry is negotiating new royalties with both of these organizations, as the current license agreements expire at the end of this year (see our article here).
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The DOJ yesterday issued its long-awaited review of the ASCAP and BMI antitrust consent decrees. We wrote about the issues raised by the DOJ in its initial inquiry here. The questions that had been advanced in DOJ’s initial notice included (1) whether to allow music publishers to partially withdraw their catalogs from one of the PROs (Performing Rights Organizations) to negotiate directly with some class of music users (principally a review to determine if certain big publishers could negotiate digital rights directly, while allowing ASCAP or BMI to continue to license less lucrative and more difficult-to-administer music users like bars, restaurants and retail establishments), (2) whether to strengthen the payment and enforcement rights of the PROs (including questions of how services should be paying before rates for a class of user are established, and whether rate courts were appropriate for all disputes over rates), and (3) whether the PROs should be allowed to license more than just the public performance rights (perhaps getting into licensing mechanical rights, as their Canadian counterpart SOCAN and their US competitor SESAC are now doing – see our article here). The DOJ’s report decided to hold off on addressing any of these questions, and instead focused solely on one issue – requiring that the PROs offer full-work licensing on all songs within their catalogs (which the DOJ raised in a second request for comments about which we wrote here).

Already, there has been much angst within the PRO and publishing worlds about this decision, while there has generally been relief among the users of music that there were no fundamental changes in the way that music is licensed through the PROs. But just what are the issues with full-licensing of musical works?

The concept is basically that, when a user pays ASCAP or BMI for the right to use their catalog, the user should get all of the rights they need to publicly perform all of the songs in that catalog. Most users probably already assumed that they were getting all of those rights when they paid the PROs their monthly fees. But the DOJ discovered that there was a basic conceptual question about just what the user was getting when they paid their license fee – and that question could prove even more problematic were the DOJ to agree to some of the requested more fundamental changes in the consent decrees, such as allowing partial withdrawal of catalogs by publishers. The question is whether a user gets all the rights to the songs that are listed in a PRO’s catalog, or merely the “fractional interest” that is owned by the songwriter or publisher who is a member of that PRO.
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The “performing rights organizations” – ASCAP, BMI and SESAC – don’t get as much attention in these pages as do the royalties paid to SoundExchange for the use of “sound recordings.” The PROs collect for the public performance of the “musical work” or the musical composition – the words and music of a

The legal issues surrounding the use of music in broadcast and digital media is one of those topics that is usually enough to make eyes glaze over.  The importance of understanding these issues is illustrated by this week’s request from the Department of Justice for more information about the rights of songwriters to authorize ASCAP and BMI (often referred to as Performing Rights Organizations or PROs) to license their works to services like radio stations and webcasters when there are multiple songwriters who may not all be members of the same rights organization.  While we try to provide some explanations of some of those issues on this Blog, I wanted to point to a couple of other resources available to address some of these issues and to, hopefully, help make some of those issues understandable.

First, I wanted to note that I’ll be moderating a panel on current music issues at the NAB Radio Show in Atlanta on Thursday afternoon (the panel is described here) featuring representatives of the NAB, RIAA, BMI, Pandora and the Copyright Office.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to unpack some of the motivations and directions of the music royalty debates that are going on in Washington DC.  For those of you not able to make that panel, and even those of you who are planning to attend, a new source of information that provides a very good summary of the many music licensing issues now being considered by Congress and the courts is a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service released last week, available here.  The report explains in relatively simple terms how music licensing works in the United States, and describes many of the current legislative and judicial issues that currently could affect that licensing.  While obviously not addressing all of the subtleties of the arguments of all of the parties to these proceedings, the report does at least give a relatively neutral summary of the arguments of the parties.
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