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.