In a press release issued today, the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) and performing rights organization Global Music Rights (GMR) announced that enough commercial radio stations signed the GMR licensing agreement to allow the settlement of the RMLC/GMR litigation to become effective. As we wrote when the settlement was announced early last month,
In 2019, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice began a review of the court-administered antitrust consent decrees that have bound ASCAP and BMI since the 1940s. We wrote about the issues in their review here. The formal review of these decrees began as part of the DOJ’s broader review of its antitrust consent decrees covering many different industries. The DOJ received almost a thousand comments on the questions that it asked about the ASCAP and BMI decrees. It also held public roundtables as well as private discussions with interested parties during its review. Last week, Makan Delrahim, the outgoing head of the Antitrust Division, presented remarks at a Vanderbilt Law School virtual event where he said that the review would be ending without any proposals for reform. While the statement notes some of the reforms that were sought by the music industry, it also notes that music users around the country rely on the systems established under the decrees and judge them to be working well. Mr. Delrahim’s statement says that because of the complexity of the issues and the interruptions caused by the pandemic, no reforms would be offered at this time, but it urged the DOJ to continue to review these decrees on a regular basis – at least once every five years.
This action is significant for broadcasters and other music users as it leaves in place these consent decrees that are the basis on which so many businesses use music in their day-to-day operations. Given the volume of music they have under license, most businesses do not have an alternative to using the blanket licenses offered by these organizations. The only alternative would be to license the music themselves which, due to the complexity of the copyright laws and the lack of transparency in music ownership, would be exceedingly difficult for a business where music is but a secondary component to their operations. Together, ASCAP and BMI provide a license to broadcasters and other music users (including any business that performs music to the public, such as bars and restaurants, retail stores, digital music services, concert venues, hotels and so many other locations). …
Continue Reading DOJ Ends its Review of ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees – For Now…What Does it Mean?
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
In the last few weeks, the press has been buzzing with speculation that the Department of Justice is moving toward suggesting changes in the antitrust consent decrees that govern the operations of ASCAP and BMI. Those consent decrees, which have been in place since the 1940s, among other things require that these Performing Rights Organizations treat all songwriters alike in distributions based on how often their songs are played, and that they treat all services alike with users that provide the same kind of service all paying the same rate structure. Rates are also reviewed by a court with oversight over the decrees when the PROs and music services cannot come to a voluntary agreement to arrive at reasonable rates. The decrees have also been read to mean that songwriters, once part of the ASCAP or BMI collective, cannot withdraw with respect to certain services and negotiate with those services themselves while still remaining part of the collective with respect to other music users (see, e.g., our articles here and here about the desires of certain publishing companies to withdraw from these PROs to negotiate directly with certain digital services while still remaining in these PROs for licensing broadcasting and retail music users).
With this talk of reform of the consent decrees, Congress, particularly the Senate Judiciary Committee under the leadership of Senator Lindsey Graham, has reportedly stepped in, telling DOJ not to move to change the consent decrees without giving Congress the chance to intervene and devise a replacement system. In fact, under the recently passed Music Modernization Act, notice to Congress is required before the DOJ acts. Already, both the PROs and user’s groups are staking out sides. What are they asking for?
Continue Reading ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees Under Review – How Performing Rights Organizations, Antitrust Policy and Statutory Licenses Could Create a Controversy
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
Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in a “Summary Order” that the Court said does “not have precedential effect,” upheld an even briefer decision of the US District Court Judge who oversees the BMI antitrust consent decree, determining that the Department of Justice was wrong in its interpretation of the consent decree requiring that all songs licensed by BMI represent 100% of the musical work. This is a very arcane issue very deep into the nitty-gritty of copyright law – and an issue that we wrote about several times before, including our articles here and here.
The issue arises as many songs are written by several co-writers. Often times, it is simply a composer of the music and someone else who writes the lyrics. But more and more in many musical genres, there are multiple people who receive songwriting credits on any single song. Each of these authors is deemed to have a “fractional interest” in the song. When these multiple authors of a song belong to different performing rights organizations (e.g. ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR, organizations which authors and their publishing companies join to simplify music licensing to users of lots of music – like radio stations, digital music services, and even bars, restaurants and retail establishments that play music to entertain customers), the issue addressed in this case arises. The question that parties before the court have been debating is whether, when one of these PROs signs a deal with a music user, the user gets the rights to actually perform the song, or whether they simply get the fractional interest in the song that is held by the songwriter who is a member of the PRO, which would require that the user also get the rights to the other fractional interests before the user can play the song.
Continue Reading Court of Appeals Upholds BMI Decision Allowing Fractional Music Licensing – What Are the Issues?
This week SoundExchange, the non-profit rights organization that collects the royalties paid by digital music companies for the public performance in the United States of sound recordings, announced that it had acquired CMRRA (the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency, Ltd). CMRRA licenses the reproduction rights to musical works in Canada. As we have written before, musical works or musical compositions are the lyrics and music for a song, while the sound recording is the actual recording of that song by a singer, band or other performer. We have also written before about the difference between the public performance right and the right to make reproductions of songs (including “mechanical rights”), rights that arise in different contexts and usually require a different type of license before a music service can use a song in its business. Why would a company that licenses the public performances of sound recordings in the US acquire a company that licenses reproduction rights in Canada?
SoundExchange’s public notice talks about its ability to “integrate and streamline the administration and distribution of sound recording and music publishing royalties.” And it also highlights that the deal will allow it to “offer a broad and comprehensive range of services to rights holders in both sound recordings and music publishing and music users alike across North America.” While SoundExchange suggests that it is the first company to offer a comprehensive range of services in licensing both sound recordings and musical works in North America, this deal instead seems to be part of a trend where rights collectives are merging to offer such comprehensive services in licensing both public performance rights and the rights to make reproductions, for both sound recordings and musical works.
Continue Reading SoundExchange Acquires CMRRA – What Does it Mean for Music Licensing?
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
Just a few weeks ago, we wrote about the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) filing a lawsuit against Global Music Rights (GMR) alleging that GMR was violating the antitrust laws by offering an all or nothing blanket license for rights to play the songs written by certain songwriters now represented by this new performing rights organization. RMLC was seeking to impose some oversight over the rates being charged for GMR royalties. This would be similar to the controls over the rates of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, whose rates can only be imposed following an agreement with a copyright holder or, where there is no voluntary agreement, by a determination by a court (for ASCAP and BMI) or an arbitration panel (for SESAC) that the new rates are reasonable. Now, GMR has filed its own lawsuit against RMLC (though it claims that its suit is unrelated to the one that RMLC filed against it) alleging that it is RMLC that is violating the antitrust laws (and certain California statutes) by forming a “cartel” of buyers, i.e. commercial radio stations who are refusing to deal with GMR individually but instead are looking to RMLC for the negotiation of a license agreement that will cover the entire industry. What are the issues presented by this dueling litigation?
The RMLC suit is premised on the concept that any time multiple products from independent marketplace competitors (in this case the songs of multiple songwriters) are packaged together and sold at an all or nothing price, there is the potential for obtaining prices higher than would be obtained on the open market. For example, while a contemporary hits formatted radio station could potentially decide that the price of Adele songs are too high and pull those songs from its playlists, it is not able to do so if that song is bundled with songs written by Pharrell Williams, Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Brittany Spears and Katie Perry (all of whom are listed on the GMR website as being part of its repertoire) so that the radio station either takes all the songs from all of those writers or none at all. While it might be able to get away with not playing one or two of these artists, if it has to pull them all, listeners will notice. If the station wants to keep playing in the format that it has selected, it has to pay the bundled rights fee asked by the representative performing rights organization.
Continue Reading GMR Sues RMLC – Claims Antitrust Violations for Negotiating Royalties on Behalf of the Radio Industry – What Are the Implications?
RMLC, the organization that represents most commercial radio stations in the US in negotiating music license agreements for the public performance of musical compositions, has filed an antitrust lawsuit against GMR (Global Music Rights). GMR is a new performing rights organization (PRO), founded by music industry heavyweight Irving Azoff. As we wrote here and here, GMR has signed agreements to represent songs from the catalogs of many prominent songwriters, including Adele, Taylor Swift, some of the Beatles, Madonna, Jay Z and many other big names. RMLC (the Radio Music License Committee) is asking in its lawsuit that, initially, GMR be enjoined from licensing its catalog of songs for more than a rate that represents the pro rata share of its catalog to those of the other PROs while its broader antitrust action is litigated to establish an appropriate mechanism for determining those rates in the future.
Currently, the two largest PROs, ASCAP and BMI, are subject to antitrust consent decrees that govern their operations – decrees that the Department of Justice recently refused to substantially modify at the request of these groups (see our articles here and here.). SESAC recently entered into a settlement of with RMLC, following an antitrust action similar to the one filed Friday against GMR, imposing restraints on SESAC’s ability to unilaterally impose its rates on radio stations, requiring instead that such rates be set by arbitrators if they cannot be voluntarily negotiated (see our articles here and here). The songs in the GMR catalog are covered by ASCAP, BMI and SESAC licenses through the term of the current licenses with those organizations, but those licenses for radio all expire this year (see our article here). Thus, RMLC argues that, if there is no injunction, starting January 1, 2017, a radio station will either be forced to pay whatever rates GMR demands for songs that are being withdrawn from the catalogs of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, or risk being sued for copyright infringement (and potential damages of up to $150,000 per infringement). …
Continue Reading RMLC Files Antitrust Lawsuit Against GMR And Seeks to Enjoin New Music License Fees on Radio Stations