fractional interest in musical work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
Continue Reading