GMR antitrust litigation

This week, the lawsuit brought by the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) against new performing rights organization GMR (Global Music Rights) for alleged violations of the antitrust laws was determined by a court in Pennsylvania to have been brought in the wrong place – and transferred to a court in California.  This case has been on hold for well over two years while this procedural question was ironed out.  Now that the case has been transferred to California, the litigation that has been on hold while the jurisdictional issue was resolved can begin – but don’t expect quick results as these complicated cases can take years to resolve.  What is involved in this case?

Back in 2016, when RMLC concluded that it was not likely to reach a negotiated royalty rate for radio’s use of the musical compositions controlled by GMR songwriters and publishers, it brought the Pennsylvania court action.  In that action, it argued that the rates that GMR wanted were an abuse of the market power that GMR was able to exercise by banding these songwriters together and offering a license to radio stations on an all-or-nothing basis (see our articles here and here for more on the initial suit).  As it had done successfully with SESAC (see our article here), and as has been the case for decades with ASCAP and BMI, RMLC had hoped to have the court declare that GMR’s unrestrained royalty demands were contrary to the antitrust laws, and that some limits should be imposed on those rates.  The RMLC suit against GMR was brought in the same Pennsylvania court in which RMLC had sued SESAC, which led to the settlement subjecting SESAC rates to arbitration if the parties could not voluntarily agree on rates (and the arbitration process ultimately resulted in significantly lower rates for commercial radio than SESAC had previously received – see our article here on the results of the arbitration).
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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?
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Yesterday brought news that a Federal Magistrate issued a ruling (a 42 page order discussing fine points of law) deciding that the antitrust lawsuit brought by RMLC against GMR should not be tried in the Pennsylvania court where the suit was brought. As we wrote here, RMLC (the group that represents many commercial radio operators in music licensing matters) had argued that GMR (a relatively new organization representing songwriters in licensing music use as do ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) was acting in violation of the antitrust rules by trying to license music from a number of songwriters at prices well in excess of the amount that corresponded to these artists’ share of radio airplay. GMR seemingly retaliated by suing RMLC in a Los Angeles court, arguing that RMLC itself violates the antitrust laws by functioning as a buyer’s cartel unifying music licensing buyers against these songwriters (see our article here). Since these dueling suits were filed, the parties have been fighting over where this case should be heard.

RMLC had brought their case in Pennsylvania both because a number of RMLC members operate in Pennsylvania and because RMLC had obtained a favorable result in that court in similar litigation against SESAC, leading to the arbitration process that substantially decreased the rates that the commercial radio industry pays to that organization (see our article here). GMR sued in California as it is headquartered there, and presumably thought that it might get a bit of a “home court advantage” by trying a case in a state a bit more disposed toward content creators. So what does the decision yesterday mean?
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Global Music Rights, commonly known as GMR, is the newest Performing Rights Organization (PRO) in the US music business, licensing public performance rights to musical compositions of songwriters as diverse as various members of the Eagles to Pharrell Williams to George Gershwin. As we wrote here, in December, they offered a temporary license to the radio industry to allow radio stations to play their music if the stations pay a royalty reportedly based on a percentage of what stations pay to ASCAP and BMI. That license, which was accepted by many radio stations, expires at the end of September. Many stations were concerned as to what would happen on October 1, and whether they could continue to play GMR music. This week, that question was answered when it was announced that GMR has offered to extend the license for another 6 months at the same rates stations are now paying.

While this extension may answer the question of what happens on October 1, it certainly does not resolve all GMR issues. It seems pretty clear that, unless there is a major breakthrough, GMR and the Radio Music License Committee (the organization that negotiates performance royalties for commercial radio operators) will not come to an agreement on rates before the end of September. As we wrote here, RMLC has sued GMR, asking that a court make them subject to an antitrust consent decree much like SESAC where rates, if they cannot be voluntarily negotiated, would be set through arbitration (see our article on the results of the recent RMLC-SESAC arbitration here). GMR has countersued (see our article here), and litigation continues as it may well for years absent a settlement.
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Commercial radio broadcasters have been seeing numerous communications over the last week about Global Music Rights (GMR) and its seemingly contentious music royalty negotiations with the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC). Many stations are confused about this controversy and what it is all about. The 5 questions below, and the links at the end of the questions, try to shed some light on the issues. Stations need to carefully consider their options, and seek advice where necessary, to determine what they will do by January 31 with respect to the interim license that GMR has offered to stations. The questions below hopefully provide some background on these issues.

 What is GMR and why isn’t the music they represent covered by the other organizations like BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC?

 GMR is a new performing rights organization. Like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, they represent songwriters and collect royalties from music users for the public performance of these songwriter’s compositions. They will collect not just from radio, but from all music users – they have already reached out to business music services that provide the music played in retail stores, restaurants and other businesses and no doubt have or will license other companies that make music available to the public. Most songwriters represented by GMR used to be represented by ASCAP or BMI, but these songwriters have withdrawn from ASCAP and BMI and joined GMR, allegedly to attempt to increase the amounts that they are paid for the use of the songs that they have written. For radio, these withdrawals became effective on January 1 of this year, when the old license agreements between ASCAP and BMI and the commercial radio industry expired.

What does a station need to, in order to protect itself while negotiations are going on?

Because the penalties for playing a song without a license can be as much at $150,000 per song, stations either need to purge all GMR music from their stations or sign a license agreement with GMR. If you decide to purge their music from your stations, don’t forget about music that may appear in commercials or syndicated programming. Also remember that we are talking about the musical composition, not the recording of the song by any particular band or singer. Even the broadcast of a high school band playing a GMR song at half time of some football game, or the broadcast of a local middle school choral concert, could trigger the royalty obligation to GMR.
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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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ASCAP and the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) announced yesterday that they have reached an agreement for the period 2017-2021, setting the performance royalties that commercial broadcasters will pay for the use of music written by composers who are represented by ASCAP. The press release issued yesterday discloses little about the details of the agreement.

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). 
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