At the end of 2009, we wrote about the interim royalties agreed to by both ASCAP and BMI, agreeing to reduce the amount of royalties paid by commercial radio stations by 7% until final royalties were agreed to by these Performing Rights Organizations and broadcast groups (principally the Radio Music Licensing Committee), either
The Radio Music Licensing Committee ("RMLC") has announced that it has entered into agreements with both ASCAP and BMI for interim royalties to be paid by commercial radio stations until final royalties are set. These royalties will be set either through negotiation or through litigation in Federal Courts which act as a "rate court" to determine what reasonable rates will be under the antitrust decrees that govern these organizations. As we wrote here and here, the RMLC has been involved in negotiations seeking a significant reduction in the royalties paid by radio stations for the right to make a public performance of musical compositions (or "musical works"). Both organizations have agreed to a 7% reduction in the amount currently paid by radio broadcasters, to be reflected on the invoices sent by these organizations for 2010 royalties. According to the press release on the ASCAP agreement, the discounts are interim agreements only, and will be subject to retroactive adjustment to January 1, 2010 once final royalties are set.
This money goes to composers of music, as contrasted to the controversial SoundExchange royalties that pay the performers of music (currently only in the digital world, but proposed in legislation pending before Congress to be extended to over-the-air broadcasting). ASCAP and BMI are essentially collection agencies (called Performing Rights Organizations or PROs) for large groups of songwriters. By signing up and paying royalties to these organizations and to SESAC, a smaller but still significant PRO, broadcasters obtain a "blanket license" to play all the songs covered by songwriters who are members of these organizations – which are essentially all of the songwriters whose songs are likely to be played by radio. The existence of these organizations save radio stations from having to negotiate independently with the thousands of songwriters and publishing companies that own the copyrights to these compositions – an arduous task that might be almost impossible without the existence of the PROs.
Radio broadcasters all over the country have been receiving letters about music royalties – from ASCAP, BMI and the Radio Music Licensing Committee (RMLC). The ASCAP and BMI letters are asking for the broadcaster to sign a letter committing themselves to some royalty obligation for 2010. They pose three options to the broadcaster – sign up to pay royalties for 2010, join the RMLC negotiating group, or notify ASCAP and BMI that they will be negotiating their own royalties. The RMLC letter suggests that the broadcaster join in their negotiating group to help to establish a new royalty structure with these entities. What does it all mean, and what should a broadcaster do?
These letters are all triggered because the rates for royalties that commercial radio broadcasters pay to ASCAP and BMI for the musical compositions that they play on the air expire at the end of 2009. (Noncommercial broadcasters have a special rate set under the review of the Copyright Royalty Board, and thus are not subject to these deals) RMLC represents most radio broadcasters in their dealings with the performing rights organizations (or "PROs" as ASCAP and BMI, and SESAC, are called). We wrote about the many issues that have held up an extension of the current agreements between radio broadcasters and ASCAP and BMI here. If there is no new deal covering these royalties in place by the end of the year, broadcasters who continue to play these compositions (which will be virtually all commercial radio operators) will need to determine how to pay royalties when the current royalty agreements expire. The current agreements do not have any automatic extensions in them, as the antitrust consent decrees that bind these companies call for royalty deals of no more than 5 years in duration. Thus, as the old agreements are about to expire, and no new agreements are in place, the flurry of letters has followed to put broadcasters on notice of the current situation. Of course, none of these letters is entirely clear in spelling out all the issues involved. So we’ll try to explain some of those issues below.
One of the fundamental questions that surrounds the proposed broadcast performance royalty for the use of sound recordings by over-the-air (or the "performance tax" as it has been labeled by the NAB) is how much it could it cost a broadcaster? Right now, that question is difficult to determine, as the pending bills do not themselves provide any details as to what the fees would be, except for noncommercial entities and for small broadcasters for whom fixed yearly fees are proposed. For a broadcaster with a station having over $1.25 million in yearly revenues, the current Congressional bills leave the amount of the royalty to be determined by the Copyright Royalty Board. In the current Senate draft of the bill, the amount to be paid would be based on the "willing buyer willing seller" standard that has been so controversial for Internet Radio companies. But the hearing to be held by the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow will address, among other issues, the question of "platform parity," i.e whether all companies subject to the sound recording performance royalty should pay a comparable rate, so we may see that proposal change as it did in the House version, to some form of the 801(b) standard (about which we wrote here and here).
We will write about the differing rates paid by differing music services in the next few days, especially as it becomes clear as to what rates for Internet radio royalties were agreed to under the most recent settlements with webcasters pursuant to the Webcaster Settlement Act. But even without a detailed analysis of all of the rates that have been agreed to, certain trends can be seen as to what SoundExchange, on behalf of the artists and copyright holders, believes to be a fair royalty for the use of their music. And that number is likely to be a "Substantial" one, as suggested by a recent Congressional Budget Office review of the cost to broadcasters of the proposed performance royalty.
The week, Congressman Rick Boucher, a member of both the House of Representatives Commerce and Judiciary Committees, told an audience of broadcasters at the NAB Leadership Conference that they should accept that there will be a performance royalty for sound recordings used in their over-the-air programming and negotiate with the record companies about the amount of a such a royalty. He suggested that broadcasters negotiate a deal on over-the-air royalties, and get a discount on Internet radio royalties. Sound recordings are the recordings by a particular recording artist of a particular song. These royalties would be in addition to the payments to the composers of the music that are already made by broadcasters through the royalties collected by ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. Congressman Boucher heads the Commerce Committee subcommittee in charge of broadcast regulation, and he has been sympathetic to the concerns of Internet radio operators who have complained about the high royalty rates for the use of sound recordings. Having the Congressman acknowledge that broadcasters needed to cut a deal demonstrated how seriously this issue is really being considered on Capitol Hill.
The NAB was quick to respond, issuing a press release, highlighting Congressional opposition to the Performance royalty (or performance tax as the NAB calls it) that has been shown by support for the Local Radio Freedom Act – an anti-performance royalty resolution that currently has over 150 Congressional supporters. The press release also highlights the promotional benefits of radio airplay for musicians, citing many musicians who have thanked radio for launching and promoting their careers. The controversy was also discussed in an article on Bloomberg.com. In the article, the central issue of the whole controversy was highlighted. If adopted, how much would the royalty be? I was quoted on how the royalty could be very high for the industry (as we’ve written here, using past precedent, the royalty could exceed 20% of revenue for large music-intensive stations). An RIAA spokesman responded by saying that broadcasters were being alarmists, and the royalty would be "reasonable." But would it?