Congressman Mel Watt from North Carolina this week introduced his long-awaited bill proposing that over-the-air radio broadcasters pay a royalty to sound recording copyright holders (usually the record label) and to artists. As we have written many times, currently, royalties on sound recordings are paid only by companies that make digital performances, including webcasters (see our summary of the current webcasting rates here) and satellite radio (see our summary of the recent decision on satellite radio rates here). While the bill’s proposals for a broadcast royalty has been covered in many other news reports, few note that the Watt bill, called the Free Market Royalty Act, goes far beyond past proposals for a royalty on over-the-air broadcasters. In addition to the over-the-air royalty, the bill proposes that the Copyright Royalty Board be taken out of the equation in setting royalties.  And the removal of the CRB from the process applies not just to the proposed new performance royalty on broadcasters, but also to the setting of royalties for all other noninteractive commercial digital music services. Instead of a CRB proceeding to set rates, commercial music users, including webcasters and satellite radio, would need to negotiate a royalty with copyright holders – principally with SoundExchange – a royalty not subject to review as to the reasonableness of the rates by the CRB or by the Courts.

And the proposal goes further than simply designating SoundExchange as the party with whom all noninteractive digital audio services would go to negotiate royalties. In addition, the bill provides that any copyright holder could opt out of the rates negotiated by SoundExchange, after they are set, and negotiate direct licenses for its music with music services, including radio broadcasters. Seemingly, a popular band, or a label with a number of hit acts, that thought that it could get more from its music than any rate to which SoundExchange agreed, could withdraw from any "deal" with SoundExchange, and negotiate on their own for what would presumably be higher royalties.  If the copyright holder withdraws its music from the SoundExchange royalty, broadcasters and other music services could not play that music unless and until a license deal was reached.


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No one ever claimed that music royalties are easy to understand, especially in the digital age when nice, neat definitions that had grown up over many years in the physical world no longer necessarily make sense. The complexity of the world of digital music licensing is clear from many sources, but the Commerce Department’s “Green Paper” on Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy does a good job discussing many of the music royalty issues that have arisen in the last 20 years that make copyright so confusing for professionals, and pretty much incomprehensible for those not immersed in the intricacies of copyright law on a regular basis. The Green Paper discusses some of the issues in music policy that make this area so confusing, and highlights where interested parties and lawmakers should focus their efforts to reform current rules to make them workable in the digital age. The Paper also discusses other areas of copyright policy that we will try to address in other articles.  You can find the Green Paper here (though note that it is about 120 pages and will take some time to download).

One of the most controversial issues that it addresses is the concept of a general performance right for sound recordings. As did Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante in the speech we summarized here, the Commerce Department puts the current administration on record as supporting the creation of such a right – a right that has not existed in the United States, except for a limited sound recording performance royalty for performances by digital audio companies like webcasters (see our summary of the royalty rates paid by different types of Internet Radio services here) and satellite radio (see our summary of the royalties to be paid by Sirius XM under the most recent Copyright Royalty Board decision). While the most controversial aspect of the creation of a broad sound recording performance royalty has been in connection with the extension of that royalty to broadcasters, the adoption of a general royalty, as advocated by the Green Paper would extend payment obligations to others who publicly perform sound recordings – including bars, restaurants, stadiums and other retail establishments.


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In a lawsuit filed last week (see the complaint here), Flo and Eddie, the artists who were behind the 1960’s band The Turtles, claim that Sirius XM has infringed on the copyrights in their songs by allowing copies of these recordings to be made by the satellite radio service and in certain Internet offerings that Sirius XM makes available. The article in THR.esq (the Hollywood Reporter’s legal blog) that first announced the lawsuit talks much about the ambiguous status of pre-1972 sound recordings under Section 114 of the copyright act (the section providing for royalties for the public performance of sound recordings by digital services), and seems to view the suit as a reaction to the decision in the satellite radio proceeding before the Copyright Royalty Board finding that Sirius XM owed no performance royalty to SoundExchange for its playing of pre-1972 sound recordings (see our article about that decision). As pre-1972 sound recordings are not entitled to Federal copyright protection, the Board decided that there could be no payment due to SoundExchange (which collects royalties for payments made under Section 114) as there was no Federal right. While that point seems to be well-established, a close reading of the complaint makes it appear that it is not the public performance that is the principal basis of the lawsuit, but instead the copies that are made in the digital transmission process and by certain features of Sirius’s Internet streaming services that allow the download or on-demand playing of their digital streams.

As we have written before, pre-1972 sound recordings were left out of Federal statutes as, until 1972, sound recordings (a specific recording of a song by a particular artist) had no protection at all under Federal copyright law. As these sound recordings had no Federal protections, state laws were adopted – principally to prevent bootlegging or other unauthorized copies of such sound recordings from being made and distributed. As there was not, and still is not, a general public performance right in sound recordings, there has been little in the way of court cases suggesting that pre-1972 sound recordings have rights that other sound recordings do not have, e.g. a general public performance right. If the Flo and Eddie suit were really alleging that there is a public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings, then seemingly every restaurant, bar, or stadium that plays the original hit versions of Good Vibrations, Rock Around the Clock, Johnny Be Goode, the Twist or the Turtles’ Happy Together could find themselves looking at potential liability for public performance of these sound recordings. Certainly, these state statutes, many of which have been around for decades, did not contemplate the exclusively digital public performance right that exists for post-1972 sound recordings, which was not adopted until the late 1990s. So, if the plaintiffs are asserting that there is a public performance right inherent in these statutes, it would seem that it would have to be a general public performance right. But it sure seems difficult to believe that courts would find ambiguous state statutes adopted to prevent illegal copying created a public performance right where none has ever before existed in the common law of the United States.


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In one week this month, Apple announced that it will get into Internet Radio, and Pandora, the biggest player in that space, announced that it will be buying a traditional, over-the-air radio station. What do these two big announcements say about the state of music royalties for digital music services? Apple’s struggles to get its service launched were well chronicled, as it was working to get an agreement for its new service from the record labels. What was less reported was its simultaneous negotiations with the music publishing community. Pandora’s radio station purchase, on the other hand, was admittedly a simple deal to take advantage of a blanket license available to all similarly situated companies owning radio stations. We’ll explain why these two deals were so different, and what impact the deals may have on other digital music services below.

The Apple deal is one negotiated with the copyright holders for the simple reason that the service that it is offering appears to be an interactive one, unlikely to be completely covered by any statutory (compulsory) or other blanket license. As we’ve written before, a statutory or compulsory license is one where the copyright holder, by law, cannot refuse to make available his or her copyrighted work. But, in return, the copyright holder receives a royalty set by the government – in the US, usually the Copyright Royalty Board. In the music world, the two most common compulsory licenses are the ones that allow webcasters and other digital music services to publicly perform sound recordings (the royalties paid by webcasters, satellite radio and digital cable radio companies to the record companies and artists), and the royalty that allows users (including record companies) to make reproductions of musical compositions in connection with the making of a sound recording, downloads, ringtones, and probably on-demand streaming services. This royalty is commonly referred to as the mechanical royalty, and is paid to songwriters and composers or their publishing companies. To qualify for these compulsory licenses, a company must follow certain rules. If they don’t, then they have to negotiate directly for the licenses from the copyright holder – which appears to be what Apple did.


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The Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, has made a series of speeches about the need to modernize Copyright, including offering testimony before Congress on the matter.  Her comments are but one sign that modernizing the Copyright Act has become the new catch-phrase in Washington. As the Courts have over the last few months wrestled with a host of copyright issues principally arising from digital media, boundaries that had carefully been set up by established copyright principles have been blurred – like the distinctions between a performance and a reproduction, or a public performance and one that is not.  These are distinctions that can have great importance as to who must be paid or whether any payment at all is due under current copyright laws – as in the Aereo case about which we wrote here. The call to modernize the Act is one looking for a copyright act that fits the realities of the 21st century. 

In recent months, Aereo is but one of many cases where the Courts have struggled with how to apply laws that were developed for the analog media, where boundaries are relatively clear, to the new digital world, where many copyright concepts don’t clearly fit reality. We’ve seen a number of cases interpreting the DMCA safe harbor provisions for user-generated content – including the NY State case about which we wrote here deciding Internet service providers were not excused from liability where pre-1972 sound recordings were included in user-generated content, as well as much more sweeping decisions upholding the protections of the safe harbor in broader applications, including protections extended to YouTube in its long-running dispute with Viacom. We’ve seen a decision determining that there is no right to resell digital copies – finding that the first sale doctrine (that says that consumers can resell physical goods that they buy without compensating the original creator) does not apply to digital goods. And outside the litigation sphere, we’ve seen innumerable stories about rights and royalties – from questions about Internet radio royalties like those that may apply to the new Apple streaming service, to disputes over the rights to video programs taken from one medium (like TV) and used in another (online or otherwise on-demand). 

In a speech last week to the World Creator’s Summit in Washington, DC, Register Pallante revisited the topic of Copyright reform, and laid out many of the issues that she felt needed to be addressed in any comprehensive reform that may occur. The list was long, and is bound to be controversial. She noted that the last comprehensive reform of the Act, in the 1990s leading to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, was 20 years in the making – a delay that can’t occur now given the number of pressing issues. As she noted, the importance of copyright has never been greater to the average person. That, to me is very clear, as digital media has put so many more people in a position to be involved in copyright issues, as doing everything from creating a Facebook or Pinterest page to a YouTube video, or accessing a file on BitTorrent or any other sharing site, can immediately immerse an individual in a copyright dispute with consequences far greater than the improper use of a copy machine or cassette recorder would have had 20 or 30 years ago. So what does she propose to examine?


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The Librarian of Congress has announced the appointment of two new judges to the Copyright Royalty Board – marking a total change in the three judge board since the decision in the last webcasting royalty case (about which we wrote here). The two new judges are David Strickler and Jesse Feder. Mr. Strickler will serve through 2016, taking the position of Judge Wisnewski (who resigned about a year ago) as the economics expert required by the statute creating the Board. Mr. Stricker is currently Senior Counsel at a law firm in New Jersey, specializing in business litigation, according to his biography on the firm’s website, here. He also has a Masters Degree in economics, and is an adjunct economics professor as Brookdale College in New Jersey.

Mr. Feder takes the place of Judge Roberts, who was one of the original CRB judges and had worked in the Copyright Office in connection with the CARP process that set the first rates for webcasting back in 2002. Judge Roberts recently resigned from the Board. The position that Mr. Feder takes is required by statute to be filled by someone with Copyright experience. According to Mr. Feder’s online profile, he was the Director of International Trade and Intellectual Property at the Business Software Alliance, and previously held several supervisory positions at the Copyright Office and in the Library of Congress. His appointment, filling Judge Roberts’ seat, lasts only until 2014 (but he could be reappointed). 


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With the National Association of Broadcasters big convention coming up next week in Las Vegas, this week we’ll look at a couple of the issues that will likely be discussed when the industry gathers for its annual reunion. On Sunday, before most of the NAB Show begins, the Radio and Internet Newsletter (RAIN) will be holding its RAIN Summit West, where I will be moderating a panel called The Song Plays On – which will focus on the music royalties paid by Internet Radio and other digital music services. We’ll not focus on what the current royalties are, but instead to try to explore what they could be in the future. This is really one of the most difficult issues in the industry, as the two sides (and really there are many more than two sides to this issue) come at the issue from far different perspectives. We will try to bridge those differences and explore where there might be common ground for music users and copyright holders to come together to arrive at mutually beneficial solutions to this thorny issue.

The Internet Radio Fairness Act introduced in Congress last year brought this issue into sharp focus. That Act sought to bring about a number of reforms in the way that the Copyright Royalty Board sets various music royalties – particularly the rates that apply to Internet radio stations. We wrote about the provisions of the bill dealing with Internet radio royalties soon after the bill was introduced. After that article, there was a Congressional hearing on the issue, and lots of debate before the bill died at the end of the year as the session of Congress expired. This year, the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee has promised a number of hearings on all aspects of music and audio copyright issues, though none have yet been scheduled. But the debate about IRFA last year illustrated the divide between the various sides in the music royalty debate. 


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Deciding how to pay music royalties has always been difficult – trying to figure out what permissions are necessary, who has the rights to grant such permission, and how much the rights will cost. The one place where the rights were fairly simple – paying for the right to publicly perform musical compositions – may be getting more difficult. According to an article in the New York Post, Pandora may be getting a taste of that new reality, having to pay significantly more money to Sony ATV music publishers than it had previously paid for that same music when it was licensed by ASCAP and BMI

The rights to publicly perform musical compositions had until very recently been relatively straightforward. All a broadcaster, digital media company or other music user needed to do was to pay ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties (ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are often referred to as the PROs, or Performing Rights Organizations) – and the music service essentially had the rights to publicly perform virtually all the musical compositions in the world. And ASCAP and BMI were covered by antitrust decrees – so their rates were more or less known for most categories of music use – only subject to a rate court hearing once every now and then when these collection societies could not come to an agreement with the members of a particular class of music users. While SESAC is not subject to the antitrust consent decrees, and not necessarily as easy to deal with, most music services figured out a way to cut a deal with the society too.


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Every year, about this time, I dust off the crystal ball to offer a look at the year ahead to see what Washington has in store for broadcasters. This year, like many in the recent past, Washington will consider important issues for both radio and TV, as well as issues affecting the growing on-line presence of broadcasters. The FCC, Congress, and other government agencies are never afraid to provide their views on what the industry should be doing but, unlike other members of the broadcasters’ audience, they can force broadcasters to pay attention to their views by way of new laws and regulations. And there is never a shortage of ideas from Washington as to how broadcasters should act. Some of the issues discussed below are perennials, coming back over and over again on my yearly list (often without resolution), while others are unique to this coming year.

Last week, we published a calendar of regulatory deadlines for broadcasters.  This article looks ahead, providing a preview of what other changes might be coming for broadcasters this year – but these are delivered with no guarantees that the issues listed will in fact bubble up to the top of the FCC’s long list of pending items, or that they will be resolved when we predict. But at least this gives you some warning of what might be coming your way this year. Issues unique to radio and TV, and those that could affect the broadcast industry generally, are addressed below.

General Broadcast Issues

 

There are numerous issues before the FCC that affect both radio and television broadcasters, some of which have been pending for many years and are ripe for resolution, while others are raised in proceedings that are just beginning. These include:

 

Multiple Ownership Rules Review: The FCC is very close to resolving its Quadrennial review of its multiple ownership proceeding, officially begun in 2011 with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The rumors were that the FCC was ready to issue an order at the end of 2012 relaxing the rules against the cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers, as well as the radio-television cross-interest prohibitions, while leaving most other rules in place. TV Joint Sales Agreements were also rumored to be part of the FCC’s considerations – perhaps making some or all of these agreements attributable. But even these modest changes in the rules are now on hold, while parties submit comments on the impact of any relaxation of the ownership rules on minority ownership. Still, we would expect that some decision on changes to the ownership rules should be expected at some point this year – probably early in the year. 


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The full decision of the Copyright Royalty Board setting the royalty rates to be paid to SoundExchange by Sirius XM and Music Choice from 2013 through 2017 has now been released.  We wrote about the initial release of the summary of the decision before Christmas.  The final decision is interesting in many respects. First, it is the first decision to be released since two of the original three Copyright Royalty Judges left the bench. The decision, as released was actually two decisions – one signed by the new Chief Judge and an acting judge who filled in for Judge Wisniewski, the Board’s economic expert, when he had to retire for health reasons. The second decision, reaching the same result but based on different reasoning, was signed by the Board’s lone holdover, Judge Roberts, a long-time fixture at the Copyright Office before joining the Board. In addition, the decision seems to reject some premises that had long been used to justify royalty rates in other proceedings – and thus may give some insights on approaches to be used in the webcasting royalty proceeding that will begin in 2014 and conclude in 2015. The majority decision also, for the first time, gives at least some weight to direct licensing deals for the public performance of sound recordings by a noninteractive service. Finally, the decision provides explicitly for carve-outs from the established royalties for music on which no royalties need to be paid, including music that is directly licensed, and for pre-1972 sound recordings.

Before looking at the decision, it needs to be noted that these royalties are theoretically decided not just for Sirius XM and for Music Choice, but also for other services that fit into their class of service as defined by Sections 112 and 114 of the Copyright Act. Thus, the Music Choice decision applied theoretically to all "Preexisting Subscription Services" (or a "PSS") and the Sirius XM decision to all "preexisting satellite digital audio services" (or, as used in the decision, "SDARS" – satellite digital audio services). The "pre-existing language means that these services were either in existence or authorized by the FCC (for the SDARS services) at the time of the adoption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998.  Of course, since 1998, all of Music Choices then-existing competitors in the cable audio business have gone out of business with one exception, and the second SDARS service – XM Radio – has merged with Sirius. So, effectively, these rates apply only to very few companies.


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