music modernization act

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.
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Recently, the Radio Music License Committee sent out a memo to broadcasters about a July 8, 2019 SoundExchange payment deadline for pre-1972 sound recordings.  As with everything in copyright law, the issues surrounding pre-1972 sound recordings are complicated, and the RMLC notice, while seemingly straightforward, still resulted in our receiving lots of questions.  These questions may have been compounded because of notices sent to broadcasters back in April about another filing deadline concerning these recordings which caused much consternation for what was, for most broadcasters, a matter of little concern.  For most broadcasters, neither of these dates are of particular concern unless the broadcaster has been identifying pre-1972 sound recordings and not paying SoundExchange royalties when those songs are streamed, and we understand that most broadcasters have in fact been paying SoundExchange for these recordings.  But let’s try to explain what is going on in a little more detail.

First, let’s look at the basics.  Sound recordings (the recording of a particular band or singer performing a song) were originally not covered by federal copyright law.  The law provided protections for “musical works” (i.e. the musical composition, the words and musical notes of the song), but the mere recording of that work was initially not seen as a creative work.  It was thought of more as a mechanical rendering of the real creative work – the underlying song.  So when recordings came to have real value in the first half of the last century, recording artists had to rely on state laws to prevent other people from making and distributing copies of their recordings. Laws against what we would refer to as bootlegging or pirating of recordings were passed in most states, and lawsuits against bootleggers would be brought under these state laws.  It was not until 1972 that Congress, through an amendment to the Copyright Act, recognized that the recordings were themselves creative works entitled to copyright protection.  But that amendment did not fully make all pre-existing recordings subject to the Copyright Act, instead leaving most sound recordings first recorded in the United States prior to the adoption of the amendment to the Act in February 1972 subject to state laws until 2067.
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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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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?
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Two years ago, a District Court Judge, in a case brought against a broadcaster alleging that the broadcaster owed money under California state law for playing pre-1972 sound recordings, dismissed the suit finding that the broadcaster was playing digitized versions of those songs, created after 1972, which were covered under Federal copyright law (we wrote about that decision here). Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its decision reversing the District Court’s opinion and sending the case back to the District Court for additional hearings. The Court of Appeals concluded, for several reasons, that there was likely insufficient creativity in the remastering of the pre-1972 sound recordings to make them new post-1972 copyrighted works and that, even if they were creative enough to merit copyright protection as a derivative work, that did not end the discussion, as portions of the original pre-1972 work were included in any new work and those portions themselves had to be licensed. The decision looks like a simple premise that digitization is no magic bullet to defeat pre-1972 sound recording claims, but there is much to unpack in this seemingly straightforward decision.

First, we need to provide a little background on the litigation over pre-1972 sound recordings. Federal law did not recognize a copyright in sound recordings until 1972. So while the underlying musical composition in a song was protected under Federal law, a recording by a particular band or singer was not. When these recordings were federalized, the Copyright Act explicitly left all rights regarding pre-1972 sound recordings in the hands of state law until 2067. For over 40 years, that quirk in copyright law did not seem to have much relevance, though some US digital music services did not pay royalties to SoundExchange for digital performances of those recordings as they were not covered by Section 114 of the Copyright Act (the section creating the statutory royalty for sound recordings). About 5 years ago, the singers Flo and Eddie (formerly of the 1960s band the Turtles) started bringing lawsuits throughout the country alleging that they were owed performance royalties under state law for these pre-1972 recordings from both digital and analog services (see our article here when the first suit was filed). In most states, those suits have been dismissed with courts finding that state law did not provide for a performance right in these pre-1972 recordings (see our articles about decisions in New York, Florida and Georgia reaching that conclusion). The issue in California, however, is still open. For a deeper dive into these issues, see our article here.
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Next Wednesday, July 25, I will be speaking at the Podcast Movement Conference in Philadelphia, as part of the Broadcasters Meet Podcasters Track, discussing legal issues that broadcasters need to consider as they move some of their content into podcasts. One of the topics that I will be discussing will be the music royalty obligations of podcasters who use music in their programs. A month ago, we wrote about how broadcasters’ streaming royalties are affected by smart speakers like the Amazon Alexa and Google Home, as these speakers play the digital streams of a radio station’s programs where SoundExchange royalties must be paid, as opposed to the over-the-air signal of the station, where no such royalties are owed. These smart speakers may have an impact on podcasters royalties, affecting who needs to be paid in connection with the use of music in podcasts.

When I initially started to write about issues of music use in podcasts, my emphasis was on the need to secure direct licenses from performers and composers (or their record companies and publishing companies) for the rights to make reproductions and distributions of music in podcasts. When digital content is downloaded, it triggers rights under copyright law implicating the reproduction and distribution rights of copyright holders (see our article here), as opposed to their public performance rights – the rights with which broadcasters are most familiar as those are the rights that they obtain when paying Performing Rights Organizations ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR in connection with their over-the-air broadcasts and those PROs plus SoundExchange in connection with noninteractive digital streaming. When podcasts were something that were downloaded, just like the purchase of a download of a song from the iTunes music store, it was the reproduction and distribution rights that were triggered, and conventional wisdom was that the PROs had no role to play in the licensing of downloaded media. As technology has changed, the analysis of what rights you need to use music in podcasts may well be changing too. The direct licensing of music for your podcast is still needed – but a public performance right may well also be necessary.
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The week before last, we summarized the provisions of the Music Modernization Act as passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate is now poised to take up this legislation in a hearing scheduled by the Senate Judiciary Committee for next Tuesday, May 15. The legislation proposes, among other things, to set up a SoundExchange-like collective for the collection and payment of mechanical royalties due under Section 115 of the Copyright Act and to create a digital public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings (ending some of the litigation that has arisen in recent years on that issue). Our summary provides more details on these issues and highlights some of the other issues addressed by this bill.

The consideration of the bill by the Judiciary Committee is the next step to the bill becoming a law. The hearing will feature representatives of several groups directly affected by the legislation – including David Israelite, the CEO of the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA represents publishing companies that usually hold the copyrights to musical compositions); Chris Harrison, the CEO of the Digital Media Association (DiMA represents digital music services like Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music); and Mitch Glazier, the President of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA represents the major record labels who usually own the copyrights to the sound recordings – the compositions as recorded by particular performers). Members of DiMA and the RIAA pay mechanical royalties. Members of NMPA collect those royalties. Thus, these groups are directly affected by the Music Modernization Act. Songwriters and performers, including Motown legend Smokey Robinson, will also testify at the hearing. A full list of the participants can be found on the Judiciary Committee’s website, where video of the hearing will also be available next week.
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May is one of those months where there are neither deadlines for EEO Public File Reports nor for any of the quarterly filings of issues/programs lists and children’s television reports. But the lack of these routine filing deadlines does not mean that there are no dates of interest in the coming month to broadcasters and other media companies. As seemingly is the case every month, there are never times when Washington is ignoring legal issues potentially affecting the industry.

May 10 brings an FCC meeting where two items of interest to broadcasters will be considered. One is a proposal to abolish the requirement for posting licenses and other operating authorizations at a broadcaster’s control point and to eliminate the requirement that FM translators post information about the station’s licensee and a contact phone number at their transmitter sites (see our post here for more details). The second is a proposal to modify the processing of complaints about new or modified FM translators causing interference to existing stations. See our summary of that proposal here. If adopted at the May 10 meeting, these proposals will be available for public comment after they are published in the Federal Register.
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This week, the US House of Representatives passed the Music Modernization Act. While widely supported among many digital media companies providing on-demand subscription music services as well as by many in the music industry, the bill seemingly has not received the publicity that has been afforded to past music royalty legislation. That may be, in part, because there were few who adamantly opposed the provisions of the bill, as evidenced by a unanimous House vote – something that never would have happened had any significant portion of the music industry opposed the bill. But this moment of togetherness may be, in part, due to the somewhat limited (though nevertheless very important) issues that it addresses.

The Modernization of Music Act began as a legislative effort primarily to address the issues raised under Section 115 of the Copyright Act – the section dealing with what are often called “mechanical royalties” – the royalties paid to publishing companies for the copyright in the “musical work,” i.e. the musical composition. In other words, these royalties are paid to the copyright holder of the words and music to a song (sometimes the composer but more often a publishing company) – not to the artist who actually records that song. The provisions of Section 115 were first adopted to allow artists to record songs once a song has been recorded and publically released in the United States – to record a “cover” of the original recordings – provided that compensation set by agreement between the user and the copyright holder is paid or, absent a voluntary agreement, that a royalty set by the Copyright Royalty Board is paid to the copyright holder (see our post here on the last CRB decision on those rates). That mechanical royalty was later expanded to cover “digital phonorecord deliveries” (“DPDs”) – the making of digital copies of the musical composition made in the context of a distribution and delivery of the song to individual consumers. Through caselaw and industry practice, DPDs were interpreted to include the need for royalties not just when a digital download is made, but also when an on-demand or interactive stream of a song is delivered to a consumer.
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