music publishers withdrawal from PRO

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, 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.
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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.
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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. 
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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.
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The Canadian performance rights society SOCAN (essentially the Canadian version of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) has announced the purchase of Audiam, a private company that specialized in representing composers trying to maximize their music rights collections – both for performance rights and mechanical royalties – worldwide. Audiam also claims to provide a comprehensive database of rightsholders to both musical compositions and sound recordings – a valuable commodity in and of itself, as there is no uniform public registry for such rights. This follows SOCAN’s purchase of MediaNet, a company that specializes in obtaining clearances for music (including sound or master recordings – the musical compositions that SOCAN has traditionally licensed as recorded by a particular singer or band) so as to provide those rights to digital music stores or services, eliminating the need for these services to separately negotiate terms with sound recording performance rights holders. This consolidation under one roof of public performance and mechanical rights to musical compositions, along with rights to sound recordings, promises at some point in the future, a one-stop shop where music users (including digital music services like Spotify or Deezer, and perhaps even smaller music users like podcasters) can obtain all the rights that they need to use music in their businesses.

This same goal seems to be the motivation behind SESAC’s acquisition in recent years of the Harry Fox Agency (which also handles mechanical licensing – the rights to make reproductions of musical compositions needed for downloads and even on-demand streams) and Rumblefish, a digital service providing clearances for the use of sound recordings in videos, commercials and for other purposes. This same drive to consolidate music licensing services was also, to some degree, behind the push for revisions to the ASCAP and BMI antitrust consent decrees, as ASCAP and BMI wanted the clear right to license mechanical rights as well as the public performance rights they now provide. Even the publisher withdrawals from ASCAP and BMI by major publishing companies that are affiliated with major record labels may have had similar ideas behind them as some have speculated that these major music companies could bundle the licensing of sound recordings and musical compositions (see our article here where we made the same observation).
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The Copyright Office this past week released its Report following its study of music licensing in the US; a comprehensive report addressing a number of very controversial issues concerning music rights and royalties.  Whether its release during the week of the Grammy Awards was a coincidence or not, the report itself, which takes positions on many issues, is sure to initiate lots of discussion and controversy of its own.  The report was issued after two rounds of comments (the questions that were asked in each request for comments are detailed in our stories here and here) and three roundtables held in three different cities where representatives of music companies provided ideas on the questions asked (I participated in the Nashville session).  As detailed below, the report addresses some of the hot button issues in the music royalty space including the broadcast performance royalty, publisher withdrawals from ASCAP and BMI (see our article here), and pre-1972 sound recordings.

Before getting into the details of the proposals, it is important to note that the Copyright Office, unlike many other government agencies, does not itself make substantive rules.  Instead, it merely makes recommendations.  For any of the substantive proposals that it suggests in the Report to become law, Congress must act – which is never easy.  In the Copyright world, it is particularly difficult, as the rules and industry practices are so complex and often obscure, and where any change can have a very dramatic effect on some industry player or another.  Often, a simple change in the rules can take money from someone’s pocket and deposit into someone else’s.  Moreover, copyright is not an area where there are clear partisan divides.  Oftentimes, it matters more where a Congressman’s home district is than his or her party affiliation in their leanings on copyright matters.
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We’ve already written twice about the copyright issues being considered this summer before various agencies and branches of government – all dealing with music licensing issues (see our previous Summer of Copyright articles here and here).  The pattern continues, as the Copyright Office has now requested further comments on music licensing issues, following up on its roundtables held across the country during the month of June to discuss its music licensing inquiry begun in the spring (see our summary of the initial Copyright Office notice on its study, here).  In yesterday’s Federal Register, there is a notice asking a series of questions about specific issues that were raised in the roundtables which the Office apparently finds to be of significance.  Additional comments on these issues, and on any related issues affecting music licensing, are due on or before August 22.

What are the questions being asked by the Copyright Office, and what do they portend for its ultimate recommendations to Congress who, as we recently wrote, is itself considering music licensing issues and the potential for a comprehensive reform of music licensing in this country?  The areas in which the questions are being raised are not new ones, but instead continue the themes raised in other forums this summer.  They include questions as to how withdrawals of major publishers from the Performing Rights Organizations (ASCAP and BMI in particular) could affect those organizations.  We first wrote about potential publisher withdrawals and the impact that could have on music services back in 2011.  Also, on a related question, they ask why, when these organizations have collected record amounts of money in recent years, songwriters are complaining that they are economically struggling.  In addition, questions are asked about the procedures used by the Copyright Royalty Board in their rate-setting process and whether those procedures should be revised, how better identification of musical works and sound recordings could be adopted to make recordkeeping and royalty administration easier, how a system of setting mechanical royalties could work without a statutory license, and whether there are international licensing models that might be adaptable to the US market.  Some details below.
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