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.