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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The alphabet soup of organizations that collect royalties for playing music has never been easy to keep straight, and today royalty issues sometimes seem even more daunting with new players like GMR (see our articles here, here and here) and arguments over issues like fractional licensing that only a music lawyer could love (see our articles here and here). But there are certain basics that broadcasters and other companies that are streaming need to know. Based on several questions that I received in the last few weeks, I’ve been surprised that one of the issues that still seems to be a source of confusion is the need to pay SoundExchange when streaming music online or through mobile apps. For the last 20 years, since the adoption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, anyone digitally transmitting noninteractive music programming must pay SoundExchange in addition to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (and more recently GMR) for the rights to play recorded music – unless the service doing the digital transmission has directly secured the rights to play those songs from the copyright holders of the recordings – usually the record labels.  Why is there this additional payment on top of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC?

SoundExchange represents the recording artists and record labels for the royalties for the performance of the recording of a song (a “sound recording” or a “master recording”).  ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR by contrast represent the songwriters who wrote the song (not the performers) and their publishing companies.  When you play music on your over-the-air radio signal, you only pay for the public performance rights to the underlying musical composition or “musical work” as it is often referred to in the music licensing world – the words and music of the song.  This money goes to the songwriters and their publishing companies (the publishing companies usually holding the copyright to the musical composition). But, in the digital world, for the last 20 years, anyone who streams music, in addition to paying the songwriters, must pay the performers who recorded the songs and the copyright holders in the sound recordings (usually the labels).  That is the royalty that SoundExchange collects.
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Last week, I listened in to presentation by RAIN News providing an excellent overview of the digital music industry (their Whitepaper setting out the findings reported during the presentation is available here).  One statement in that presentation suggested to me today’s topic – the use of music in podcasts.  In the RAIN presentation, a statement was made that most major podcasts are spoken word, but no explanation of that fact was provided. One of the biggest reasons for the lack of music in podcasts has to do with rights issues, as the royalties paid to SoundExchange and even to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC don’t apply to traditional podcasts meant to be downloaded onto a digital audio recording device like an iPhone or any other smartphone.  We wrote a warning about this issue a couple of years ago, but as the popularity of podcasts seems to once again on the rise, the warning is worth repeating.

The rights that a broadcaster or digital music company gets from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (commonly called the “PROs” or performing rights organizations) deal with the public performance of music.  The PROs license the “musical work” or “musical composition” – the lyrics and the notes that make up the song.  They do not license particular recordings of the song.  As we have discussed before in other contexts, a public performance is a transmission of a copyrighted work to multiple people outside your limited friends and family (see our discussions here and here).  SoundExchange’s royalties also deal with public performance – but it is licensing the public performance of the sound recording – the words and music as recorded by a particular artist.  And SoundExchange only licenses such performances where they are made by a non-interactive service – where the user cannot determine what songs it will hear next (and where the service meets certain other requirements – see our article here for some of those additional requirements).  Podcasts don’t fit within the SoundExchange limitations, and while there has been some debate about whether the PROs have any licensing role in the podcast world (see this article), additional rights from music publishers (who usually control the musical composition copyright) are also needed.
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As we wrote in our previous articles on the music licensing issues being considered during this summer of copyright (here, here and here), one of the concerns driving many of the proposed reforms is the current demand of songwriters and publishing companies for a larger share of the music royalty pie.  In licensing the public performance of musical compositions, ASCAP and BMI represent the vast majority of songwriters, with SESAC representing far fewer writers (together ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are referred to as the “PROs,” the performing rights organizations).  ASCAP and BMI, having such a significant representation of musical compositions, have for over 50 years been subject to antitrust Consent Decrees that limit their operations and oversee the rates that they set for the use of their music.  Among the many requirements under the consent decree are those that obligate ASCAP and BMI to license all users of music who are similarly situated under the same rates and standards, and the oversight of a “rate court” to determine whether rates are reasonable whenever either of the PROs can’t agree on the amount of those rates with a class of music users.  In June, the US Department of Justice asked for public comment on several aspects of the consent decrees, and whether modifications of the decrees were called for.  Comments on the DOJ notice are due today.  Why was this proceeding started, and what is the DOJ looking at?

In two recent hearings examining music licensing, the motivations for ASCAP and BMI to seek changes in the consent decrees were discussed.  The first proceeding was a Copyright Office roundtable held in Nashville in June, in which I was a participant.  There, representatives of ASCAP discussed potential changes to the laws dealing with music licensing. The second was at the two part House Judiciary Committee hearing on music licensing held in late June.  ASCAP and BMI representatives in these forums suggested that there were several objectives in their seeking these reforms, and several specific changes that were requested in the Consent Decrees.  These include the following:

  • Replacing the rate court judges who determine rates when ASCAP or BMI don’t reach an agreement with a company that uses music (currently US Federal District Court Judges in the Southern District of NY) with an arbitration panel.
  • Instead of setting “reasonable rates” as required under the current consent decrees, the PROs request that a new standard be used to set rates – the willing buyer willing seller standard currently used in setting Internet radio sound recording performance royalty rates.
  • Allow publishers to withdraw some of their compositions from the PROs for licensing to certain classes of companies – specifically to withdraw so that the publishers can negotiate with digital media companies at rates that are not overseen by a rate court, while still leaving those same compositions with the PROs to collect from business establishment services (retail businesses that use “background” music) and potentially over the air radio stations – companies where there are lots of licensees who pay small amounts, making it difficult for anyone but a large, well-established company like ASCAP or BMI to pursue
  • Allow ASCAP and BMI to do more than simply license the public performance rights to music services – most likely allow them to provide reproduction and synch rights to the music that they license.
  • To impose interim royalties on any service that asks to be licensed, until an appropriate rate for that service can be set

What prompted this desire to change the consent decrees, and what will the DOJ be doing with the information it collects?
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In discussing music royalties, the controversy that usually makes the news is the dispute between music services and copyright holders – with services arguing that the royalties are too high and rightsholders contending that they are underpaid. The introduction of the Songwriters Equity Act in Congress earlier this year seems to point toward a new area of dispute – one between the various rightsholders themselves.  This issue was one that was much discussed on a panel that I moderated last week at the RAIN Summit West (audio of that panel is available here).  What is this conflict?

The Songwriters Equity Act, while not explicit in identifying the controversy, does point to the dispute. As we have written many times before, in any piece of recorded music, there are two copyrights – the sound recording copyright (also known as the “master recording,” the recording of a particular song by a particular artist, rights usually held by the record label), and the right to the musical work (or “musical composition,” the words and music to a song, usually held by a publishing company).  The proposed legislation suggests that the amount of the royalties for the public performance of sound recordings can be taken into account in setting the royalties that are payable to songwriters for the public performance of the songs that they have written.  This would amend Section 114(i) of the Copyright Act, which currently prohibits the consideration of the sound recording royalty in determining the rates to be paid for the public performance of musical works.  The proposed legislation would also substitute the “willing buyer, willing seller” standard for the 801(b) standard in setting rates under Section 115 of the Copyright Act, the mechanical royalty (see our discussion of the difference between these standards, here).  While this does not sound like a big deal, it may have a significant impact.
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The Copyright Office recently issued a Notice and Request for Public Comment on a study that they have commenced on music licensing in all of its forms.  We’ve written about the complexity of the music licensing process many times, and about proposals for reform.  Many of these proposals have been issued in connection with the speeches of Copyright Register Maria Pallante’s discussion of copyright reform (see our article here), and the subsequent Green Paper on Copyright issued by the Patent and Trademark Office (see our article here).  This Notice appears to be one more step in this overall review of copyright underway throughout the administration and in Congress.  The Notice released by the Copyright Office is wide-ranging, and touches on almost every area of controversy in music licensing.  Comments are due on May 16, and the Copyright Office promises to hold roundtable discussions to further explore the issues in music licensing.

The issues on which the Copyright Office asks for comments deal both with the licensing of the musical composition or musical work (the words and music of a song) and the sound recording (the song as actually recorded by a particular artist).  The request deals with both the public performance right for musical compositions, usually licensed through ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, and the rights to make reproductions of the works, which are usually licensed by the music publishers, sometimes through organizations like the Harry Fox Agency.  On the sound recording side of the music world, the rights are usually licensed by the record company except for the public performance royalties paid by non-interactive music services, which are collected in the United States by SoundExchange. 
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Using music in commercials and other broadcast station productions can be treacherous. As we’ve written before, contrary to what some stations might think (based on the questions we often get from broadcasters around the country), a station’s ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties do not give them the right to use popular music in their station productions – or in their commercials. Nor do they give you rights to use music in video productions used repeatedly on a station, or on a station’s website. Hearing an award winner at the recent broadcast awards banquet at the Montana Broadcasters Association annual convention thank the music publishers that gave her permission to change the lyrics of a well-known oldie for her PSA for a local animal shelter warms a lawyer’s heart, recognizing that there are broadcasters who understand the rights issues. But from questions that I get all the time, I fear that many other broadcasters don’t.

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are commonly known as the Performing Rights Organizations (or PROs), as they grant music users only a single right – the right to make public performances of musical compositions (or "musical works"). A musical composition is the words and music in a song – not the actual recording done by a particular singer or band. The composer and lyricist of the song have a copyright in the musical composition, though the right is usually assigned to a publishing company to administer. Each copyright in a composition gives its holder the right to exploit it in several different ways – and then user needs to get the rights to use the composition in any of these ways. The different rights include the right to publicly perform the composition (e.g. to play it before an audience or to transmit it to an audience by means of radio, the Internet or other transmission media). But the copyright holder also has the right to limit users from making reproductions of the composition (e.g. a recording of the song or any other “fixation” of the composition), distributing the composition (e.g. selling it or otherwise making it available to the public), or making a “derivative work” (taking the copyrighted work, using it, but changing it in some manner which, in the case of a musical composition, is probably most commonly done by changing the words of a song). So, for the Montana broadcaster to take a well-known song and to change the lyrics for her PSA required that the broadcaster get permission to make a derivative work (and probably to make reproductions, too, if copies of the re-recorded song were made).


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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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Just as webcasters thought that they had their royalty obligations figured out, there comes news that the already complicated world of digital media royalties may well become more complicated.  Last week, EMI, which in addition to being a record label is a significant music publishing company, has reportedly decided to withdraw portions of its publishing catalog from ASCAP – which had been licensing the public performance of these songs. The withdrawal from ASCAP applies only to "New Media" licensing.  What is the impact?  As of today, webcasters pay ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for the rights to play virtually the entire universe of "musical compositions" or "musical works" (the words and musics of the song).  By withdrawing from ASCAP, EMI will now license its musical compositions itself, adding one more place that webcasters will need to go to get all the rights necessary to play music on an Internet radio type of service.  In addition to royalties paid for the musical composition, webcasters also pay SoundExchange for public performance rights to the sound recordings (the song as recorded by a particular singer or band) – and by paying this one organization, they get rights to perform all sound recordings legally released in the US.   But any Internet radio operation needs both the musical composition (except for those compositions that have fallen into the public domain) and the sound recording performance rights cleared before they can legally play the music.

The news reports quote EMI as talking about the efficiencies that will be created by its licensing the musical compositions directly – in conjunction with the licensing of other rights – like the rights to make reproductions of its compositions, or the rights to publicly perform sound recordings to which its record label holds the copyright. But the whole idea of a performing rights organization with collective licensing is that it provides to digital music services the efficiencies offered by a one-stop shop for the purchase of rights to all a very large set of musical compositions.  Up to now, a digital music service knew that, by entering into licensing agreements with ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (the "performing rights organizations, or "PROs"), it had rights to virtually all the musical compositions that it would normally use (i.e. they received a "blanket license").  If these rights are balkanized, so that each significant publisher licenses their own music, the webcaster will have to make multiple stops to license all the music they need – which always leads to confusion.  The more places they have to go to license music, the more possibility that they will overlook a necessary rightsholder.  But there is even a bigger potential issue for webcasters – price.


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