BMI and the Radio Music License Committee announced a settlement of their rate court litigation over the royalties that commercial radio will pay for the public performance of musical compositions licensed by BMI.  While we have not yet seen the agreement, the press release already raises one issue likely to sew confusion in the broadcast industry – the extent to which the agreement allows the use of music in podcasts.  While the press release says that the BMI license includes the use of music in podcasts, radio stations should not assume that means that they can start to play popular music in their podcasts without obtaining the rights to that music directly from rightsholders.  They cannot, as BMI controls only a portion of the rights necessary to use music in podcasts and, without obtaining the remaining rights to that music, a podcaster using the music with only a BMI license is looking for a copyright infringement claim.

So why doesn’t the license from BMI fully cover the use of music in a podcast?  As we have pointed out before, a broadcaster or other media company that has performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and even GMR does not get the right to podcast music – nor do the SoundExchange royalty payments cover podcasts. These organizations all collect for the public performance of music. While podcasts may require a performance license (see our article here about how Alexa and other smart speakers are making the need for such licenses more apparent as more and more podcast listening is occurring through streaming rather than downloads), they also require rights to the reproduction and distribution of the copyrighted songs and the right to make derivative works – all additional rights given to copyright owners under the Copyright Act. These additional rights are not covered by the public performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR and SoundExchange, nor are the rights to use the “sound recording” or “master” in the podcast. What is the difference between these rights?
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Many are sitting around enjoying their holiday treats while listening to the Beatles on their favorite on-demand streaming service, and the press is treating this as a breakthrough – usually omitting the fact that the Beatles have been available on many streaming services for as long as there have been streaming services, namely on Internet radio.  We’ve twice written about this fact, first when the Beatles became available on iTunes, here, and then on the 50th anniversary of their invasion of America, here.  And we also recently wrote about the same legal issues which explained why Adele could withhold her new recording “25” from many streaming services, but not from Internet radio.  With the Beatles back in the headlines, for some post-Christmas holiday reading, we thought that we would reprise our 2014 article about the Beatles long absence from on-demand streaming services.  Here it is:

50 years ago the Beatles invaded America, stacking up Number 1 hit records by the dozens, and creating music that, even today, remains incredibly popular with many Americans.  But go to many of the interactive or on-demand music services, like Spotify, and search for Beatles music, and what will you find?   Mostly cover tunes by sound-alike bands rather than the original hits.  But yet, on services where you can’t designate your next song, like Pandora, you can hear the original songs.  Why the difference?
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Adele’s decision to not stream her new CD “25 on services like Apple Music and Spotify has been the talk of the entertainment press pages – like this article from the New York Times.  These articles make it sound like, if you listen to any Internet music service, you’ll not hear a song from the new record.  But, in fact, if you listen to an Internet radio service, like a Pandora, iHeart Radio, Accuradio, the streams of over-the-air radio stations, or any of the myriad of other “noninteractive services” that are available online, you will hear music from 25.  The legal distinctions that allow these services to play Adele’s new music is often not recognized or even acknowledged by the popular press.  Why the difference?

As we’ve written before in connection with music from the Beatles (see our articles here and here), the difference deals with how music is licensed for use by different types of digital music services.  On-demand or “interactive” audio services, like Spotify and Apple Music or the recently in-the-news Rdio, obtain music licenses through negotiations with the copyright holders of the sound recordings – usually the record labels.  These are services where a listener can specify the next track that he or she will hear, or where the listener can store playlists of music they have selected, or even hear on-demand pre-arranged playlists with the tracks in the playlist identified in advance by the service.  If the record labels and the service can’t come to terms for the use of music by one of these interactive services, then the music controlled by the label does not get streamed.  Often, these negotiations can be lengthy, witness the delay of over a year from when Spotify’s announced its launch in the US and when that launch actually took place, because of the complexity and adversarial nature of these negotiations.   In some cases, major artists, like Adele, and before her Taylor Swift and, for a long time, bands like the Beatles and Metallica, had agreements with their labels that gave them the rights to opt out of any deal that their labels did with these audio services.  So, if an artist like Adele can opt out of being played by a service like Spotify, why is she being streamed by online radio? 
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According to British press reports, Warner Music’s CEO Edger Bronfman Jr. stated that it will cease making its music available to advertising supported streaming music sites.  This has prompted some questions about how this decision would affect services such as Pandora, Slacker, Accuradio and other Internet radio companies – would it deny them access to substantial amounts of music?  In fact, as these US services operate under a "statutory license", created by Congress, they get access to  all legally recorded music in exchange for the payment of a royalty established by the Copyright Royalty Board.  Essentially, under this statutory license (otherwise known as a "compulsory license"), a copyright holder cannot deny access to companies operating under the license, as long as those companies comply with terms of the license, and pay the established royalty.  Thus, even if the Warner Music decision really is true, this decision should have little or no impact on US Internet Radio stations operating under the compulsory license.

What would it affect?  Presumably it could hurt services that don’t rely on the statutory license.  Internet Radio operators who want to rely on the statutory license must meet a set of requirements set out by statute in order to qualify for the license.  We’ve written about those obligations before here, in connection with the waiver of some of these requirements in the royalty settlement between SoundExchange and the NAB.  Services operating under the license must meet the "statutory complement", meaning that they cannot play more songs from an artist or CD in a given time period than allowed by the law, specifically:

  • No more than 3 songs in a row by the same artist
  • Not more than 4 songs by same artist in a 3 hour period
  • No more than 2 songs from same CD in a row

In addition, Section 114 of the Copyright Act sets out other limitations on a service operating under the statutory license.  The service must provide the name of the artist, song and CD in text on its site, to the extent technically possible, while the song is playing.  There are also certain restrictions about tying the music being played to commercial content on the site, and requiring that sites take steps to prevent digital piracy.  And, most importantly, the service cannot be "interactive."


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Today, the National Music Publishers Association ("NMPA"), DiMA, the RIAA and other music publishing groups issued a press release announcing a settlement of certain aspects of the current Copyright Royalty Board proceeding to determine the royalties due under Section 115 of the Copyright Act for the mechanical royalty for the reproduction and distribution