As business adapts to the pandemic so, too, do legal issues.  A couple have come to my attention in recent weeks that I thought bear passing on.  One deals with copyright concerns, the other with FCC matters about use of unlicensed FM transmitters.  Both arise as businesses adapt the way in which they deal with their customers – including how media companies deal with their audiences.

The copyright issues deal with music licensing matters.  Broadcasters are used to having performance licenses that allow them to broadcast music over the air and stream it on the Internet.  Venues for live music have similar licenses, as do hotels and meeting halls where conventions and other meetings take place – often involving the use of music.  But, as people are no longer frequenting these locations, businesses try to recreate their usual ambiance in an online environment using Zoom, Facebook Live, or one of the many other digital platforms that now exist.  If that ambiance includes music or other copyrighted materials, be sure that you have the rights to use those copyrighted materials in the new environment in which your business is operating.
Continue Reading Random Issues to Consider as Media Businesses Adapt to the New World of the Virus – Music Uses on Zoom and Other Platforms, Unlicensed FM Transmitters

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?
Continue Reading ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees Under Review – How Performing Rights Organizations, Antitrust Policy and Statutory Licenses Could Create a Controversy

We’ve previously written about the value of music in connection with the royalties to be paid by Internet Radio and the performance royalty (or "performance tax" as it’s labeled by the NAB) proposed for broadcasters. One of the questions that has always been raised in any debate about royalties, and one often dismissed by the record industry, is to what extent is there a promotional value of having music played on the radio or streamed by a webcaster.  In discussions of the broadcast performance royalty, record company representatives have suggested that, whether or not there is promotional value of the broadcast of music, that should have no impact on whether the royalty is paid. Instead, argue the record companies, the creator of music deserves to be paid whether or not there is some promotional value. The analogy is often made to sports teams – that the teams get promotional value by having their games broadcast but are nevertheless paid by stations for the rights to such games. The argument is that music should be no different. That contention, that the artist deserves to be paid whether or not there is promotional value may be tested in connection with what was once thought to be an unlikely source of promotional value for music – the video game Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero, in its various versions released over the last few years, has proven to be a very effective tool for the promotion of music – with various classic rock bands experiencing significant sales growth whenever their songs are featured on a new version of the game. The use of a sound recording in a video game is not subject to any sort of statutory royalty – the game maker must receive a license negotiated with the copyright holder of the recording – usually the record company.  In previous editions of the game, Guitar Hero has paid for music rights. However, now that the game has proved its value in promoting the sale of music, the head of Activision, the company that owns the game, has suggested in a Wall Street Journal interview that it should be the record companies that are paying him to include the music in the game – and no doubt many artists would gladly do so for the promotional value they realize from the game. 


Continue Reading Will Guitar Hero Show the Promotional Value of Music and Change the Music Royalty Outlook?

In a pre-Christmas surprise that most broadcasters could do without, identical bills were introduced in Congress on Tuesday proposing to impose a performance royalty on the use of sound recordings by terrestrial radio stations.  Currently, broadcasters pay only for the right to use the composition (to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) and do not pay for the use of sound recordings in their over-the-air operations of the actual recording.  This long-expected bill (see our coverage of the Congressional hearing this summer where the bill was discussed) will no doubt fuel new debate over the need and justification for this new fee, 50% of which would go to the copyright holder of the sound recording (usually the record label) and 50% to the artists (45% to the featured artist and 5% to background musicians).  The proponents of the bill have contended that it is necessary to achieve fairness, as digital music services pay such a fee.  To ease the shock of the transition, the bill proposes flat fees for small and noncommercial broadcasters – fees which themselves undercut the notion of fairness, as they are far lower than fees for comparable digital services.   

While, at the time that this post was written, a complete text of the decision does not seem to be online, a summary can be found on the website of Senator Leahy, one of the bills cosponsors.  The summary states that commercial radio stations with revenues of less than $1.25 million (supposedly over 70% of all radio stations) would pay a flat $5000 per station fee.  Noncommercial stations would pay a flat $1000 annual fee.  The bill also suggests that the fee not affect the amount paid to composers under current rules – so it would be one that would be absorbed by the broadcaster. 


Continue Reading Bill Seeking Broadcast Performance Royalty Introduced In Congress

Should artists waive their rights to performance royalties in order to get airplay on broadcast or Internet radio stations? That questions has come to the fore based on a click-through agreement that Clear Channel included on a website set up to allow independent bands to upload their music for consideration for airplay by its stations. While artist groups, including the Future of Music Coalition, condemned that action, there are always two sides to the story, as was made clear in a segment broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition, in which I offered some comments. As set forth in that segment, artists may be perfectly willing to allow unrestricted use of a song or two in order to secure the promotional value that may result from the airplay that might be received. For the broadcaster or Internet site seeking such permission, getting all rights upfront may well be an important consideration in deciding whether or not to feature a song – especially in the digital media.

Critics of the waiver made much of the fact that the site was set up at least partially to meet Clear Channel’s informal commitment made as part of the FCC payola settlement to feature more independent music, even though that commitment was not a formal part of the settlement agreement.  (See our summary of the payola settlement, here).  Even to the extent that the informal commitments made by the big broadcasters encompassed making time available to more independent musicians, the critics ignore the fact that the companies do not need any waiver of any sound recording performance royalty in connection with the over-the-air broadcast of those songs, as there currently is no public performance right in a sound recording for over the air broadcasting (though artists and record lables are now pushing for such a royalty, see our story here). Thus, the use of the waiver was only for the digital world – which was not covered by the FCC’s jurisdiction over payola promises or the promises to increase the use of independent music. So, effectively, the company is being chastised for trying to minimize their costs on giving the music even greater circulation through their digital platforms than they initially promised.


Continue Reading Musicians Trade Waiver of Royalty Rights in Exchange for Exposure – Maybe Not Such a Bad Idea

A story in the Hollywood Reporter indicates that a coalition of record companies and associations representing performing artists are preparing to initiate a Congressional lobbying effort to push for a royalty for performance rights in sound recordings that would apply to broadcasters’ over-the-air transmissions, not just their Internet streams.  Broadcasters currently pay performance royalties  to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for their over-the-air music programming – royalties that are paid to composers (or music publishing companies) for the use of the underlying musical composition.  Digital operators (satellite radio, Internet radio, digital cable radio) pay royalties for the composition and also pay royalties for the sound recording, i.e. the actual performance as recorded on a record, CD, or digital download.  The copyright for the sound recording is usually held by a record company.  The performance right in a sound recording did not exist in the United States until 1995, and still applies only to digital transmissions.  Obviously, if extended to broadcasting, this could result in huge expenses to broadcasters – amounts for which they probably have not planned.

This is not the first time that such a royalty has been mentioned.  In introducing the PERFORM Act earlier this year, Senator Feinstein of California suggested that this legislation, which makes certain changes in the digital royalty standards that apply to various services as well as to other copyright license provisions, was only a first step in clarifying royalty issues.  In statements made at the time, there were indications that she favored further legislation to adopt a sound recording performance right for broadcasters.  At last week’s Future of Music Conference, David Carson, General Counsel of the Copyright Office, also spoke in favor of such a right – suggesting that if SoundExchange collected money from broadcasters they might not need to seek so much from Internet Radio companies (see our coverage of the Internet radio royalty issues, here).


Continue Reading Lobbying Effort to Make Broadcasters Pay Sound Recording Royalties in the Works?

In a ruling released last week, a US District Court Judge issued a ruling finding that a download of a recorded musical work does not give rise to a "public performance" requiring a payment to ASCAP, BMI or SESAC.  If this decision is upheld on appeal, it could mean that one less fee would have to be paid in connection with on-demand downloads – which would also affect podcasts and video downloads made available by broadcasters on their websites.  However, there are many issues that must be understood about this ruling, so broadcasters should not impetuously rush to provide downloads and podcasts without first securing the bundle of rights necessary for such performances.

First, it is important to understand the issue that was presented in this case.  The case did not involve streaming of programming – so it has no effect on Internet radio royalties.  It involves only downloads – where a copy of a specific work is downloaded to a single consumer’s computer at the request of that consumer.  This is what happens when a consumer buys a song from iTunes, or downloads a podcast made available by a broadcaster.  There is no question that, to provide such a download or podcast containing music, a service needs to get permission from the copyright holder in the "sound recording," the song as recorded by a particular artist.  This is typically received from the record company which holds the copyright.  In addition, there is a requirement that the rights to the composition must be obtained for purposes of the making of the making of a "reproduction" and a "distribution" of the underlying composition.  This is typically obtained from the publishing company or a clearinghouse such as the Harry Fox agency.  A service that provides downlaods of music can alternatively pay a statutory royalty for the composition, though that requires following a somewhat cumbersome process of filings set out by the Copyright Office and requiring specific notice to the copyright holder in the publication.


Continue Reading District Court Finds No Public Performance In Download – Could Affect Fees on Podcasts and Video Downloads