public performance rights

Global Music Rights, commonly known as GMR, is the newest Performing Rights Organization (PRO) in the US music business, licensing public performance rights to musical compositions of songwriters as diverse as various members of the Eagles to Pharrell Williams to George Gershwin. As we wrote here, in December, they offered a temporary license to the radio industry to allow radio stations to play their music if the stations pay a royalty reportedly based on a percentage of what stations pay to ASCAP and BMI. That license, which was accepted by many radio stations, expires at the end of September. Many stations were concerned as to what would happen on October 1, and whether they could continue to play GMR music. This week, that question was answered when it was announced that GMR has offered to extend the license for another 6 months at the same rates stations are now paying.

While this extension may answer the question of what happens on October 1, it certainly does not resolve all GMR issues. It seems pretty clear that, unless there is a major breakthrough, GMR and the Radio Music License Committee (the organization that negotiates performance royalties for commercial radio operators) will not come to an agreement on rates before the end of September. As we wrote here, RMLC has sued GMR, asking that a court make them subject to an antitrust consent decree much like SESAC where rates, if they cannot be voluntarily negotiated, would be set through arbitration (see our article on the results of the recent RMLC-SESAC arbitration here). GMR has countersued (see our article here), and litigation continues as it may well for years absent a settlement.
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I was recently interviewed by Steve Goldstein of Amplifi Media, a firm that consults for podcast companies, on the difficulties with the use of music in podcasts. That interview has been turned into an article on Steve’s blog, here, discussing these legal issues. That article discusses the same issues that we’ve written about

The New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has ruled that there is no public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings in the state of New York. The decision (available here in a version subject to revision) was reached after the US Court of Appeals certified the question to the state court as being necessary to resolve the appeal of a US District Court decision which had found such a right to exist in a lawsuit brought by Flo & Eddie of the band the Turtles against Sirius XM Radio. We wrote about the District Court’s decision here, and the certification to the state court here. Certifying a question from a Federal Court to a State Court is a rare matter, done when a Federal Court needs guidance as to the state’s treatment of a legal issue under state law where there is no clear precedent, and where the state law issue is central to the resolution of the case. The NY Court of Appeals did not have to accept the certification, but it did to resolve this somewhat obscure issue of state intellectual property law (most of which is governed by Federal law).

The NY Court’s decision was not unanimous, as there was one dissenting Justice who would have found that a performance right does exist. The dissenting justice thought that there should be a state performance right – but a right co-terminus with the Federal right, thus applying only to digital services and not to terrestrial radio and presumably not to retail outlets, bars and restaurants and other businesses that may play music. That Justice seemed to be motivated by a desire to keep pace with current developments in the music industry, suggesting that common law should evolve with the times and, as streaming is now becoming more important to the music industry, there should be a royalty for such streams. Another justice concurred with the decision that there is no performance royalty in noninteractive services like that offered by Sirius XM, but there should be for interactive services like that offered by Spotify and Apple Music. The majority of the court disagreed with these justices.
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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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Pre-1972 sound recordings are back in the news. Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided to defer its consideration of an appeal of a District Court’s decision that NY law included a public performance right for pre-1972 sound recordings. The Court deferred its decision until it can get a definitive answer as to whether or not such a right exists under NY state law. To get that definitive answer, the Court of Appeals referred the question to the NY State Court of Appeals (the highest court in New York State) asking it to issue an opinion as to whether the right exists.   Reading the order referring the case to the NY state court, there are a number of interesting issues addressed, including a discussion that could help decide the ramifications for over-the-air broadcasters who play these recordings.

First, we should provide a reminder about what the case here is all about. This case was brought by Flo and Eddie, members of the 1960s band The Turtles, who alleged that Sirius XM (and Pandora in a separate case) owed them royalties for playing pre-1972 sound recordings on their music services (see our article on the filing of the suit, here). Pre-1972 sound recordings first copyrighted in the United States are not covered by Federal law (see our article here and here about a Copyright Office inquiry on whether they should be brought under Federal law). While most states have laws prohibiting the reproduction of those recordings (e.g. prohibiting bootlegging of the recordings), none has an explicit statutory grant of a public performance right such as that collected by SoundExchange for post-1972 works. Sirius XM has thus excluded performances of pre-1972 sound recordings from the royalties that it has paid to SoundExchange (with the blessing of the Copyright Royalty Board in their last proceeding, see our story here). And allegedly Pandora has done the same. In this case, Flo and Eddie argued that in fact state law did convey a public performance right in sound recordings. Many observers (including this author) suggested that this argument would not succeed given that finding that a general performance right existed would be contrary to US law, and could subject all sorts of businesses that have never paid royalties for public performances of sound recordings, from over-the-air radio stations to bars and restaurants, to a performance royalty only when they played oldies. Nevertheless, Flo and Eddie were successful with their arguments in lower Federal Courts in California and New York (see our articles here and here), but a court in Florida denied their claims, finding that there is no performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings in that state (see our article here). The Court of Appeals decision yesterday was on the appeal of the NY decision referenced above. Why did the Court of Appeals need to send this case to the NY state court system?
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Press reports indicate that the Department of Justice is nearing the completion of its study of whether to suggest the revision of the antitrust consent decrees that have bound ASCAP and BMI for over a half century (see our summary of the issues that DOJ is considering here). Much of the impetus behind this review comes from claims from songwriters and their associated publishing companies that they simply are not receiving enough money from digital music services. In the music industry trade press, one can barely go a day without seeing some article about a songwriter whose song was played a million times on a digital music service like Pandora or Spotify, with the artist only receiving some relatively small amount of royalty revenue from that seemingly large number of plays. In looking at this question, I think that there are a number of issues that are misunderstood – perhaps the greatest being the meaning of big numbers – what is really meant when a song is played a million times by a digital music service. I’ve moderated two panels in the last month where royalty experts debated royalties generally and this topic specifically, and I will be moderating another at the RAIN Summit West in Las Vegas on Sunday. Before that discussion, and for those who won’t be at the RAIN Conference, I thought that it would be worth exploring some of this confusion about this issue here.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee held a hearing on the DOJ’s review of the antitrust consent decrees (video of the hearing, and written witness statements, are available here). During the course of the hearing, a songwriter representative, when asked by a Senator about the alleged impact of digital royalties on the songwriting community, made the assertion that when his song was played a million times on terrestrial radio, he could pay his bills, but when that song was played a million times on a digital service, he received only a few hundred dollars. While this kind of claim is made every day by songwriter representatives, and has contributed to the examination of music royalties being conducted by Congress (see our articles here and here), the Department of Justice and the Copyright Office (see our article here), in many ways, these claims seem to evidence a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of digital services. It is truly a comparison of apples and oranges (or maybe apples and watermelons might be more appropriate) that has distorted the conversation about royalties. The claim was challenged at the Judiciary Committee hearing by a representative of Pandora, who pointed out that the million people reached by the million spins of a record on Pandora is the equivalent audience reached by something like 16 spins on a New York radio station. I thought that this exchange was crucial to the understanding of the issues involved in the examination of changes to the ASCAP and BMI royalty structure, yet I saw little or no coverage of the issue in press reports after the hearing.
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The Songwriter’s Equity Act has once again been introduced in Congress (see our article about that Act when it was introduced in the last Congress). It proposes to make changes in provisions of the Copyright Act governing the way that songwriters are paid for the use of their musical compositions – with the obvious intent of raising the songwriters’ compensation. This legislative proposal is one reflection of the complaints by songwriters that they are not sufficiently compensated for the use of their music. It is interesting that this bill was introduced during the same week that ASCAP announced its first year of billion dollar collection for songwriter’s public performance royalties, and at the same time that the Senate explores more comprehensive changes to the antitrust consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI through a hearing held last week, with the Department of Justice review of these decrees expected in the not too distant future (see our article here).

The Act makes seemingly small changes in legislation, but those changes could have a significant impact on how rates paid to songwriters are computed. The first change proposed is to allow the rates set for the public performance of sound recordings (those royalties that digital music services pay to SoundExchange for the public performance of sound recordings – the actual recordings of songs as opposed to the performance of musical compositions for which ASCAP, BMI and SESAC pay songwriters) to be used as evidence by the judges setting rates for the public performance of musical compositions. That has been prohibited under current law. It is interesting to note that, under Copyright Royalty Board precedent, the Copyright Royalty Judges have in the past determined that the rates paid by music services for the public performance of musical compositions are not a precedent for the public performance of sound recordings, as they are different rights that are not necessarily of the same value. Yet this legislation seems to assume that the royalties for sound recordings are in fact instructive as to what those rates should be for public performances. While seemingly acknowledging the relevance, the legislation does not allow the reverse – stating that the legislation should not be seen as having any effect on the precedent already established by the CRB for the rates for the public performance of sound recordings, so that the rates for sound recordings should not be affected by this legislation.
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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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The Supreme Court heard the oral arguments in the Aereo case yesterday, it has received all the briefs, and now we all just wait for a decision – to probably be released late in June before the Court’s summer recess.  The transcript of yesterday’s oral argument has been released and is available here.  It makes for interesting reading, as the questions from the Court seemed to be dubious of Aereo’s claims that it can retransmit the signal of a broadcast television station over the Internet, to the public for a fee, without the consent of or any payment to the stations.  While dubious about the Aereo service, the Court was also concerned about the potential impact of any decision against Aereo on cloud services and even on other distributors of media content.  Lots of issues came up during the course of the argument, and it will be very interesting to see how the Court resolves these in its final decision.  Keep reading, and I’ll make my prediction. 

While Court arguments can never be relied on to predict the decision, they can at least provide insight into the questions that the Justices are considering.  One question that recurred throughout the argument was raised by Justice Sotomayor in the first question that was asked – why wasn’t Aereo a cable system under Copyright law, as it retransmits television programming to consumers for a fee?  Counsel for both parties contended that it was not a cable system, though neither gave an entirely satisfactory reason for that position.  The definition of a cable system in Section 111 of the Copyright Act, which governs the compulsory license granted to cable systems to retransmit over-the-air TV stations and all of the content that they broadcast, defines a “cable system” as:

a facility…that in whole or in part receives signals transmitted or broadcast by one or more television stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, and makes secondary transmissions of such signals by wires, cables, microwave or other communications channels to subscribing members of the public who pay for such service.

As the Justices said, this sure looks like what Aereo is doing.  As we have written before, the FCC is looking at whether an IP based video-programming service should be classified as a cable system.  It might well have been easier for the attorney representing the broadcasters to concede that Aereo was very much like a cable system, as if it was so classified, it would have proved the argument that they broadcasters were trying to make – that its retransmission of television programming was a public performance that required the permission of the broadcaster.
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Aereo finally lost a court decision.  The US District Court in Utah released a well-reasoned decision finding that the service, by transmitting via the Internet over-the-air TV programming to subscribers without any consent from the TV stations or their program suppliers, violated the copyrights that the stations have in their programming.  Specifically, the Court found that the transmissions were public performances, the very issue to be determined later this year by the US Supreme Court when it considers the decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York finding that no public performance was involved in the Aereo transmissions.  (See our summary of the NY decision here).  The Utah Court issued an injunction preventing Aereo from operating in Utah until the issue is decided by the Supreme Court. 

This is the first case that Aereo itself has lost, also winning a favorable decision from a District Court in Boston which essentially followed the Second Circuits reasoning (see our summary of the Boston decision here).  But the Aereo copycat service, FilmOn X, which presented essentially the same legal issues to Courts, has lost two decisions, one in California and one in Washington DC (see our summary of the DC decision here), both courts finding that the public performance right was implicated by Aereo’s transmissions.  Oral arguments in the Supreme Court are to be held in April, with a decision in the case expected before the Court adjourns for its summer recess in July.  Does this Utah decision serve as a preview of the upcoming Supreme Court decision?
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