We’ve written extensively about copyright issues for audio services, but the big copyright decision that recently made headlines is a TV issue, though one that could have an impact on audio as well. That was the Second Circuit decision in the Aereo case – upholding a lower court decision allowing a company to retransmit over-the-air TV signals to consumers over the Internet – without any royalties to the TV broadcasters or television program producers. The decision looked at the issue of what defines a “public performance” that would require the consent of the copyright owner. The Court found that there is no public performance of television programming where the service is set up so that the programming is streamed to the viewer individually, at their demand, rather than transmitted all at once to multiple consumers – as by a cable system or a  satellite television service. The decision is a controversial one – decided by a 2 to 1 vote with the dissenting judge issuing a strong dissent arguing that the Aereo service was nothing more than a “sham” designed to evade the royalty obligations or copyright permissions that would be necessary if the service were deemed a cable system or other type of multichannel video provider. What does this decision really mean for television stations, and could it have broader implications for the reuse of all sorts of broadcast content on the Internet?

The decision focused on the question of whether the Aereo service “publicly performs” the programming that it sends to its subscribers. Under the Copyright Act, a copyright owner has a bundle of rights which it has the exclusive ability to exploit. This includes the right to copy the copyrighted work, to distribute it, to make a “derivative work” (a work that uses the copyrighted material and changes it in some way – like putting new words to the melody of a copyrighted song), and the right to publicly perform it. The definition of a public performance includes any transmission or retransmission of a performance to multiple individuals at the same time or at different times. This language was added to the Copyright Act at the time of the advent of cable television, to make clear that services like cable, that take an existing performance (like that of a broadcast television station) and then further transmit it to other people (even people who could theoretically pick up the original performance) were themselves making a public performance that needed the consent of the copyright holder or a government-imposed statutory license (which allows the performance as long as the party making the performance pays the copyright holder an amount set by the government). From a cursory look, it would appear that Aereo is retransmitting the signal of the TV station to all of its customers. Why, then, did the Court rule that no public performance was involved?

Continue Reading Aereo Court Decision Permits Internet Streaming of TV Programs Without Royalties – Undermining the Public Performance Right?

In recent months, SESAC has been writing letters to broadcasters who are streaming their signals on the Internet, asking for royalties for the performance of SESAC music on their websites.  More than one broadcaster has asked me why they have any obligation to SESAC when they are already paying SoundExchange for the music that they stream.  In fact, SoundExchange and SESAC are paid for different rights, and thus the payments to SoundExchange have no impact on the obligations that are owed to SESAC.  SESAC, along with ASCAP and BMI, represent the composers of music in collecting royalties for the public performance of their compositions.  SoundExchange, on the other hand, represents the performers of the music (and the copyright holders in those performances – usually the record companies).  In the online digital world, the SoundExchange fees cover the public performance of these recordings by particular performers (referred to as "sound recordings").  For an Internet radio company, or the online stream of a terrestrial radio station, payments must be made for both the composition and the sound recording. 

To illustrate the difference between the two rights, let’s look at an example.  On a CD released a few years ago, singer Madeleine Peyroux did a cover version of the Bob Dylan song "You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go."  For that song, the public performance of the composition (i.e. Dylan’s words and music) is licensed through SESAC.  The actual "sound recording" of Peyroux’s version of the song would be licensed through SoundExchange, with the royalties being split between Peyroux and her record label (with backing singers and musicians receiving a small share of the SoundExchange royalty). 

Continue Reading SoundExchange Fees Don’t Cover SESAC Obligations

The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee today approved a bill that would impose, for the first time, a royalty on radio broadcasters for the public performance of sound recordings in their over-the-air broadcasts.  if this bill were to be adopted by the full House of Representatives and the Senate, and signed by the President, broadcasters would have to pay for the use of sound recordings (the actual recording of a song by a particular musical artist) in addition to the royalties that they already pay to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for the public performance of the underlying musical composition.  While, from the discussion at the hearing today, the bill is much amended from the original bill (about which we wrote, here) to try to address some of the issue that have been raised by critics, the Committee made clear that there were still issues that needed to be addressed – preferably through negotiations between broadcasters and the recording industry – before the bill would move on to the full House for consideration.  It was, as Representative Shelia Jackson Lee of Texas stated, still a "work in progress."  In fact, the Committee asked that the General Accounting Office conduct an expedited study of the impact of this legislation on radio and on musicians – but it did not wait for that study before approving the bill – despite requests from some royalty opponents that it do so. 

While I have not yet seen a copy of the amended bill that Congressman John Conyers, the Chairman of the Committee, said had been completed only a few hours before the hearing, the statements made at the hearing set out some details of the changes made to the original version of the bill.  First, changes were made to reduce the impact on small broadcasters – reducing royalties to as little as $500 for stations that make less than $100,000 in yearly gross revenues.  Interestingly, Representative Zoe Lofgren pointed out that, in a bill that means to address the perceived inequality in royalties, a small webcaster with $100,000 in revenues would be paying $10,000 in royalties – 20 times what is proposed for the small broadcaster.  And the small broadcaster who would pay $5000 for revenues up to $1.25 million in revenue would be paying 1/30th of the amount paid by a small webcaster making that same amount of revenue.

Continue Reading Broadcast Performance Royalty Passes House Judiciary Committee – A Work In Progress

The Copyright Office today issued an Order extending the dates for comments on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to determine if, in addition to royalties to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for the public performance of a musical composition, a royalty is also be due for reproductions of the composition made by real-time webcasting such as

If you are a broadcaster, you know that it’s not going to be a good day when you walk into a hearing on the possible extension of the performance royalty in sound recordings to over-the-air broadcasters and see buttons saying "I Support a Performance Right NOW" on the lapels of every other witness on the panel – including the Register of Copyrights, Marybeth Peters.  But that was the scene in Washington, as the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property held a hearing as to whether the right to collect a royalty for the public performance of a sound recording (the actual song as sung by a particular artist, as opposed to the underlying musical composition) should be paid by broadcasters.  Broadcasters in the United States have paid only a royalty on the public performance of the composition (to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC), and have never paid a royalty for the public performance of the sound recording.  The lack of a sound recording royalty has always been justified in the past on the theory that the artists and copyright holders in the sound recording benefit more than composers through the airplay of the sound recording, as they receive the bulk of the proceeds from CD sales, and the performers benefit from the promotion of live performances.  As they benefit from the promotion provided by the airplay of the song, there is no need for any sort of performance royalty.  As the music and radio businesses have both thrived in the United States – more so than anywhere else in the world – it seemed that this arrangement was mutually beneficial.

But, in recent years, the consensus over this mutually beneficial arrangement seems to have broken down.  Starting in 1995, a performance right in sound recordings has been imposed on digital services, including the royalty on Internet radio which has recently been so controversial (and about which we have written so much, here).  And, with the recent downturn in the record companies’ business, additional sources of revenue are being sought – thus the RIAA and SoundExchange, the collective that receives sound recording performance royalties, have started a Congressional push to require the collection of royalties from over-the-air radio.  And that push was reflected in the hearing held on Tuesday before a House Committee that seemed clearly to favor the imposition of this royalty on broadcasters.

Continue Reading House Judiciary Committee Hearing on Broadcast Performance Right – No Breaks for the Broadcasters

Just when Internet music companies were starting to understand one set of royalties applicable to the use of music on the Internet through the controversy over the Copyright Royalty board decision on royalties for the public performance of sound recordings in a digital delivery system, the Copyright Office held a hearing on Friday to discuss an entirely different royalty – the "mechanical" royalty for the use of the "musical work" in making a "phonorecord."  In plain English, the copyright holder in the publishing rights in a musical composition (the underlying words and music in a song) is entitled to a royalty when a copy of a song using that composition is made.  While that doesn’t sound too complicated, when copies are made in the digital transmission of music over the Internet (and even in other digital media), all sorts of questions arise.  And in the conversations on Friday, questions were raised as to whether the obligation to pay a royalty for making a digital copy even applied to the streaming of a song on the Internet or possibly even the playing of a song on an HD Radio station.  These stations already pay (to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) for the public performance of a musical composition, but the mechanical royalty is for a different right, and is collected by a different group, and the question being raised was whether a different royalty is also due when music is used a digital context.  This is also different than the SoundExchange royalty that is paid for the public performance of a sound recording (a particular song as recorded by a particular artist).

The Copyright Office held this Roundtable to update the record in a proceeding begun by a Notice of Inquiry issued in 2001 to try to determine how to apply in a digital world the mechanical royalty and the compulsory license for that royalty under Section 115 of the Copyright Act.  That section applies to the use of a composition in the making of a record or CD.  The artist or record company would have to pay the publishing company a flat fee per copy to obtain the rights to use the underlying song.  That fee is currently about 9 cents per copy, though the Copyright Royalty Board is is in the midst of a proceeding that is to determine whether that royalty should be changed.  When applied to the making of a physical copy, that concept is not hard to understand (though, as set forth below, it is not easy to administer).  But, in a digital world, questions arise as to when the obligation to pay a royalty arises.

Continue Reading Copyright Office Holds a Roundtable Discussion of the Mechanical Royalty – Another Confusing Royalty for the Use of Music on the Internet