radio music license committee

In the last week, we have received many inquiries from radio stations that received a notice from attorneys for Global Music Rights (GMR) about document production in GMR’s litigation with the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC).  As we have written before (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), RMLC and GMR have for several years been engaged in antitrust litigation.  RMLC is seeking to impose outside review on the rates that GMR can charge broadcasters for the public performance of the music written by the songwriters that they represent, while GMR argues that RMLC itself violates the antitrust laws by unifying competing broadcasters and preventing them from doing business with GMR.

The recent communications from GMR concern GMR’s obligation to produce documents to the RMLC’s attorneys in discovery in this litigation.  Because RMLC has not been directly involved in GMR’s dealings with radio stations over the interim license agreements (and because RMLC itself does not have copies of the interim licenses that stations entered into with GMR), RMLC’s lawyers asked GMR for the production of these licenses as part of their discovery.  Because the interim licenses contain some confidentiality language, GMR’s recent communications was to let stations know that they are planning to produce those licenses to the RMLC’s attorneys, subject to the Protective Orders that GMR attached to their messages.  These Protective Orders are designed to keep the information in those licenses out of the public record, to be reviewed only by a limited group of people including RMLC’s attorneys and expert witnesses. The GMR communications are asking broadcasters if they have objections to the production of these licenses to RMLC’s lawyers.     
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Global Music Rights (most commonly known as GMR), the newest of the major performing rights organizations (PROs) licensing public performances of musical compositions, filed a lawsuit against radio operator Entravision Communications earlier this month. The suit alleges that Entravision failed to pay GMR royalties for the public performance of hundreds of compositions written by GMR songwriters. According to the complaint, GMR sent Entravision several letters over the last few years, notifying Entravision that it was playing GMR music and asking that it enter into a license to play that music. When no license was signed or even requested after these multiple requests, the lawsuit was filed.

The suit seeks $150,000 for each copyrighted work that was allegedly infringed – the maximum set out by the Copyright Act for “statutory damages,” i.e. damages that can be collected even without providing evidence of actual harm caused by the alleged copyright infringement. While Courts have discretion to order far lower statutory damages than those being sought here, even the threat of such damages have been enough to put many of the original file-sharing music sites out of business. Of course, in this case, these damages are being sought not from some company that provides unlimited downloads of unlicensed music, but from a publicly traded radio company presumably already paying other performing rights organizations for the use of music.
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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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Recently, the Radio Music License Committee sent out a memo to broadcasters about a July 8, 2019 SoundExchange payment deadline for pre-1972 sound recordings.  As with everything in copyright law, the issues surrounding pre-1972 sound recordings are complicated, and the RMLC notice, while seemingly straightforward, still resulted in our receiving lots of questions.  These questions may have been compounded because of notices sent to broadcasters back in April about another filing deadline concerning these recordings which caused much consternation for what was, for most broadcasters, a matter of little concern.  For most broadcasters, neither of these dates are of particular concern unless the broadcaster has been identifying pre-1972 sound recordings and not paying SoundExchange royalties when those songs are streamed, and we understand that most broadcasters have in fact been paying SoundExchange for these recordings.  But let’s try to explain what is going on in a little more detail.

First, let’s look at the basics.  Sound recordings (the recording of a particular band or singer performing a song) were originally not covered by federal copyright law.  The law provided protections for “musical works” (i.e. the musical composition, the words and musical notes of the song), but the mere recording of that work was initially not seen as a creative work.  It was thought of more as a mechanical rendering of the real creative work – the underlying song.  So when recordings came to have real value in the first half of the last century, recording artists had to rely on state laws to prevent other people from making and distributing copies of their recordings. Laws against what we would refer to as bootlegging or pirating of recordings were passed in most states, and lawsuits against bootleggers would be brought under these state laws.  It was not until 1972 that Congress, through an amendment to the Copyright Act, recognized that the recordings were themselves creative works entitled to copyright protection.  But that amendment did not fully make all pre-existing recordings subject to the Copyright Act, instead leaving most sound recordings first recorded in the United States prior to the adoption of the amendment to the Act in February 1972 subject to state laws until 2067.
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Last week, the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC), the organization representing most commercial radio broadcasters in negotiating performance royalties for musical compositions, initiated a proceeding in US District Court in the Southern District of New York against BMI.  This action raises short-term issues as to what this particular lawsuit means for the radio industry, and it also highlights longer term issues that may arise through legislative and regulatory changes that may affect these cases like this one in the future.

As we have written many times (see e.g here and here), BMI is subject to antitrust consent decrees governing its activities – including the rates that it charges to companies wanting to use the music that it licenses.  When BMI and a user cannot agree on the terms of the license, either party can initiate a proceeding in court for the court to determine what reasonable rates are for the use proposed.  These actions are all brought in the Southern District of New York where a specific judge is assigned to hear BMI disputes.  This proceeding is referred to as a “rate court” proceeding where the parties will present evidence as to what each believes to be a reasonable rate – with the judge making the decision, subject to review by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  What issues brought BMI and RMLC to Court?
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On Friday, the Radio Music License Committee issued a press release that states that Global Music Rights (“GMR”), the new performing rights organization that collects royalties for the public performance of songs written by a number of popular songwriters (including Bruce Springsteen, members of the Eagles, Pharrell Williams and others) has agreed to extend their

It was announced this week that SESAC’s royalties for radio for the period starting at the beginning of 2016 through the end of 2018 have been slashed – being reduced to less than half what they were in 2015.  This decision came out of an arbitration process that resulted from the settlement of an antitrust lawsuit that the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) brought against SESAC (see our article here for a summary of the settlement).  Yet, despite the significant reduction in the royalties for radio operators, both sides declared victory (see RMLC press release here and press reports on SESAC’s reaction here).  Can both be right?  While the decision of the arbitrators is not public so we can’t know for sure the reasoning behind the result, it might be that there is something to each of these claims.

For radio, the victory is clear.  For commercial radio broadcasters, the royalties were significantly decreased, retroactive back to the beginning of 2016 year for stations that had elected to have RMLC represent them in this lawsuit.  Some stations had been enticed by an offer made by SESAC at the beginning of 2016 offering stations a new SESAC license at rates 5% less than they were in 2015 (see our article here).  Those stations may not qualify for the much greater royalty reduction available to the majority of commercial stations that opted into RMLC representation and are covered by the arbitration result.  The new SESAC royalties will also cover the use of SESAC music on broadcaster’s streaming platforms and HD broadcasts, uses for which broadcasters had previously had to pay SESAC separately.  Of course, stations still need to pay public performance royalties for musical compositions to ASCAP, BMI and, in many cases, GMR and public performance royalties for sound recordings, when streaming recorded music, to SoundExchange.
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Commercial radio broadcasters have been seeing numerous communications over the last week about Global Music Rights (GMR) and its seemingly contentious music royalty negotiations with the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC). Many stations are confused about this controversy and what it is all about. The 5 questions below, and the links at the end of the questions, try to shed some light on the issues. Stations need to carefully consider their options, and seek advice where necessary, to determine what they will do by January 31 with respect to the interim license that GMR has offered to stations. The questions below hopefully provide some background on these issues.

 What is GMR and why isn’t the music they represent covered by the other organizations like BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC?

 GMR is a new performing rights organization. Like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, they represent songwriters and collect royalties from music users for the public performance of these songwriter’s compositions. They will collect not just from radio, but from all music users – they have already reached out to business music services that provide the music played in retail stores, restaurants and other businesses and no doubt have or will license other companies that make music available to the public. Most songwriters represented by GMR used to be represented by ASCAP or BMI, but these songwriters have withdrawn from ASCAP and BMI and joined GMR, allegedly to attempt to increase the amounts that they are paid for the use of the songs that they have written. For radio, these withdrawals became effective on January 1 of this year, when the old license agreements between ASCAP and BMI and the commercial radio industry expired.

What does a station need to, in order to protect itself while negotiations are going on?

Because the penalties for playing a song without a license can be as much at $150,000 per song, stations either need to purge all GMR music from their stations or sign a license agreement with GMR. If you decide to purge their music from your stations, don’t forget about music that may appear in commercials or syndicated programming. Also remember that we are talking about the musical composition, not the recording of the song by any particular band or singer. Even the broadcast of a high school band playing a GMR song at half time of some football game, or the broadcast of a local middle school choral concert, could trigger the royalty obligation to GMR.
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On Saturday, RMLC announced that it has reached an “interim” agreement with the new performing rights organization Global Music Rights (GMR) for a license to perform musical compositions controlled by GMR.  This agreement (available on the RMLC website here) is an interim agreement for radio stations that elect to participate, and covers only the first 9 months of 2017.  To be covered by this license, a station must make an election by January 31, and pay the first month’s assessment to GMR by that date.  GMR has promised not to sue any stations in January while stations are deciding whether to opt into this agreement.  The amount to be paid by any individual station can be ascertained by communicating with GMR at an email address furnished by the RMLC in the notice distributed on Saturday.

This is an interim agreement as it removes the threat of a lawsuit for playing GMR music after January 1 that could potentially be faced by any radio station that does not have a license.  The rates paid by any station that opts in could be adjusted retroactively, up or down, based on the results of further negotiations between RMLC and GMR, or based on the results of the lawsuits currently being litigated between the two (see our article here on RMLC’s suit against GMR, and the article here about GMR’s follow-up lawsuit against RMLC, each accusing the other of violating the antitrust laws).  It would seem obvious that RMLC believes that the amounts being paid under this interim deal are higher than justified based on the percentage of music played by radio stations that is controlled by GMR.  If it was believed that the interim fee represented a fair price, then it would seem that RMLC would have entered into a permanent license at these rates – but instead the litigation continues.  What is a station to do?
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ASCAP and the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) announced yesterday that they have reached an agreement for the period 2017-2021, setting the performance royalties that commercial broadcasters will pay for the use of music written by composers who are represented by ASCAP. The press release issued yesterday discloses little about the details of the agreement.