radio music licenses for BMI

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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Last week, I participated in a discussion about music royalties for broadcasters at the Texas Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention in Austin. Speaking on the panel with me were the heads of the Radio Music License Committee and the TV Music Licensing Committee. These are the organizations that represent most commercial broadcasters in their negotiations with ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for public performance licenses for “musical works” or “musical compositions” – the underlying words and music to any song. In our discussion, there was a general summary of the licenses needed for the use of music by broadcasters, a summary of the status of some of the current royalty negotiations, and questions about other issues in music licensing. As this discussion raised a number of issues that I have covered in articles posted on this blog, I thought that it might be worth highlighting some of that past coverage so that those interested in any topic can read a bit more on these subjects.

The TV industry seems to have far fewer issues than radio, perhaps because radio is so much more music-dependent. While there is music in many TV programs, some of it is cleared (i.e. licenses have been negotiated) by the program providers (including some networks), so that stations need only worry about licenses for programming where the music has not been pre-cleared. Thus, TV stations have alternatives of blanket licenses for all programming (principally used by affiliates of networks where music has not been pre-cleared) or per-program fees where stations pay for music only in programs or program segments where music has not been licensed by the program suppliers.
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Radio broadcasters have been receiving invoices from the Radio Music License Committee (“RMLC”), and many are asking whether the invoice is “real.”  Some stations seem concerned that they are being asked to pay some fee that they really don’t owe. The truth is that this is one bill that most commercial stations in fact do owe, and it is a bill that they should actually be happy to pay. RMLC is the committee that represented radio broadcasters in the recent negotiations with ASCAP and BMI, leading to new agreements covering the royalties to be paid to these organizations through 2016. We wrote about the ASCAP agreement, here. The BMI agreement was announced recently, and we’ll try to get a summary of that agreement up on the blog sometime soon. These settlement agreements significantly reduced the amount of royalties that the radio industry as a whole pays to ASCAP and BMI for the public performance of musical compositions on over-the-air radio (and in connection with their digital uses of music as well).   As part of these settlement agreements, the Court overseeing the antitrust consent decrees with ASCAP and BMI, which had to approve the settlements, approved the fees to RMLC as well. 

Under the terms of the Court approval, all stations that either elected to be represented by RMLC in the negotiations (see our article on that election here), or those who elect to be covered by the settlement by signing an agreement with ASCAP and BMI under the terms that RMLC negotiated, are required to pay the fee to RMLC.  The fee funds RMLC operations in the future, and pays for the cost of the litigation and negotiations that led to the settlements.


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The Radio Music Licensing Committee has announced a settlement with BMI over music royalties for the public performance of musical compositions for the period from 2010-2016.  Terms have not been announced, so we can’t provide the details, yet.  But as we wrote recently when the RMLC announced the terms of its agreement with ASCAP, we would assume that the terms would be somewhat similar to the ASCAP deal.  If no settlement had been reached with BMI, the case would have gone to a "rate court" in Federal District Court to see what the fair market value of the performance right was.  As analogous rates often form the basis for rate court determinations of fair market value, the settlement with ASCAP would no doubt have been an issue for BMI, as it would appear to set a benchmark rate for the public performance of musical compositions.  But, we will have to wait to see what the filings say before we can determine if, for sure, the rates will decrease relative to prior rates to the same extent that they did for ASCAP.

It is worth reflecting on how RMLC came to reach deals with ASCAP and BMI, and to explain why there is no reference to a SESAC deal.  I’ve already heard or seen several people suggesting that an agreement with SESAC may be next – when in fact that is not something that is imminent, as can be explained by the differences between ASCAP and BMI on one hand, and SESAC on the other.  ASCAP and BMI are both governed by anti-trust consent decrees that have been in place for over 50 years.  Under both decrees, these organizations have to enter into agreements to set royalties for all similarly-situated users of music in various categories of businesses – categories including radio, TV, websites, background music, restaurants, bars, hotels, performance venues and practically every other place where music is performed for the public.  If no agreement can be reached on a voluntary license, a “rate court” decides on the royalties. Essentially, that means that a US District Court in New York has a trial to set the rates.


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