In 2019, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice began a review of the court-administered antitrust consent decrees that have bound ASCAP and BMI since the 1940s.  We wrote about the issues in their review here.  The formal review of these decrees began as part of the DOJ’s broader review of its antitrust consent decrees covering many different industries.  The DOJ received almost a thousand comments on the questions that it asked about the ASCAP and BMI decrees.  It also held public roundtables as well as private discussions with interested parties during its review.  Last week, Makan Delrahim, the outgoing head of the Antitrust Division, presented remarks at a Vanderbilt Law School virtual event where he said that the review would be ending without any proposals for reform.  While the statement notes some of the reforms that were sought by the music industry, it also notes that music users around the country rely on the systems established under the decrees and judge them to be working well.  Mr. Delrahim’s statement says that because of the complexity of the issues and the interruptions caused by the pandemic, no reforms would be offered at this time, but it urged the DOJ to continue to review these decrees on a regular basis – at least once every five years.

This action is significant for broadcasters and other music users as it leaves in place these consent decrees that are the basis on which so many businesses use music in their day-to-day operations.  Given the volume of music they have under license, most businesses do not have an alternative to using the blanket licenses offered by these organizations.  The only alternative would be to license the music themselves which, due to the complexity of the copyright laws and the lack of transparency in music ownership, would be exceedingly difficult for a business where music is but a secondary component to their operations.  Together, ASCAP and BMI provide a license to broadcasters and other music users (including any business that performs music to the public, such as bars and restaurants, retail stores, digital music services, concert venues, hotels and so many other locations).
Continue Reading DOJ Ends its Review of ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees – For Now…What Does it Mean?

This week, the US House of Representatives passed the Music Modernization Act. While widely supported among many digital media companies providing on-demand subscription music services as well as by many in the music industry, the bill seemingly has not received the publicity that has been afforded to past music royalty legislation. That may be, in part, because there were few who adamantly opposed the provisions of the bill, as evidenced by a unanimous House vote – something that never would have happened had any significant portion of the music industry opposed the bill. But this moment of togetherness may be, in part, due to the somewhat limited (though nevertheless very important) issues that it addresses.

The Modernization of Music Act began as a legislative effort primarily to address the issues raised under Section 115 of the Copyright Act – the section dealing with what are often called “mechanical royalties” – the royalties paid to publishing companies for the copyright in the “musical work,” i.e. the musical composition. In other words, these royalties are paid to the copyright holder of the words and music to a song (sometimes the composer but more often a publishing company) – not to the artist who actually records that song. The provisions of Section 115 were first adopted to allow artists to record songs once a song has been recorded and publically released in the United States – to record a “cover” of the original recordings – provided that compensation set by agreement between the user and the copyright holder is paid or, absent a voluntary agreement, that a royalty set by the Copyright Royalty Board is paid to the copyright holder (see our post here on the last CRB decision on those rates). That mechanical royalty was later expanded to cover “digital phonorecord deliveries” (“DPDs”) – the making of digital copies of the musical composition made in the context of a distribution and delivery of the song to individual consumers. Through caselaw and industry practice, DPDs were interpreted to include the need for royalties not just when a digital download is made, but also when an on-demand or interactive stream of a song is delivered to a consumer.
Continue Reading House of Representatives Passes Music Modernization Act – Looking for Clarity on Mechanical Royalties, Pre-1972 Sound Recordings and Other Music Rights Issues

While we have written much about the battle over the broadcast performance royalty (or the "performance tax" as broadcasters call it) – whether broadcasters will have to pay artists and record labels for the right to play their music on the air – we have not written much about another looming issue with the royalties that broadcasters must pay to play music on their stations.  While broadcasters are very familiar with the ASCAP and BMI royalties, they may not be fully aware that there is a looming dispute over the amount that broadcasters will pay to these organizations in the near future.  At a panel that I moderated at the NAB Radio Show, Bill Velez, the head of the Radio Music Licensing Committee, talked about the current negotiations for the renewal of the royalty agreements between radio stations and these two Performing Rights Organizations ("PROs").  Both of the current agreements expire at the end of this year, and the RMLC is in the process of trying to negotiate new agreements.  However, because many broadcasters feel that the current deals charge more for these music rights than is justified in the current economic environment, while the PROs are reluctant to decrease the royalties that the composers they represent currently receive, the differing perceptions of the value of these rights could lead to litigation over the amount that should be paid by broadcasters for the use of this music.

First, it is important to understand what rights ASCAP and BMI are providing. These organizations, along with SESAC (about which we have written here), provide the copyright license for the "public performance" of the "musical work" or the composition, the words and musical notes to a song.  This is in contrast to the rights to the sound recording (the song as performed and recorded by a specific artist), which is licensed by SoundExchange.  Webcasters have to pay ASCAP and BMI for the use of the composition, as well as paying SoundExchange for the use of the sound recording when streaming music on the Internet.  Broadcasters only have the obligation to pay ASCAP,BMI and SESAC for the composition in connection with their over the air broadcasts but do not, under the current law (unless the broadcast performance royalty is passed), have to pay SoundExchange.  Because the current ASCAP and BMI royalties have been in place for several years, most broadcasters probably don’t think much about them, but they may have to in the near future.


Continue Reading ASCAP and BMI – Another Royalty Battle for Broadcasters?

decision by a US District Court in New York was just released, setting the rates to be paid to ASCAP for the use of their composers’ music by Yahoo!, AOL and Real Networks.  The decision set the ASCAP rates at 2.5% of the revenues that were received by these services in connection with the music portions of their websites.  These rates were set by the Court, acting as a rate court under the antitrust consent decree that was originally imposed on ASCAP in 1941.  Under the Consent Decree, if a new service and ASCAP cannot voluntarily agree to a rate for the use of the compositions represented by ASCAP, the rates will be set by the rate court.  The Court explained that they used a "willing buyer, willing seller" model to determine the rates that parties would have negotiated in a marketplace transaction  – essentially the same standard used by the Copyright Royalty Board in setting the rates to be paid to SoundExchange for the use of sound recordings by non-interactive webcasters (see our post here for details of the CRB decision).  The ASCAP decision, if nothing else, is interesting for the contrasts between many of the underlying assumptions of the Court in this rate-setting proceeding and the assumptions used by the Copyright Royalty Board in setting sound recording royalty rates.

First, some basics on this decision.  ASCAP represents the composers of music (as do BMI and SESAC) in connection with the public performance of any composition.  This decision covered all performances of music by these services – not just Internet radio type services.  Thus, on-demand streams (where a listener can pick the music that he or she wants to hear), music videos, music in user-generated content, karaoke type uses, and music in the background of news or other video programming, are all covered by the rate set in this decision.  Note that the decision does not cover downloads, presumably based on a prior court decision that concluded that downloads do not involve a public performance (see our post here).  In contrast, the CRB decision covered the use of the "sound recording" – the song as actually recorded by a particular artist – and covers only "non-interactive services," essentially Internet radio services where users cannot pick the music that they will be hearing.


Continue Reading Rate Court Determines ASCAP Fees for Large Webcasters – Some Interesting Contrasts with The Copyright Royalty Board Decision