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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This week, the lawsuit brought by the Radio Music License Committee (RMLC) against new performing rights organization GMR (Global Music Rights) for alleged violations of the antitrust laws was determined by a court in Pennsylvania to have been brought in the wrong place – and transferred to a court in California.  This case has been on hold for well over two years while this procedural question was ironed out.  Now that the case has been transferred to California, the litigation that has been on hold while the jurisdictional issue was resolved can begin – but don’t expect quick results as these complicated cases can take years to resolve.  What is involved in this case?

Back in 2016, when RMLC concluded that it was not likely to reach a negotiated royalty rate for radio’s use of the musical compositions controlled by GMR songwriters and publishers, it brought the Pennsylvania court action.  In that action, it argued that the rates that GMR wanted were an abuse of the market power that GMR was able to exercise by banding these songwriters together and offering a license to radio stations on an all-or-nothing basis (see our articles here and here for more on the initial suit).  As it had done successfully with SESAC (see our article here), and as has been the case for decades with ASCAP and BMI, RMLC had hoped to have the court declare that GMR’s unrestrained royalty demands were contrary to the antitrust laws, and that some limits should be imposed on those rates.  The RMLC suit against GMR was brought in the same Pennsylvania court in which RMLC had sued SESAC, which led to the settlement subjecting SESAC rates to arbitration if the parties could not voluntarily agree on rates (and the arbitration process ultimately resulted in significantly lower rates for commercial radio than SESAC had previously received – see our article here on the results of the arbitration).
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This week, 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

Yesterday brought news that a Federal Magistrate issued a ruling (a 42 page order discussing fine points of law) deciding that the antitrust lawsuit brought by RMLC against GMR should not be tried in the Pennsylvania court where the suit was brought. As we wrote here, RMLC (the group that represents many commercial radio operators in music licensing matters) had argued that GMR (a relatively new organization representing songwriters in licensing music use as do ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) was acting in violation of the antitrust rules by trying to license music from a number of songwriters at prices well in excess of the amount that corresponded to these artists’ share of radio airplay. GMR seemingly retaliated by suing RMLC in a Los Angeles court, arguing that RMLC itself violates the antitrust laws by functioning as a buyer’s cartel unifying music licensing buyers against these songwriters (see our article here). Since these dueling suits were filed, the parties have been fighting over where this case should be heard.

RMLC had brought their case in Pennsylvania both because a number of RMLC members operate in Pennsylvania and because RMLC had obtained a favorable result in that court in similar litigation against SESAC, leading to the arbitration process that substantially decreased the rates that the commercial radio industry pays to that organization (see our article here). GMR sued in California as it is headquartered there, and presumably thought that it might get a bit of a “home court advantage” by trying a case in a state a bit more disposed toward content creators. So what does the decision yesterday mean?
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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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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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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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Here we are at the start of a new year, and right away we have numerous regulatory deadlines for broadcasters. By the 10th of the month, all broadcast stations need to have placed in their public inspection files (online for TV and for those radio stations that have already converted to the online public file, and paper for the remaining radio stations), their Quarterly Issues Programs lists, documenting the issues of importance to their communities and the programs broadcast in the last quarter addressing those issues. TV stations have quarterly Children’s Television Reports due to be filed at the FCC by the 10th, addressing the programming that they broadcast to meet the educational and informational needs of children. Commercial TV stations should also add to their public file documentation to demonstrate their compliance with the commercial limits in programming addressed to children.

For TV stations, on the 1st of the year, new obligations became effective for online captioning. “Montages” of clips from TV programs, where all of those clips were captioned when broadcast, also need to be captioned when made available online. By July 1, clips of live and near-live programming must be captioned; however, they may be posted online initially without captions as long as captions are added to clips of live programming within 12 hours and to clips of near-live programming within eight hours after the conclusion of the TV showing of the full-length programming. For more on this requirement, see our article here.
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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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