satellite radio royalties

The Copyright Royalty Board has announced the royalties that will be paid for the public performance of sound recordings by Sirius XM for the period 2013-2017. The decision also covers the "Preexisting Subscription Services", i.e. Music Choice in connection with its cable radio service delivered with listener’s cable television packages. The full text of the decision is not released yet, as the parties have an opportunity to request that certain portions be redacted to protect private business and competitive information. The parties can request such redactions through December 19, so the decision may be Christmas reading for many. However, the Board did announce the rates as follows:

Section 112 Rates: The Judges adopted the Parties’ Stipulation regarding the rates and terms for the Section 112 rates, which will require a minimum fee advance payment of $100,000 per year, with royalties accruing during the year recoupable against the advance. The parties agreed that the value of the royalties allocated to the Section 112 license holders is 5% of the total royalty obligation, with the remaining 95% going to the Section 114 license holders.

Section 114 Rates: The Judges determined that the appropriate Section 114(f)(1) rates for Preexisting Subscription Services for 2013-2017 are 8% of Gross Revenues for 2013 and 8.5% for 2014 through 2017.

The Judges determined that the appropriate Section 114(f)(1) rates for Preexisting Satellite Digital Audio Radio Services for 2013-2017 are 9% of Gross Revenues for 2013, 9.5% for 2014, 10.0% for 2015, 10.5% for 2016 and 11.0% for 2017.

Both decisions represent modest, incremental raises in the current rates (see the description of the last CRB decisions on satellite radio rates here, and on cable radio here).  These decisions are made under the 801(b) factors, from Section 801(b) of the Copyright Act, that Internet radio currently is seeking, through the Internet Radio Fairness Act ("IRFA"), to have applied to the decisions as to the royalties paid by webcasters (see our summary here). We will not know how the standard was applied in reaching the decision to raise rates, and what guidance this decision provides for webcasters and their rates, until the full decision is released (see our summary of the arguments of the parties in this case, here).


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There have been many reports about the attempts by Sirius XM Radio to license music directly from record labels, bypassing any royalty rates set by the Copyright Royalty Board.  Direct licensing would have Sirius pay the record labels or copyright holders for the rights to use music, avoiding any dealings with SoundExchange, which normally collects the royalties for the public performance of sound recordings under the statutory license.  The most recent report about Sirius’ efforts was in the New York Times, here.  Sirius, like webcasters, pays royalties set by the CRB (if they cannot be negotiated among the parties) that cover the public performance of all legally released sound recordings.  While webcasters currently have royalties that are in place through 2015, the royalties for Sirius end in 2012, and are being litigated now (see our story here on the last royalties set by the CRB for Sirius).  To avoid the uncertainty of litigation, with which webcasters are very familiar, Sirius has been attempting to license music directly from the copyright holders.  This is not a new story – Rhapsody reportedly tried the same thing earlier this year, and Clear Channel tried to get royalty waivers from independent artists several years ago in exchange for more exposure for their music (see our stories, here and here).  Each time a music service suggests that it might want to license music directly to try to recognize some savings over the rates established through CRB litigation, the music community objects – see, for instance, the statements of unions AFTRA and AFM here, that of SoundExchange here, and that of A2IM (the association of independent record labels), here.  But what is really wrong with the efforts of services to negotiate lower royalties?  If you believe the testimony of SoundExchange’s own witness in the Copyright Royalty Board proceedings – nothing at all.  In fact it is to be expected. 

In the CRB proceeding that was held in 2005-2006 (and from which, most of the settlements arose that now govern the royalties for sound recordings played by Internet radio stations), SoundExchange relied on a number of witnesses, including one expert, Michael Pelcovits, an economist whose model was the principal testimony relied on by the CRB in establishing the rates they determined to be reasonable.  In his written testimony, Mr. Pelcovits stated as follows:

…a rate that is set too low may have serious economic dangers.  By setting a rate too low, inefficient entry may be encouraged, and inefficient levels of production will be encouraged, which can hinder the development of an efficient market.  It is also worth noting that setting the statutory rate too high will not necessarily be harmful to the market.  If the price is too high, parties can (and are almost certain to) negotiate agreements for rates lower than the statutory standard.  Thus, a rate that is set too high is likely to "self-adjust" because of the sellers’ natural incentive to meet the market. 

(Emphasis added).  The statutory rate referred to in this quote is the rate that is set by the CRB.  What this quote says is that, if that rate is set too high, then parties will naturally negotiate after-the-fact to try to find what the real market rate should be, and that such negotiations should be expected – not feared as many seem to be claiming as these attempts to cut deals come to light.  In other words, the music community seemed to favor (and expect) such negotiations, before they were against them it in their statements today. 


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This week, the Copyright Royalty Board issued an Order denying a request by SoundExchange for rehearing of certain aspects of the decision released last month setting the royalties for satellite radio – XM and Sirius.  These are the royalties for the use of sound recordings by these services on their digital systems.  The decision, which set royalties at 6 to 8% of revenues of these services, and the denial of the rehearing motion, provide examples of how the CRB applies the 801(b) standard of the Copyright Act.  In setting royalties, that standard assesses not only the economic value of the sound recording, but also the public interest in the wide dissemination of the copyrighted material and the impact of the royalty on the service using the music.  The satellite radio decision sets a royalty far lower than that assessed on Internet radio – where the royalty is set using a "willing buyer, willing seller" standard looking only at the perceived economic value of the sound recording.  That willing buyer, willing seller standard is also proposed for broadcast radio in the recently introduced performance royalty bills now pending before Congress (see our summary here) – so it could be expected that any royalty set using that standard would be higher than that set for satellite radio. 

The initial Copyright Royalty Board decision, the full text of which is available here, first made a determination of how to compute the royalty.  While both the satellite radio companies and SoundExchange initially suggested a percentage of revenue royalty given that satellite radio can’t count specific listeners, the parties later amended their proposals (after the Internet radio decision) to include a computation based on the frequency of a song’s play, to try to more closely approximate the Internet radio performance-based model (about which we wrote here).  In addition to the suggestion that this metric more closely approximated that used in the Internet radio decision, the satellite radio companies suggested that a metric based on the songs played would give them the opportunity to adjust their use of music to reduce their royalty obligation.  The satellite companies suggested that, if the royalty was too high, they could reduce the number of different songs that they played.  While not specifically referenced in the decision, it is possible that they also considered the possibility of getting waivers from artists to encourage playing particular songs, which could further reduce a royalty based on a per song computation.  The Board declined to provide that option, finding that the percentage of revenue option best took into account the business of the companies.  The Board also suggested that it doubted that satellite radio really had the ability to lessen the use of music in reaction to a high royalty rate.  (The Board does not discuss the possibility of royalty waivers, which are essentially worth nothing in a situation where the royalties are based on a percentage of a service’s entire revenue). 


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The Copyright Royalty Board today announced that it is taking comments on a settlement to establish royalties for the use of sound recordings to be paid by companies that are planning to provide audio services to be delivered with satellite and cable programming.  In contrast to the "preexisting subscription services" who were in existence at the time of the adoption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, who recently reached a settlement agreeing to pay 7 to 7.5% of gross revenues for royalties (see our post, here), this settlement is with "New Subscription Services" which did not offer these kinds of subscription services in 1998.  This settlement does not apply to subscription services provided through the Internet.  The covered "new subscription services" have agreed to pay the greater of 15% of revenue or a per subscriber fee that will escalate over the 5 years that the agreement is in effect.  Given that these new services will be providing essentially the same service as the Preexisting Services, why the difference in rate?  Perhaps, it is because the difference in the law.

As we wrote earlier this week, the Preexisting Satellite Service pay royalties set based on the standards of Section 801(b) of the Copyright Act, which takes into account a number of factors including the interest of the public in getting access to copyrighted material, the relative contributions and financial risks of the parties in distributing the copyrighted material, the stability of the industry, and the right of the copyright holder to get a fair return on their intellectual property.  By contrast, the new subscription services who entered into the settlement just announced, who weren’t around at the time of the drafting of the DMCA, use the "willing buyer, willing seller" standard also used for Internet radio.  And, because of the applicability of the willing buyer willing seller standard and the apparent uncertainties of the litigation process using it, these new services apparently decided to agree to a royalty double that of the preexisting services, even though they provide essentially the same service.


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