We wrote last summer about the substantial reductions in SESAC royalties that the Radio Music License Committee was able to achieve for commercial radio stations through a decision in its arbitration proceeding. RMLC recently sent out an email to all commercial stations that had authorized it to act on the stations’ behalf reminding them that,

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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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.

SESAC was, until recently, the only one of the three major performing rights organizations (PROs) that was not subject to an antitrust consent decree – meaning that it could set the rates that it wanted without any oversight by any court or other judicial body. For practical purposes, that ended when the radio and television industries separately sued SESAC claiming antitrust violations. Both the radio and TV industries felt that the SESAC royalties were too high in relation to those charged by ASCAP and BMI given the far greater amount of music controlled by these two larger PROs. As we wrote here (television) and here (radio), both antitrust cases ended with settlements where SESAC agreed that its rates would be subject to review by an arbitration panel to assure their reasonableness, if voluntary negotiations between the groups representing the industries and SESAC were not successful in arriving at mutually agreeable rates. So far, it appears that the rate-setting process for radio and TV are going in different directions.

The TV Music License Committee and SESAC have announced that they have reached an agreement in principle as to rates for the TV industry. See the press release here. While the agreement has not been finalized or made public, if negotiations of the final documents are successful, the TV industry and SESAC appear to avoid having their rates set by the arbitration process. So far, that does not seem to be the case for the radio industry.
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While this summer has perhaps not brought the big headlines in trade press about copyright issues involving broadcasters – particularly in the area of music rights – there still are many issues that are active. I addressed some of those issues in a presentation earlier this month at the Texas Association of Broadcasters Annual Convention. I did my presentation in conjunction with a representative of SoundExchange, where he covered the nuts and bolts of the obligations of broadcasters and webcasters to file royalties for the noninteractive digital performance of sound recordings (e.g. webcasting and Internet radio). While the rates for 2016-2020 are on appeal (see our articles here, here and here), these rates are effective pending appeal and webcasters need to be paying under them. In the Texas presentation, I covered some of the many other copyright issues that are on the horizon, many of which we have written about in the pages of this blog. The slides from my presentation are available here. They provide an outline of many of the pending matters.

The presentation covered the controversy about the Department of Justice decision on the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, about which I wrote about here. That controversy continues, as the PROs seek judicial or legislative relief from the new DOJ requirement for 100 per cent licensing of split works (see my article for an explanation of what that means). In the interim, the radio industry is negotiating new royalties with both of these organizations, as the current license agreements expire at the end of this year (see our article here).
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This week, many radio stations received a letter from SESAC, asking the stations to renew their last SESAC agreement for three years at a rate 5% lower than the rate at which they are currently paying. Sounds like a deal? But is there a catch? The SESAC letter makes clear that, by renewing the current agreement and accepting the discount, the station is agreeing that it will not be a part of any attempt by the Radio Music License Committee (“RMLC”) to negotiate a rate with SESAC. The SESAC letter has drawn a strong response from the RMLC in a letter dated today, signed by Ed Christian from Saga Communications, the Chairman of RMLC, suggesting that stations not sign the SESAC renewal requests. What is this all about?

As we wrote several months ago, SESAC and the RMLC recently settled antitrust litigation where the RMLC argued that SESAC violated the antitrust laws by charging monopoly pricing for the multiple musical compositions that it bundled together for licensing purposes, and making it virtually impossible for stations to avoid paying these royalties as SESAC did not reveal its entire catalog, and licensed music that was almost impossible to avoid playing (like the jingles in some McDonalds commercials). SESAC agreed to settle the litigation – agreeing to negotiate industry-wide deals with the RMLC, and, if such deals could not be reached through voluntary negotiations, to have its rates set by an arbitration panel. SESAC has never before had its rates subject to oversight as, unlike ASCAP and BMI, SESAC is a for-profit company and is not subject to an antitrust consent decree that includes rate review by a US District Court. Many thought that the RMLC agreement with SESAC would result in a moderation of the SESAC rates. Many broadcasters considered SESAC rates to be too high relative to the fees paid for the much larger ASCAP and BMI catalogs given the limited catalog of music that SESAC licenses. So if SESAC agreed to negotiate rates with the RMLC, why is it now writing letters suggesting that stations not participate in the RMLC negotiations?
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SESAC is the one major performing rights organization whose rates have not, until now, been subject to judicial review as part of an antitrust consent decree.  Perhaps because of that fact, broadcast stations have often complained about the rates they charge for the music that they license, as there is currently no cap on what SESAC can charge, and there is no requirement that SESAC treat all similar licensees in the same way.  In fact, because of this dissatisfaction, both the TV and Radio Music License Committees have filed antitrust suits against SESAC seeking relief from the rates they charge.  In a settlement announced this past week, the Television Music Licensing Committee has entered into a settlement by which SESAC will pay the TVMLC $58.5 million and agree that, over the next 20 years, SESAC will negotiate license agreements with TVMLC.  Under the agreement, if rates can’t be reached as a result of negotiations, SESAC and the TVMLC would submit to an arbitration process to arrive at the appropriate rates.  The full settlement can be found on the TVMLC website, here

Under the terms of the settlement, commercial TV stations (except for those owned by Univision, which appear to have opted out of the class of stations covered by the TVMLC settlement) will have their SESAC obligations covered for the rest of this year and next, including website SESAC music use and use in digital multichannel programming.  In 2015, TVMLC will negotiate with SESAC over rates for the period from 2016-2019.  If no rates are agreed to by the parties, an arbitration panel will set the rates.  The same process will continue for 4 year periods through 2035, as long as ASCAP and BMI are also subject to either rate court or arbitration review of the rates charged by those organizations.  While the Department of Justice is reviewing the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees that require rate court review of royalty rates charged by these groups (see our article here), it appears that they are not asking for an end to all rate review.  Instead, they are asking that the review be done by an arbitration panel, not the US District Court that currently reviews such rates.  So it would appear likely that the “out” in the deal would not give SESAC an escape from this agreement to be bound by arbitration any time soon.
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Every year, about this time, I dust off the crystal ball to offer a look at the year ahead to see what Washington has in store for broadcasters. This year, like many in the recent past, Washington will consider important issues for both radio and TV, as well as issues affecting the growing on-line presence of broadcasters. The FCC, Congress, and other government agencies are never afraid to provide their views on what the industry should be doing but, unlike other members of the broadcasters’ audience, they can force broadcasters to pay attention to their views by way of new laws and regulations. And there is never a shortage of ideas from Washington as to how broadcasters should act. Some of the issues discussed below are perennials, coming back over and over again on my yearly list (often without resolution), while others are unique to this coming year.

Last week, we published a calendar of regulatory deadlines for broadcasters.  This article looks ahead, providing a preview of what other changes might be coming for broadcasters this year – but these are delivered with no guarantees that the issues listed will in fact bubble up to the top of the FCC’s long list of pending items, or that they will be resolved when we predict. But at least this gives you some warning of what might be coming your way this year. Issues unique to radio and TV, and those that could affect the broadcast industry generally, are addressed below.

General Broadcast Issues

 

There are numerous issues before the FCC that affect both radio and television broadcasters, some of which have been pending for many years and are ripe for resolution, while others are raised in proceedings that are just beginning. These include:

 

Multiple Ownership Rules Review: The FCC is very close to resolving its Quadrennial review of its multiple ownership proceeding, officially begun in 2011 with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The rumors were that the FCC was ready to issue an order at the end of 2012 relaxing the rules against the cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers, as well as the radio-television cross-interest prohibitions, while leaving most other rules in place. TV Joint Sales Agreements were also rumored to be part of the FCC’s considerations – perhaps making some or all of these agreements attributable. But even these modest changes in the rules are now on hold, while parties submit comments on the impact of any relaxation of the ownership rules on minority ownership. Still, we would expect that some decision on changes to the ownership rules should be expected at some point this year – probably early in the year. 


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Last week, the Radio Music License Committee (“RMLC” – see our article about the RMLC), filed a complaint in US District Court in Pennsylvania against SESAC, arguing that SESAC is a monopoly and should be treated like ASCAP and BMI.  RMLC is asking that SESAC be subject to an antitrust consent decree as are these two bigger collection societies. As we have written before, SESAC is not a non-profit organization like ASCAP and BMI, and is not subject to consent decrees like these other performing rights organizations (“PROs”). Instead, it is a private company, owned by venture funds which, up to now, has set its own prices for licenses subject only to negotiations with the rights holders. So what is this suit all about, and will broadcasters see any changes in SESAC licensing in the short-term? 

RMLC claims that SESAC, by effectively being the only way to license the public performance of compositions by thousands of different composers, effectively can get monopoly prices. Practically speaking, radio stations cannot individually license all the songs written by SESAC performers and, even if the stations were able to directly license some of the music from SESAC writers, SESAC still would not reduce their fees.  All SESAC licenses are blanket licenses that give stations the right to use all the music in the SESAC catalog, but are not reduced by any pro rata amount should any music be directly licensed. Thus, argues RMLC, stations cannot try to reduce their licensing liability through direct licenses with songwriters even if such deals could be negotiated.


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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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