Sirius XM music royalties

The Copyright Royalty Board issued a notice yesterday, here, that summarized its decision on the sound recording performance royalties for 2018-2022 to be paid by Satellite Radio and “Pre-existing Subscription Services” (“PSS”), essentially Music Choice for its music service usually packaged with cable television subscriptions. The terms associated with the new rates, embodied in the new rules adopted by the CRB, are available here. The CRB announcement states that the Sirius XM rates will be 15.5% of revenue, which represents an increase from the 11% they are paying currently. The terms for these rates set out a means by which Sirius XM can reduce the revenue subject to the royalty by directly licensing music or using pre-1972 sound recordings, the percentage of such songs being determined by determining their percentage of play on Sirius XM Internet radio channels that correspond directly to their satellite service.

By contrast, the rates for Music Choice (and any other similar PSS having been established prior to 1998 when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was adopted that may still be in existence) decreased from 8.5% of revenue to 7.5%, the rate that had been in effect in 2012. Our article here describes the decision in 2012 setting the current royalty, and the article here summarizes the Court of Appeals decision upholding the 2012 CRB determination.
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In tomorrow’s Federal Register, the Copyright Royalty Board will announce the commencement of three new proceedings to set music royalties for the 2018-2022 five-year period – each involving a different music right. The Board will begin a proceeding dealing with the digital public performances of sound recordings by satellite radio and “pre-existing subscription services” – the royalty that Sirius XM pays to record labels and performing artists for its performance of their songs on their satellite service, and the rates that cable radio pays for those same uses (see the draft notice here). Our summary of the last proceeding for satellite radio and pre-existing subscription services can be found here. Sirius XM was also a participant in the recent webcasting case, but only for its streaming service.  The statutory royalties at issue here are set by Sections 112 and 114 of the Copyright Act, the same sections that govern the webcasting royalty.

The second proceeding deals with the “mechanical royalty” or the making and distribution of “phonorecords.” That is the proceeding to establish what publishers and songwriters receive when there is a reproduction of their song. Traditionally, that was the royalty paid by a record company to the publisher or songwriter when a “cover version” of a song was made – a flat fee per copy of the song (whether a physical record or CD or a digital download). In recent years, the proceeding has expanded to include royalties paid by on-demand streaming services for their use of music. This is the royalty that has recently been much in the news in connection with the David Lowry lawsuit against Spotify. The CRB pre-publication version of that order is here (and our articles discussing the last decision on that royalty are here and here). This is one proceeding where the record labels and the digital music services are actually more or less on the same side – litigating against the publishing companies and songwriters over how much is paid for the use of the words and music of a particular song.  This proceeding is under Section 115 of the Copyright Act. 
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Last week, the Copyright Royalty Board asked for comments on a proposed settlement agreement between Sirius XM and SoundExchange, and some articles about that announcement have not been entirely clear about what the deal covers.  It has nothing to do with webcasting royalties for 2016-2020, which are still being litigated (see our article here about the proposals of the parties in that case).  Nor does it have to do with the royalties payable for Sirius’ primary satellite radio service, which were just upheld by the Court of Appeals (see our article here).  Instead, these royalties have to do with a very narrow part of Sirius’ business – providing music channels packaged and sold to consumers along with video services like cable and satellite TV.

Some who closely follow these issues (and the coverage of CRB issues on this blog) may think that the rates for these services were set at the same time as the Sirius rates for their satellite music service, as the CRB at that time set the rates that were applicable to Music Choice, which also offers a music service bundled with cable or satellite video programming (see our articles on the recent decision on the appeal of the rates, and the article on the CRB decision itself here).  Even though Music Choice offers pretty much the same service, their rates are different – as Music Choice was classified as a “preexisting subscription service” in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, while the service that Sirius provides is classified as a “new subscription service” paying at a different royalty rate set by the CRB using a different royalty standard.  How did this happen?
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A decision by the US Court of Appeals on the appeal of the Copyright Royalty Board decision as to the Sirius XM and Music Choice royalties for the public performance of sound recordings is one of the many year-end decisions important to broadcasters and digital media companies that seems to be flooding out from Courts and agencies in DC and elsewhere. The Court of Appeals rejected the appeal of SoundExchange, which was arguing that the royalties for both services should have been set higher by the CRB, and the Court also rejected the appeal of Music Choice, which argued that the royalties that were set by the CRB should have been lower.  We wrote about the CRB’s decision, here, when it was initially released about 2 years ago.

The proceeding involved the Preexisting Subscription Services (“PSS”) and the Preexisting Satellite Digital Audio Services (“SDARS”), services that were singled out when Congress adopted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998 by applying a different standard to those services for use by the CRB in determining the amount of sound recording performance royalties.  Instead of using the “willing buyer, willing seller” standard that applies to webcasters and any other digital music service that was not in existence in 1998, these services are evaluated under the 801(b) standard of the Copyright Act, which looks at a variety of factors including the market rate expressed by the willing buyer willing seller standard, but also at the relative financial contributions of the parties to bringing the music to the public, and the effect of royalty changes on the stability of the industries involved (see our articles here, here and here about the differences between these standards)  Using this 801(b) standard, most observers believe that royalties have been set at rates lower than have prevailed in the cases involving services subject the willing buyer willing seller standard.
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In a lawsuit filed last week (see the complaint here), Flo and Eddie, the artists who were behind the 1960’s band The Turtles, claim that Sirius XM has infringed on the copyrights in their songs by allowing copies of these recordings to be made by the satellite radio service and in certain Internet offerings that Sirius XM makes available. The article in THR.esq (the Hollywood Reporter’s legal blog) that first announced the lawsuit talks much about the ambiguous status of pre-1972 sound recordings under Section 114 of the copyright act (the section providing for royalties for the public performance of sound recordings by digital services), and seems to view the suit as a reaction to the decision in the satellite radio proceeding before the Copyright Royalty Board finding that Sirius XM owed no performance royalty to SoundExchange for its playing of pre-1972 sound recordings (see our article about that decision). As pre-1972 sound recordings are not entitled to Federal copyright protection, the Board decided that there could be no payment due to SoundExchange (which collects royalties for payments made under Section 114) as there was no Federal right. While that point seems to be well-established, a close reading of the complaint makes it appear that it is not the public performance that is the principal basis of the lawsuit, but instead the copies that are made in the digital transmission process and by certain features of Sirius’s Internet streaming services that allow the download or on-demand playing of their digital streams.

As we have written before, pre-1972 sound recordings were left out of Federal statutes as, until 1972, sound recordings (a specific recording of a song by a particular artist) had no protection at all under Federal copyright law. As these sound recordings had no Federal protections, state laws were adopted – principally to prevent bootlegging or other unauthorized copies of such sound recordings from being made and distributed. As there was not, and still is not, a general public performance right in sound recordings, there has been little in the way of court cases suggesting that pre-1972 sound recordings have rights that other sound recordings do not have, e.g. a general public performance right. If the Flo and Eddie suit were really alleging that there is a public performance right in pre-1972 sound recordings, then seemingly every restaurant, bar, or stadium that plays the original hit versions of Good Vibrations, Rock Around the Clock, Johnny Be Goode, the Twist or the Turtles’ Happy Together could find themselves looking at potential liability for public performance of these sound recordings. Certainly, these state statutes, many of which have been around for decades, did not contemplate the exclusively digital public performance right that exists for post-1972 sound recordings, which was not adopted until the late 1990s. So, if the plaintiffs are asserting that there is a public performance right inherent in these statutes, it would seem that it would have to be a general public performance right. But it sure seems difficult to believe that courts would find ambiguous state statutes adopted to prevent illegal copying created a public performance right where none has ever before existed in the common law of the United States.


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The full decision of the Copyright Royalty Board setting the royalty rates to be paid to SoundExchange by Sirius XM and Music Choice from 2013 through 2017 has now been released.  We wrote about the initial release of the summary of the decision before Christmas.  The final decision is interesting in many respects. First, it is the first decision to be released since two of the original three Copyright Royalty Judges left the bench. The decision, as released was actually two decisions – one signed by the new Chief Judge and an acting judge who filled in for Judge Wisniewski, the Board’s economic expert, when he had to retire for health reasons. The second decision, reaching the same result but based on different reasoning, was signed by the Board’s lone holdover, Judge Roberts, a long-time fixture at the Copyright Office before joining the Board. In addition, the decision seems to reject some premises that had long been used to justify royalty rates in other proceedings – and thus may give some insights on approaches to be used in the webcasting royalty proceeding that will begin in 2014 and conclude in 2015. The majority decision also, for the first time, gives at least some weight to direct licensing deals for the public performance of sound recordings by a noninteractive service. Finally, the decision provides explicitly for carve-outs from the established royalties for music on which no royalties need to be paid, including music that is directly licensed, and for pre-1972 sound recordings.

Before looking at the decision, it needs to be noted that these royalties are theoretically decided not just for Sirius XM and for Music Choice, but also for other services that fit into their class of service as defined by Sections 112 and 114 of the Copyright Act. Thus, the Music Choice decision applied theoretically to all "Preexisting Subscription Services" (or a "PSS") and the Sirius XM decision to all "preexisting satellite digital audio services" (or, as used in the decision, "SDARS" – satellite digital audio services). The "pre-existing language means that these services were either in existence or authorized by the FCC (for the SDARS services) at the time of the adoption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998.  Of course, since 1998, all of Music Choices then-existing competitors in the cable audio business have gone out of business with one exception, and the second SDARS service – XM Radio – has merged with Sirius. So, effectively, these rates apply only to very few companies.


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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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The royalties that Sirius XM will pay to SoundExchange for the next 5 years will be decided by the Copyright Royalty Board ("CRB") in December. To summarize the hearings that have been held over the last year, the CRB held an oral argument last week, where Sirius XM and SoundExchange presented their arguments as to what those royalties should be. Sirius argued that the rates should be decreased, while SoundExchange contended that the rates should go up significantly from the 8% of revenue that the service now pays (see our summary of the current Sirius XM rates here). How can these parties have such different perspectives on the value of music, and what did this argument say about the application of the 801(b) standard that applies to Sirius?  This standard is the standard that webcasters are seeking to apply to Internet Radio services through the Internet Radio Fairness Act which we wrote about here.  If the IRFA is adopted, it would apply when the CRB next reviews webcasting rates in a case that will be decided by the end of 2015.

Sirius XM and cable music provider Music Choice, which was also part of the proceeding, are both governed by the 801(b) standard rather than the “willing buyer, willing seller” standard that applies to Internet Radio. The oral argument made clear that the adoption of the 801(b) standard is not in and of itself a panacea for the concerns about the royalties that have been set by the Copyright Royalty Board. Last week’s argument focused on the value of music in a marketplace – essentially the “willing buyer, willing seller” question. While other 801(b) factors were discussed, they were seemingly passed over quickly, with most of the focus being on the questions of the marketplace value of the music.


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SiriusXM announced that is has filed a legal action, including antitrust claims, against SoundExchange and A2IM (the American Association of Independent Music – the association of independent record labels), charging, according to a press release, these two organizations "with unlawfully interfering in SiriusXM’s efforts to secure, through a competitive market, copyrights critical to its business. The complaint contends that the conduct violates federal antitrust, as well as New York state law." The claim is essentially that these defendants conspired to prevent SiriusXM from negotiating direct licenses with musicians, licenses that could take music out of the royalty scheme administered by the Copyright Royalty Board, where royalties are paid to SoundExchange.  We wrote about the attempts by SiriusXM to negotiate such direct licenses, and the opposition of music groups to these agreements, last year. 

Why would SoundExchange and A2IM oppose direct music licensing?  One reason is that music licenses that are directly negotiated between music users and rights holders are traditionally the best evidence of the value of music.  In recent rate court cases involving performing rights organizations, direct licenses formed crucial evidence of the value of music rights.  In cases dealing with ASCAP and BMI royalties for "business establishment" or "background music" services, evidence of direct licenses at rates significantly lower than previously established resulted in court decisions dropping rates by as much as two-thirds from the rates that ASCAP and BMI had previously been charging.  Were SiriusXM to be successful in its suit, and if it is in fact able to negotiate direct music licenses for substantial catalogs of music at rates lower than what it has paid under previous rate decisions, it would presumably introduce such evidence in proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Board (which is now in the process of setting the rates for the public performance of sound recordings by SiriusXM over its satellite service for the next 5 years), and argue that these direct deals are the best evidence of what a willing buyer and willing seller would agree to in a competitive marketplace. While the rates set by the CRB for SiriusXM are not like Internet radio rates and established solely based on a willing buyer, willing seller test, the question of marketplace rates is still a very important component to any CRB decision setting those rates (see our article here on the rates that SiriusXM currently pays to SoundExchange and the standard used to set such rates). 


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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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