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 SoundExchange, the non-profit rights organization that collects the royalties paid by digital music companies for the public performance in the United States of sound recordings, announced that it had acquired CMRRA (the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency, Ltd). CMRRA licenses the reproduction rights to musical works in Canada. As we have written before, musical works or musical compositions are the lyrics and music for a song, while the sound recording is the actual recording of that song by a singer, band or other performer. We have also written before about the difference between the public performance right and the right to make reproductions of songs (including “mechanical rights”), rights that arise in different contexts and usually require a different type of license before a music service can use a song in its business. Why would a company that licenses the public performances of sound recordings in the US acquire a company that licenses reproduction rights in Canada?

SoundExchange’s public notice talks about its ability to “integrate and streamline the administration and distribution of sound recording and music publishing royalties.” And it also highlights that the deal will allow it to “offer a broad and comprehensive range of services to rights holders in both sound recordings and music publishing and music users alike across North America.” While SoundExchange suggests that it is the first company to offer a comprehensive range of services in licensing both sound recordings and musical works in North America, this deal instead seems to be part of a trend where rights collectives are merging to offer such comprehensive services in licensing both public performance rights and the rights to make reproductions, for both sound recordings and musical works.
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The text of the Copyright Royalty Board decision on Internet Radio Royalties for 2026-2020 was released last Friday. While it is 203 pages long, the basis for the decision is relatively simple. As required by the Copyright Act, the Copyright Royalty Judges looked at all of the evidence presented to determine what rate a willing buyer and a willing seller would agree to in a marketplace transaction. In looking at that evidence, they decided that the best evidence for that rate was two deals actually done in the marketplace – one deal between Pandora and the independent record label organization Merlin and another between iHeartRadio and Warner Music. As these were deals for the very rates to be decided by the Judges – the rates for the public performance of sound recordings by noninteractive streaming companies – the Judges determined that these two deals best evidenced the value put on streaming royalties by actual players in the marketplace. Looking at the per song per listener rates specified in those deals, and making a few adjustments based on other consideration included in the deals (particularly in the iHeart deal), the Judges arrived at a per song per listener rate for each deal, and determined that they set the bounds of the reasonable rates for nonsubscription webcasting. Taking into account that approximately 2/3 of the music played by webcasters is from major labels like Warner as opposed to that from the independent labels such as those that were part of the Merlin group, the Judges gave the rates from the iHeart deal greater weight in determining where within the zone of reasonableness the rates should fall. Thus, the Board determined that the rate for nonsubscription, noninteractive services should be $.0017 per performance (i.e. per song per listener). This is the rate that they published back in December (about which we wrote here).

While the basis for the decision seems relatively simple, the process to get to that decision was not – and it took 203 pages for the Judges to discuss all of the issues that they weighed in coming to their conclusions. While some of those pages were dedicated to discussions of the rates for noncommercial webcasters and the terms of the payments to be made by webcasters (topics we will try to cover in a later post), the bulk of the decision was a discussion of how the Judges weighed the arguments of the parties in the case in reaching their conclusion. While no summary can cover all of the issues that went into this consideration, some of the issues covered in this decision are discussed below.
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Today is Elvis Presley’s 80th birthday, so it seems appropriate to revisit the issue of pre-1972 sound recordings, and to take a deeper look at the recent decisions by courts in New York and California finding that there is a public performance right in these recordings.  The NY decision in a case brought by Flo & Eddie of the band the Turtles, coming after the California cases, is in many ways the more interesting of the cases.  In the California case, the Court interpreted a California statute on copyright ownership as signaling that the California legislature intended to provide the entire bundle of ownership rights that would be accorded to any other piece of property, which the California Courts found would include the right to publically perform the recording.  While that may be debatable (as one does not usually think of a public performance right in connection with the ownership of tangible property – you don’t perform a house or a car), the decision at least is based on statute.  But the NY court did not find any such specific statute to which it could point to find a public performance right, instead concluding that the performance right was somehow inherent in the common law and therefore existed unless there was a specific carve-out of that right by statute.  This reasoning, to me, simply does not stand up to review.

The NY Court itself spends an entire footnote chronicling the history of the public performance right in the United States.  It notes that there was initially no public performance right at all recognized by the Copyright Act, until Congress provided one for dramatic works (e.g. plays) in 1856.  No such right was accorded to musical works (the musical composition – the words and music of a song) until 1897 when Congress specifically provided such a right by law.  For sound recordings, the public performance right did not exist in the US until 1995, when it was first extended to a limited class of digital recordings.  From these facts, the Court goes on to conclude “It was thus an accepted part of the background law that public performance rights would, absent a deliberate effort to exclude them, extend to sound recordings.”  Presumably, the Court is talking about the background law in 1972, when Congress first accorded any protection at all to sound recordings by granting a Federal right to control reproduction and distribution of such works – but Congress specifically excluded any performance right for another 23 years.
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In discussing music royalties, the controversy that usually makes the news is the dispute between music services and copyright holders – with services arguing that the royalties are too high and rightsholders contending that they are underpaid. The introduction of the Songwriters Equity Act in Congress earlier this year seems to point toward a new area of dispute – one between the various rightsholders themselves.  This issue was one that was much discussed on a panel that I moderated last week at the RAIN Summit West (audio of that panel is available here).  What is this conflict?

The Songwriters Equity Act, while not explicit in identifying the controversy, does point to the dispute. As we have written many times before, in any piece of recorded music, there are two copyrights – the sound recording copyright (also known as the “master recording,” the recording of a particular song by a particular artist, rights usually held by the record label), and the right to the musical work (or “musical composition,” the words and music to a song, usually held by a publishing company).  The proposed legislation suggests that the amount of the royalties for the public performance of sound recordings can be taken into account in setting the royalties that are payable to songwriters for the public performance of the songs that they have written.  This would amend Section 114(i) of the Copyright Act, which currently prohibits the consideration of the sound recording royalty in determining the rates to be paid for the public performance of musical works.  The proposed legislation would also substitute the “willing buyer, willing seller” standard for the 801(b) standard in setting rates under Section 115 of the Copyright Act, the mechanical royalty (see our discussion of the difference between these standards, here).  While this does not sound like a big deal, it may have a significant impact.
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Last year’s Court of Appeals decision on Internet radio royalties for 2006-2010 remanded one issue to the Copyright Royalty Board for further consideration – the issue of the minimum annual fee to be paid by each webcaster. The Copyright Royalty Judges (“CRJs”) had decided on a $500 per channel minimum fee – a fee that created much concern in the Internet radio community as there was no clear delineation of what a channel was. For services, like Pandora, where there is a unique stream created for each listener, by some definitions there could be an almost infinite number of channels all subject to the $500 minimum fee. Following the CRB’s initial decision, a number of the larger webcasters and SoundExchange entered into a settlement capping the minimum fee obligation at $50,000 per webcaster per year. Thus, services with more than 100 channels would only pay a minimum fee of $50,000 at the beginning of each year. However, this settlement was never extended to all webcasters – it applied only to those webcasters who signed the deal.  Following the Court remand, SoundExchange and DiMA (the Digital Media Association which represents many webcasters), submitted the 2007 settlement to the CRB to be codified into the rules that govern webcasters generally. Just before Christmas, the CRJs asked for comments on that settlement. Comments are due by January 22. 

In many cases, this settlement has been superseded by subsequent events – namely the settlements with webcasters that were entered into in February and then later in the summer under the provisions of the Webcaster Settlement Acts. Settlements with broadcasters, pureplay webcasters, small commercial webcasters and various noncommercial groups all set their own minimum fees (and, for the most part, cover the periods through 2015), and thus this proceeding is largely irrelevant to these webcasters. If this settlement is approved, the only remaining question before the CRJs on the remand of the 2006-2010 proceeding will be the minimum fee for some noncommercial groups that did not enter into any settlement, as this agreement on minimum fees applies only to commercial webcasters.


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The question of when a digital music service is “interactive” and therefore requires direct negotiations with a copyright holder in order to secure permission to use a sound recording is a difficult one that has been debated since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was adopted in 1998. In a decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals released today, upholding a jury decision in 2007, the Court concluded that Yahoo’s Launchcast service (now operated by CBS) is not so “interactive” as to take it outside of the statutory royalty despite the fact that the service does customize its music offerings to the tastes of individual listeners. To reach its decision, the Court went through an extensive analysis of both the history of the sound recording copyright and of the details of the criteria used by Launchcast to select music for a stream sent to a specific user. By determining that the service is not interactive, the service need only pay the SoundExchange statutory royalty to secure permission to use all legally recorded and publicly released music.  Had the service been found to be interactive within the meaning of the statute, the service would have to negotiate with each sound recording copyright holder for each and every song that it wanted to use on its service to get specific rights to use each song – potentially resulting in hundreds of negotiations and undoubtedly higher fees than those paid under the statutory license.

The issue in the case turned on an analysis of the DMCA’s definition of an interactive service.  The statute defines an interactive service as one where a user can select a specific song or “receive a transmission of a program specially created for the recipient.” It is clear that Launchcast did not allow a user to request and hear a specific song.  But, by specifying a genre of music, and by specifying favorite artists and songs and rating other songs played by the service, a listener could influence the music that was provided to it.  Was this ability to influence the music sufficient to make it an “interactive service” and thus take it out of the coverage of the statutory royalty?


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Noncommercial webcasters were provided with two royalty options under settlements reached with SoundExchange pursuant to the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2009 ("WSA").  One settlement was with Noncommercial Educational Webcasters.  The other, when announced, was characterized by SoundExchange as being a settlement with noncommercial religious broadcasters, though it applies to any noncommercial webcaster who elects to be subject to its terms.  As set forth below, except for certain mid-sized noncommercial webcasters who have more forgiving recordkeeping options under the Educational deal, it would seem that the settlement with the religious broadcasters provides far more advantageous terms, and it also reaches back to cover the period from 2006 through 2010.  The Educational webcasters agreement covers only the rates for the periods from 2011-2015.  These settlements provide another example of the issue raised before the Senate Judiciary Committee of the arbitrary nature of the precedential nature that will be accorded to WSA settlements in future webcasting proceedings.  The noncommercial agreement with significantly higer prices has been accorded precedential weight in future CRB proceedings, while the one with lower rates is, by its terms, not precedential in future proceedings.

It is easiest to start with a review of the ‘Religious" broadcaters settlement (which, as we said above, is open to any noncommecial webcaster).  The agreement provides for a $500 per channel fee for each channel or stream offered by the noncommercial webcaster.  For that flat fee of $500 per channel, the webcaster can stream up to 159,140 monthly aggregate tuning hours of programming on each stream.  An Aggregate Tuning Hour ("ATH") is one hour of programming streamed to one person.  Thus, if you have 2 people who each listen for an hour, you would have two aggegate tuning hours.  A station with 2 listeners who each listen for half an hour would have one ATH of listening.  4 listeners for 15 minutes each would also add up to one ATH.  The 159,140 monthly ATH number represents listening of approximately 221 average simultaneous listeners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  If a webcaster exceeds this listening level, it must pay for excess listening on a per performance (per song per listener) basis, at the rates set out below.


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The recent settlement on Internet radio royalties between Sirius XM Radio and SoundExchange provides yet another option for commercial webcasters trying to determine the royalties to be paid for the public performance of sound recordings.  While the settlement is signed by just these two parties, it will be published in the Federal Register and be available for all commercial webcasters who comply with its terms – which will essentially be any webcaster who is not a "Broadcaster" as defined in the NAB Settlement, about which we wrote here.  As set forth below, the royalty rates available under this settlement are slightly lower for 2009 and 2010 than those set by the Copyright Royalty Board back in 2007, but slightly higher than those available under the NAB settlement.  However, in 2013-2015, the rates available under this deal are actually lower than those agreed to by the NAB, meaning that they present a better deal for webcaster expecting their audiences to grow in the next few years.

First, the most important issue – how much will it cost?  As with the CRB decision, the NAB deal, and the Pureplay deal (about which we wrote here) as it applies to large pureplay webcasters, the rates established by the deal are based on a "per performance" charge.   A performance is one song as listened to by one listener.  So if a song is played on an Internet radio station subject to the deal and 100 people are listening at the time the song is played, there are 100 performances.  The rates established by the deal are as follows:

           Year              Rate per Performance

2009                      $0.0016

2010                      $0.0017

2011                      $0.0018

2012                      $0.0020

2013                      $0.0021

2014                      $0.0022

                        2015                      $0.0024


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Even though the National Association of Broadcasters has been successful in getting about 240 Congressional Representatives (far more than a majority of the House of Representatives) to sign onto a resolution opposing the adoption of a performance royalty for the use of sound recordings by broadcasters in their over-the-air programming, the efforts to enact that legislation have not died.  In fact, if anything, these efforts by the recording industry and related associations have intensified – and will be reflected in a hearing to be held by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon.   While I’ve seen some commentary suggesting that this is a futile effort because of the signatures on the NAB resolution, there are many reasons that broadcasters must continue to  be wary of the imposition of the royalty, and why they must keep up efforts to stop it from being enacted if they fear its potential impact.

How can this legislation be enacted if a majority of the House of Representatives have signed the resolution stating their opposition?  First, it is important to recognize that the NAB resolution, The Local Radio Freedom Act, is nonbinding.  Congressional representatives who have signed on to the resolution can take credit with their local broadcasters for having done so.  When the time comes for a vote on proposed legislation, it’s possible that these same Representatives could change their mind, or be pressured by artists and labels in their districts to vote differently from their previously expressed sentiments.  With a long way to go in this session of Congress, facing a vote on the royalty and seeing how committed these Representatives are to the positions that they have taken on the resolution is still a real possibility.  The legislation imposing the royalty (or the "performance tax" in the words of the NAB) has passed the House Judiciary Committee, and the Speaker of the House has not yet specifically stated that the bill will not come to a full House vote, even though she has been pressed to do so by broadcast interests.


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