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.


Continue Reading Flo and Eddie Use State Laws on Pre-1972 Sound Recordings to Target Certain Sirius XM Services

Another month is upon us, along with all of the FCC regulatory obligations that accompany it. August brings a host of license renewal obligations, along with EEO public file obligations in a number of states, as well as noncommercial Biennial Ownership Report filings in several states. We also expect that the FCC will notify stations of the date for the payment of their regulatory fees (which will either be due late this month or early next). As we reported yesterday, the filing of long-form translator applications for over 1000 applicants from the 2003 FM translator window also comes at the end of the month. There are comments due in a number of FCC proceedings. We’ll talk about some of those issues below. For TV broadcasters, we also suggest that you review our article that recently ran in TV NewsCheck, updating TV broadcasters on issues of relevance to them not only this month, but providing a description of the full gamut of issues facing TV broadcasters. We prepare this update for TV NewsCheck quarterly.

Today brings the deadline for the filing of license renewal applications for radio stations in California and for TV stations in Illinois and WisconsinStations in these states, and in North and South Carolina also have EEO public inspection file reports that should be placed in their public inspection files no later than today. Noncommercial TV stations in Illinois and Wisconsin also need to file Biennial Ownership Reports today, and noncommercial radio stations in California, North Carolina, and South Carolina should also file their Biennial Ownership Reports by today.


Continue Reading August FCC Regulatory Deadlines for Broadcasters – Including Renewals; EEO; Comments on Indecency, the Online Public File and Cross-Ownership

Using music in commercials and other broadcast station productions can be treacherous. As we’ve written before, contrary to what some stations might think (based on the questions we often get from broadcasters around the country), a station’s ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties do not give them the right to use popular music in their station productions – or in their commercials. Nor do they give you rights to use music in video productions used repeatedly on a station, or on a station’s website. Hearing an award winner at the recent broadcast awards banquet at the Montana Broadcasters Association annual convention thank the music publishers that gave her permission to change the lyrics of a well-known oldie for her PSA for a local animal shelter warms a lawyer’s heart, recognizing that there are broadcasters who understand the rights issues. But from questions that I get all the time, I fear that many other broadcasters don’t.

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are commonly known as the Performing Rights Organizations (or PROs), as they grant music users only a single right – the right to make public performances of musical compositions (or "musical works"). A musical composition is the words and music in a song – not the actual recording done by a particular singer or band. The composer and lyricist of the song have a copyright in the musical composition, though the right is usually assigned to a publishing company to administer. Each copyright in a composition gives its holder the right to exploit it in several different ways – and then user needs to get the rights to use the composition in any of these ways. The different rights include the right to publicly perform the composition (e.g. to play it before an audience or to transmit it to an audience by means of radio, the Internet or other transmission media). But the copyright holder also has the right to limit users from making reproductions of the composition (e.g. a recording of the song or any other “fixation” of the composition), distributing the composition (e.g. selling it or otherwise making it available to the public), or making a “derivative work” (taking the copyrighted work, using it, but changing it in some manner which, in the case of a musical composition, is probably most commonly done by changing the words of a song). So, for the Montana broadcaster to take a well-known song and to change the lyrics for her PSA required that the broadcaster get permission to make a derivative work (and probably to make reproductions, too, if copies of the re-recorded song were made).


Continue Reading Using Music in Radio or TV Productions – Why ASCAP, BMI and SESAC Licenses Usually Are Not Enough

It has been almost a year since the FCC adopted rules for an online public inspection file for television stations. This week, the Commission released a Public Notice requesting comments on how the rules are performing – specifically focusing on the online political file. While the Commission’s rules currently require only that the affiliates of the top four networks, in the Top 50 markets, maintain their political files online, the Commission plans to expand that requirement to all television stations in July 2014. But first, it is asking for comments as to how the rules are working so far, whether changes are needed, and perhaps even whether additional information should be required for inclusion in the online political files of TV stations. Comments are also sought on a Petition for Reconsideration filed by various television broadcasters suggesting a different way of complying with the online political file requirements. 

Specific questions on which comments are requested include the following:

  • Have stations encountered particular obstacles in connection with posting documents to the political file?
  • Has online posting become easier over time as station personnel have become more familiar with the process?
  • Are there other steps the FCC could take to make the database more user-friendly?
  • Are smaller stations prepared to use the online file for their political files starting next year? If not, what needs to be done to help them prepare?

The FCC also asks the public, including political candidates and their representatives, to comment on whether they found it easy to access information in the file, whether improvements could be made, and whether the ability to view the file online has been beneficial.  What have interested groups said about the online political file since it was adopted? 


Continue Reading FCC Seeks Comments on Online Political File for TV Stations – Should Obligations Be Changed or Expanded?

The Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, has made a series of speeches about the need to modernize Copyright, including offering testimony before Congress on the matter.  Her comments are but one sign that modernizing the Copyright Act has become the new catch-phrase in Washington. As the Courts have over the last few months wrestled with a host of copyright issues principally arising from digital media, boundaries that had carefully been set up by established copyright principles have been blurred – like the distinctions between a performance and a reproduction, or a public performance and one that is not.  These are distinctions that can have great importance as to who must be paid or whether any payment at all is due under current copyright laws – as in the Aereo case about which we wrote here. The call to modernize the Act is one looking for a copyright act that fits the realities of the 21st century. 

In recent months, Aereo is but one of many cases where the Courts have struggled with how to apply laws that were developed for the analog media, where boundaries are relatively clear, to the new digital world, where many copyright concepts don’t clearly fit reality. We’ve seen a number of cases interpreting the DMCA safe harbor provisions for user-generated content – including the NY State case about which we wrote here deciding Internet service providers were not excused from liability where pre-1972 sound recordings were included in user-generated content, as well as much more sweeping decisions upholding the protections of the safe harbor in broader applications, including protections extended to YouTube in its long-running dispute with Viacom. We’ve seen a decision determining that there is no right to resell digital copies – finding that the first sale doctrine (that says that consumers can resell physical goods that they buy without compensating the original creator) does not apply to digital goods. And outside the litigation sphere, we’ve seen innumerable stories about rights and royalties – from questions about Internet radio royalties like those that may apply to the new Apple streaming service, to disputes over the rights to video programs taken from one medium (like TV) and used in another (online or otherwise on-demand). 

In a speech last week to the World Creator’s Summit in Washington, DC, Register Pallante revisited the topic of Copyright reform, and laid out many of the issues that she felt needed to be addressed in any comprehensive reform that may occur. The list was long, and is bound to be controversial. She noted that the last comprehensive reform of the Act, in the 1990s leading to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, was 20 years in the making – a delay that can’t occur now given the number of pressing issues. As she noted, the importance of copyright has never been greater to the average person. That, to me is very clear, as digital media has put so many more people in a position to be involved in copyright issues, as doing everything from creating a Facebook or Pinterest page to a YouTube video, or accessing a file on BitTorrent or any other sharing site, can immediately immerse an individual in a copyright dispute with consequences far greater than the improper use of a copy machine or cassette recorder would have had 20 or 30 years ago. So what does she propose to examine?


Continue Reading Register of Copyrights Maria Pallente Calls for Comprehensive Copyright Reform to Adapt to the Digital World – What Is Being Proposed?

This week, the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee issued a press release stating that he intends that the Committee do a thorough reexamination of the Copyright Act, noting that new technologies stemming from digital media have upset many settled expectations in Copyright Law, and confused many issues. That this release was issued in the same week as a decision of New York’s Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, on the obscure issue of pre-1972 sound recordings is perhaps appropriate, as this decision demonstrates how an obscure provision of the copyright act can have a fundamental effect on the functioning of many online media outlets – including essentially any outlet that allows user-generated content with audio. The Court’s ruling, which conflicts with a Federal Court’s decision on the same question, would essentially remove the safe harbor protection for sites that allow for the posting of user generated content – where that content contains any pre-1972 sound recordings which don’t fall within the protections of the Copyright Act. Let’s explore this decision and its ramifications in a little more depth.

As we have written before, an Internet service that allows users to post content to that service is exempt from any liability for that content under two statutes. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act insulates the service from any claims of copyright infringement contained in any of the user generated content, if the service has met several standards. These standards include the obligations for the service to take down the infringing material if given proper notice from the copyright holder. The Service cannot encourage the infringement or profit directly from the infringement itself, and it must register a contact person with the Copyright Office so that the copyright owner knows who to contact to provide the notice of the takedown. While the exact meaning of some of these provisions is subject to some debate (including debate in recent cases, including one that Viacom has been prosecuting against YouTube that we may address in a subsequent post), the general concept is well-established.


Continue Reading How a NY State Court Decision on Pre-1972 Sound Recordings Clouds the Safe Harbor Protections of Websites Featuring User Generated Content

We’ve written extensively about copyright issues for audio services, but the big copyright decision that recently made headlines is a TV issue, though one that could have an impact on audio as well. That was the Second Circuit decision in the Aereo case – upholding a lower court decision allowing a company to retransmit over-the-air TV signals to consumers over the Internet – without any royalties to the TV broadcasters or television program producers. The decision looked at the issue of what defines a “public performance” that would require the consent of the copyright owner. The Court found that there is no public performance of television programming where the service is set up so that the programming is streamed to the viewer individually, at their demand, rather than transmitted all at once to multiple consumers – as by a cable system or a  satellite television service. The decision is a controversial one – decided by a 2 to 1 vote with the dissenting judge issuing a strong dissent arguing that the Aereo service was nothing more than a “sham” designed to evade the royalty obligations or copyright permissions that would be necessary if the service were deemed a cable system or other type of multichannel video provider. What does this decision really mean for television stations, and could it have broader implications for the reuse of all sorts of broadcast content on the Internet?

The decision focused on the question of whether the Aereo service “publicly performs” the programming that it sends to its subscribers. Under the Copyright Act, a copyright owner has a bundle of rights which it has the exclusive ability to exploit. This includes the right to copy the copyrighted work, to distribute it, to make a “derivative work” (a work that uses the copyrighted material and changes it in some way – like putting new words to the melody of a copyrighted song), and the right to publicly perform it. The definition of a public performance includes any transmission or retransmission of a performance to multiple individuals at the same time or at different times. This language was added to the Copyright Act at the time of the advent of cable television, to make clear that services like cable, that take an existing performance (like that of a broadcast television station) and then further transmit it to other people (even people who could theoretically pick up the original performance) were themselves making a public performance that needed the consent of the copyright holder or a government-imposed statutory license (which allows the performance as long as the party making the performance pays the copyright holder an amount set by the government). From a cursory look, it would appear that Aereo is retransmitting the signal of the TV station to all of its customers. Why, then, did the Court rule that no public performance was involved?


Continue Reading Aereo Court Decision Permits Internet Streaming of TV Programs Without Royalties – Undermining the Public Performance Right?

April is one of those months in which many FCC obligations are triggered for broadcasters. There are the normal obligations, like the Quarterly Issues Programs lists, that need to be in the public file of all broadcast stations, radio and TV, commercial and noncommercial, by April 10. Quarterly Children’s television reports are due to be submitted by TV stations. And there are renewal obligations for stations in many states, as well as EEO Public File Reports that are due to be placed in station’s public files and on their websites. The end of March also brings the obligation for television broadcasters to start captioning live and near-live programming that is captioned on air, and then rebroadcast on the Internet. Finally, there are comment deadlines on the FCC’s proposal to relax the foreign ownership limits, and an FM auction and continuing FM translator filing requirements.

Radio stations in Texas and television stations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana have renewal applications due on April 1. The license renewal pre-filing broadcast announcements for radio stations in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and for TV stations in Michigan and Ohio, must begin on April 1. All of these stations will be filing their renewals by June 1. EEO Annual Public file reports for all stations (radio and TV) with five or more full-time employees, which are located in Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Delaware, Pennsylvania or Indiana, must be placed in their public files (which are now online for TV broadcasters) by April 1.   Noncommercial radio stations in Texas, and noncommercial TV stations in Tennessee, Indiana Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky must also file their Biennial Ownership Reports by April 1


Continue Reading April FCC Obligations for Broadcasters – Renewals, EEO, Quarterly Issues Programs Lists, Captioning of Live or Near-Live Online Programming, FM Translator Filings, an FM Auction and Comments on Alien Ownership

In the digital world, it seems that everything is reinvented, and someone claims that they have a patent on that reinvention. In the last few weeks, we have seen news about patent claims asserted against radio broadcasters for their digital music storage systems, against public broadcasters for podcasts, and even against companies trying to comply with the FCC’s new guidelines for E-911 (emergency communications over wireless and VoIP networks) providers. These claims highlight that media companies and others in the communications industry have to be prepared for patent litigation almost as a cost of doing business – and need to consult with patent lawyers about strategies if they are faced with such claims, and consider the potential of concerted defenses with others similarly situated if the defense does not violate other laws (such as the antitrust laws). What claims have been raised recently?

Over the last two years, thousands of radio stations across the country have received letters claiming that their digital music storage systems violated a patent from a company called Mission Abstract Data. While the patents in question have a checkered history at the Patent Office – after being issued, they were reexamined and their basis questioned, with the Patent Office ultimately agreeing that the patents, as limited through the reexamination, were in fact valid. But that decision was itself challenged by equipment manufacturers whose music systems could infringe on the patent. That further reexamination is still underway.  Nevertheless, as that reexamination continues, the company that currently has rights to the patent, Digimedia, has sued four radio station owners in Texas claiming that they are violating these patents controlled by the company. These suits are in addition to a long-pending case against a number of large broadcasters, which has been stayed pending the outcome of the Patent Office reexamination (though the patent holder has asked that the stay be lifted – an argument to be considered later this month). Some observers have suggested that these new suits may be a precursor to other actions to try to convince reluctant broadcasters to take out a license rather than fight a lawsuit.


Continue Reading More Patent Issues for Media Companies – Mission Abstract Data Patent Asserted in Law Suits Against 4 Radio Broadcasters, and a New Patent Claim Raised Against Podcasters, Including Public Broadcasters

Having broadcast all of the material rules of a station’s contest was not enough to avoid a $10,000 fine for having misleading rules – when there were errors in the contest deadlines posted on a station’s website and in emails sent to contest participants. In an FCC Notice of Apparent Liability proposing a fine for a North Carolina FM station, the Commission also upped the fine from the usual $4000 base fine for a contest violation to $10,000, because the corporate parent of the licensee had been hit with two other fines for contest violations (one in 2009 and one almost two decades ago, in 1994) and as the company had very significant revenues in the past year.

The contest was called “Carolina Cuties”, where contestants posted pictures of their babies on the station’s website, the winning picture to be selected by a vote of station listeners.   The station’s on-air announcements properly stated that the voting could continue through September 5 of last year, with the winner announced on September 6. But, on the website, during a week at the end of August, it was stated that the winner would be selected on September 4.  This was later updated to say that the voting deadline was September 4, but correctly stating that the prize would be awarded on the 6th.   An email to contestants also used the September 4 voting deadline date. Votes were in fact taken through September 5, as announced on the air. Nevertheless, as the website and emails stated that the voting deadline was September 4, the Commission determined that the station contest was not conducted “substantially as announced or advertised,” and proposed to levy the fine.


Continue Reading $10,000 FCC Fine for Failure to Follow Contest Rules – On-Air Rules Were Right, But Online Rules Were Wrong