Once again, the extension of the sound recording performance royalty to broadcasters has become a hot topic in Washington. The subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved the bill introduced by Congressman Berman (about which we first reported here). That bill would include broadcasters in the Section 114 sound recoding royalty currently applicable to digital music users including Internet radio, satellite radio and cable radio. Under the bill, the Copyright Royalty Board would be charged with the responsibility of determining what a royalty would be using the "willing buyer, willing seller" standard. Following this subcommittee approval, the bill would next be considered by the full committee. To become law, the Committee and the full House of Representatives would have to approve it, and similar legislation would need to be enacted by the Senate. As the NAB has garnered the support of a majority of the members of the House on a non-binding resolution opposing the imposition of the royalty on broadcasters, and as there is not much time remaining in the legislative session before the election and the end of this Congress, the whole process may well have to start fresh in 2009 (bills have to be reintroduced after the end of each two-year Congressional session). Yet, with all of the controversy over the issue in recent weeks, it appears certain that the issue will arise again, so it is important to look at some of the recent action.
Two weeks ago, the House subcommittee held a hearing on the issue. Prior to the hearing, the MusicFirst Coalition (principally supported by the RIAA and the affiliated record companies as 50% of any royalty goes to the copyright holders who are usually the labels) had Nancy Sinatra and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band making the rounds on Capitol Hill in support of the royalty. These appearances follow the precedent set in earlier Capitol Hill proceedings, where the Coalition has brought in niche or oldies artists to address Congress – not major popular current acts. The artists who have testified (who have included Judy Collins, Sam Moore, Lyle Lovett, and Alice Peacock) have argued that the additional income that they would receive from a performance royalty would supplement their incomes which, in some cases, has either never been great or has declined as the demand or ability to tour has declined. The argument is always made that the royalty will encourage musicians to produce their music – though it is rarely if ever claimed that music wouldn’t be made if the royalty is not adopted, as songs have been written and sung for time immemorial, well before any royalty existed, merely for the pleasure or to fulfill the need for self-expression. The question is not one of ensuring the availability of music, but instead it is one about who should get how much of whatever money is made, directly or indirectly, from the use of that music.