Over the past year, Congress has been reviewing various provisions of the Copyright Act, including those affecting how copyright royalty rates for radio and streaming services are determined, in order to assess whether reforms are necessary or desirable. The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced that it would review the anti-trust consent decrees that determine what ASCAP and BMI are able to collect on behalf of publishers and songwriters. (More on that below.) The Copyright Office has also gotten involved, soliciting comments from rights holders and the public. (The comment period closed on May 23rd.) For the most part, however, the public is left scratching its collective head: are there serious issues at stake or is this just another rights grab by copyright holders? This post is intended to provide the reader with some perspective in the current discussions and, in particular, the issues surrounding music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify.
Some Basics: Musical Compositions vs. Sound Recordings
Every song involves two sets of copyrights: the copyright in the musical composition and the copyright in the sound recording, which is a particular performance of the musical composition. The musical composition copyright is owned by a music publisher or songwriter, while the sound recording copyright is owned by the record company that records it or the artist whose performances are embodied on it.
The scope of rights that goes along with each of these copyrights is slightly different. Owners of musical compositions have the right to receive compensation from public performances of the musical composition. Owners of sound recordings, however, have that right only with respect to digital (cable, satellite and web-based) transmissions and cannot claim any public performance royalties when their recordings are played on “terrestrial” radio and television stations. To complicate matters a little further, sound recordings made prior to 1972 are not protected under copyright law, but under state unfair competition and anti-piracy laws. When Congress passed the 1976 Copyright Act, it decided that “pre-1972 sound recordings” should be entitled to federal copyright protection only in 2047. That date was subsequently amended to 2067, at which time state law protections for sound recordings will also be pre-empted. Nobody really knows why Congress did it that way.
How is Income from Musical Compositions and Sound Recordings Generated?
The main income streams for musical compositions are:
- mechanical royalties (i.e., royalties paid by record companies to publishers for the right to make each physical or digital copy of a sound recording bearing the publisher’s musical composition);
- synchronization fees (i.e., the reproduction and use of a musical composition in “synchronization” with visual images, as in the case of videoclips, films, television programs or commercials);
- public performance royalties, i.e. the broadcasting or transmission of musical compositions via broadcast and cable radio and television; Internet simulcasts of “terrestrial” broadcasts; satellite; both non-interactive and interactive Internet streaming; and in restaurants, clubs, retail stores or other establishments that have live or pre-recorded music;
- fees and royalties from third party licenses (e.g., uses in video games and software, theatrical productions and audio-only commercials); and
- sheet music royalties.
The main income streams for sound recordings are:
- record sales (including downloads);
- synchronization fees (i.e., the reproduction and use of a sound recording in “synchronization” with visual images);
- fees and royalties from third party licenses (e.g., uses in video games and software, theatrical productions and audio-only commercials);
- public performance royalties for sound recordings broadcast or transmitted by (1) eligible nonsubscription services (i.e., noninteractive webcasters and simulcasters of “terrestrial” broadcasters that charge no fees); (2) preexisting subscription services (i.e., residential subscription services which began providing music over digital cable or satellite television before July 1998); (3) new subscription services (i.e., noninteractive webcasters and simulcasters that charge a fee, as well as residential subscription services providing music over digital cable or satellite television since July 1998; and (4) preexisting satellite digital audio radio services (i.e., SiriusXM Radio).; and
- interactive Internet streaming royalties and fees.
How Are Royalty Rates Determined?
Synchronization fees and royalties and fees for third party licenses are unregulated and determined separately by the rights holders, i.e., the owners of the musical compositions and sound recording, in negotiation with the licensee. (Owners of musical compositions and sound recordings negotiate their own deals, but generally they do so in parity with each other.)
Mechanical royalty rates for the reproduction of musical compositions by way of CDs, vinyl records and similar devices, permanent downloads, ringtones, limited downloads, and the rates for interactive streaming are set by Copyright Royalty Judges. For physical records and permanent downloads, the rate is currently 9.1 cents per musical composition or 1.75 cents per minute of playing time or fraction thereof, whichever is greater. These rates have remained unchanged since 2006. For ringtones, the rate is 24 cents. The formulas for calculating rates for musical compositions embodied in limited downloads or transmitted via interactive streaming are highly complex, as a quick glance at 37 C.F.R. §§ 385.10 – 385.17 will confirm.
Public performance royalties for musical compositions, which include royalties on non-interactive streaming, are governed by consent decrees with ASCAP and BMI that are overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. The consent decrees, which date back to 1941, were the result of actions brought against ASCAP and BMI to address their substantial monopoly power over the market for public performances. (Together they control about 95% of the market, with a third performing rights organization, SESAC, taking up the slack.) The actual rates under the consent decree, however, are regularly addressed in court. In January 2012, for instance, the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, which is the court with jurisdiction over the consent decrees, approved a settlement that set the fees radio stations must pay to ASCAP through 2016.
Royalty rates for sound recordings are subject to far less regulation. The use of sound recordings in interactive streaming isn’t subject to any kind of control. Interactive service providers (such as Spotify) therefore must obtain licenses directly from the sound recording copyright holders at whatever rate can be negotiated. All other public performance royalties for sound recordings are statutorily mandated to be set either through voluntary negotiations between sound recording owners and service providers or by trial-type hearings before the panel of three Copyright Royalty Judges who use a number of criteria that attempt to take into account the concerns of rights holders, service providers and consumers.
The current battle over copyright royalties focuses on rates regulated by statute and/or determined under the consent decrees and by Copyright Royalty Judges. For those who have a knee-jerk reaction to any royalty rate that might be set by a government body or a court, there are good reasons either to maintain the status quo or to use statutory and jurisprudential mandates to level the playing field even further between sound recording copyright owners, musical composition copyright owners, recording artists, songwriters and different types of service providers. Even Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of the sponsors of the Songwriter Equity Act, saw no reason to eliminate the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, which ensure that songwriters receive 50% of public performance income earned by their musical compositions.
Who are the Rights Holders?
The market in sound recordings is largely dominated by the three “Majors,” Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. Collectively they own the sound recordings that account for 75% of the market, with Universal currently controlling nearly half that — 36.7%. This figure does not include sound recordings owned by independent labels that are distributed through the Majors, and thus underestimates the actual power the three majors wield in the marketplace.
With two exceptions, the Majors generally earn the lion’s share of income earned from sound recordings, ceding a small percentage to their recording artists. The first exception is synchronization income, where the royalty split is usually 50-50. (The Majors also have a variety of ways to reduce the recording artist’s share of this income, but those wrinkles and tricks are beyond the scope of this article.) The second exception is in public performance of sound recordings via cable, satellite and the Internet, where the micropayments that accrue are distributed by an organization called Sound Exchange on a rather more equitable basis: 50% to the copyright owner, 45% to the featured artist or artists, and 5% to non-featured performers. Copyright owners and featured artists are paid directly by Sound Exchange, but non-featured artists are paid only through one of two unions, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). Note that Sound Exchange public performance royalties are different from the royalties that non-interactive streaming services like Spotify have to pay to sound recording copyright owners. In the latter case, the owners, not the artist, are likely to earn the greater share.
The market with respect to musical compositions is also dominated by the Majors through their publishing affiliates, which collectively account for 65.2% of that market. Income distribution from music publishing tends to be more evenly distributed between companies and songwriters than on the sound recording side. Although there are many exceptions (as well as plenty of royalty-reducing wrinkles and tricks), 50% of royalties earned in respect of musical compositions go to publishers and 50% go to songwriters. (Some songwriters do much better than this if they can negotiate an administration deal, some do worse.) The 50-50 basis is also how ASCAP, BMI and SESAC distribute public performance royalties they collect from radio, television, restaurants, clubs, retail stores and other establishments that have live or pre-recorded music.
The Lawsuits over Pre-1972 Recordings
As mentioned above, owners of pre-1972 sound recordings do not enjoy a federally protected right to license public performances over terrestrial radio and television. The issue for these owners (who will not be copyright holders until 2067) is how to get paid now. The Turtles, who recorded the pop hit “Happy Together” in 1967, filed class action suits in August 2013 in New York, California and Florida on behalf of all owners of pre-1972 sound recordings whose works are played by SiriusXM. The suits allege that their public performance rights are covered by state statute or common law. A month after they filed suit, Capitol Records, Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, UMG Recordings, and ABKCO Music & Records, also filed a similar suit in California state court alleging infringement of California statutory and common law copyright. Given that there is no express exclusive right of public performance for sound recordings under any state law, the suits are likely to turn on whether making copies of those sound recordings for sole purpose of facilitating transmission amounts to bootlegging. There is a substantial likelihood that these suits will be dismissed. (A motion for summary judgment is pending before Judge McMahon in New York.)
Are Current Royalty Rates Fair?
In order to answer the question of whether the rates are fair, one needs to take into account a number of facts about the current music business and how the various rights holders envision their future. ASCAP and BMI are not collecting the public performance royalties they were a decade ago because the advertising revenues of terrestrial radio and television stations have steadily declined, and it is on the basis of revenues that the performing rights organizations earn their royalties. Currently, terrestrial music stations pay ASCAP 1.7% of “revenues subject to fee from radio broadcasting,” which basically means all revenue received by the station from advertising and promotion, less a 12% deduction to cover costs attributable to administration and commissions.
Unlike terrestrial radio stations, Pandora has to pay ASCAP 1.85% of its annual revenue. ASCAP, not to mention all its publishers and songwriters, was unhappy with the decision: it asked for 3% for 2014 and 2015. Based on Pandora’s net profits, it is difficult to see why the publishing industry believes that non-interactive streaming services should pay more than terrestrial radio. But according to ASCAP’s CEO, John LoFrumento, the fact that Apple agreed to pay songwriters and publishers 10% of its revenues for iTunes Radio in a direct deal (i.e., without resort to the rate court) proves that the “market rate” for online streaming is much higher than what Pandora was ordered to pay. As it is, Pandora will pay a total of about 4% of its revenue to the music publishing industry and another 50-60% to record companies (and most of that to the Majors).
With the help of this rather lengthy introduction, the reader will hopefully be well-disposed to consider these additional facts and circumstances:
– The Record Industry is in Crisis. For the Majors and other sound recording owners whose economic survival is based on the sale and exploitation of sound recordings, streaming appears to be their best, and for the foreseeable future maybe their last, hope. Although downloads have made up some of the loss in physical record sales, the iTunes and Amazon model of selling individual tracks destroyed the prospect of record companies being able to sell albums to consumers. Why buy an album when you can buy the few great songs on it for a third or a quarter of the price? But ever since the advent of the LP, it was in album sales that record companies have earned their money.
Now, of course, consumers don’t even want to buy downloads, but are preferring in ever greater numbers to being able to access a wide range of music on their computers, tablets and mobile photos. The preference is a response to a number of factors, among them, the Majors’ policy (only partially abandoned) to force digital rights management on purchased downloads; the fact that the purchaser doesn’t own the download (it’s “licensed,” not owned) and can’t legally share it with others; and efforts by the Majors (through the RIAA) to teach the public through well-publicized litigation that consumers who receive purchased music from others may be liable for copyright infringement. It’s no wonder that consumers have come to prefer streaming services. The market has spoken: “Just give me the music and let me listen to it when and where I want.” That leaves record companies trying to wrest from streaming services the income they’re losing from album sales. Publishers are in a similar position, because when albums were sold they could earn mechanical royalties on music compositions that would never receive radio play or any other licensing opportunities.
– Streaming Services Aren’t Profitable. It’s no secret that Pandora and Spotify aren’t profitable. Nor will they be for the foreseeable future if they have to rely on subscriptions from listeners. In March, Recon Analytics said that Beats Music could become profitable if it had 5-10 million subscribers. That assessment, however, was based on Beats Music’s subscription fee at the time, which was $119.88 per year. Now that Beats Music is owned by Apple (and can take advantage of Apple’s unlimited deep pockets), the subscription price has slipped to $99.00, and if competition heats up between streaming services, it may go even lower. That means Beats Music will need many more subscribers — not merely 20% more, because more subscribers also means that Beats Music has to pay higher royalties to rights holders. Moreover, even the $99.00 per year price is unrealistic, given that the average music fan spends between $48 and $64 per year on music. It’s a tall order to expect consumers to pay for streaming two times what they would pay for purchased music.
Although Pandora hopes to turn a profit in 2014, if it does, it will not do so from subscription sales. People tend to be impressed by Pandora’s revenue figures, which were $194.3 million for the first quarter of 2014, but $140.6 million of that was from advertising revenues and Pandora posted a net loss for the quarter of $28.9 million. Pandora paid “only” 55.7% of its revenues for content acquisition (which includes payments to ASCAP and BMI) in the first quarter of 2014, far lower than the 74.5% it spent in the first quarter of 2013, but whether Pandora will sustain that lower rate seems doubtful in the face of strong opposition to lower rates from the record and music publishing industries, as well as recording artists and songwriters.
This problem of unsustainable royalty obligations is not limited to Pandora. Online music services that offer interactive streaming, like Spotify, are generally paying 60-70% of their revenue for content licensing. Despite such large payouts, Spotify and other streaming services has been excoriated by artists including David Byrne, Thom Yorke, Bette Midler and Coldplay, among many others. Independent artists and songwriters are also disgusted. In addition to earning literally almost nothing from the streaming services, they have accused Spotify of ” giving independent and unsigned musicians a lower royalty rate than major label musicians for the same number of streams.” (Note that on the musical compositions side, the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees prohibit this kind of discrimination.)
In the face of all this opposition, no one really expects that streaming services are going to be paying less to rights holders at any time in the future. The solution, then, appears to be in selling advertising revenue, linking streaming services with mobile deals and bundling — i.e., offering music streaming services together with other services, like paid-for downloads. Stand-alone streaming services might also sell users’ behavioral data (i.e., what they listen to) to advertisers and others who “could use that information to better target their advertising.”
The most viable business model, however, will be to offer streaming services as part of much bigger packages, as Amazon may do with Amazon Prime, which for $99 a year, gives its customers free two-day shipping.
By bundling product shipping, video and music together, Amazon can deftly hide the price of each of the services from consumers, encouraging them to buy all instead of none — and overcoming signup barriers music services have always faced…
Just as cable companies offer its subscribers bundles of channels they’ll never watch (just so they can receive those that they want), so Amazon could offer its customers an overall package price covering 2-day shipping, music and video streaming and e-book lending. Few customers will use all those services to maximum benefit, but their money will fund content acquisition across the board. Of course, Amazon could also subsidize its streaming service by bundling it with paid-for downloads, thereby fostering greater customer loyalty. This is what Amazon did with Amazon Prime, “where the company makes up for its losses on shipping costs by turning casual Amazon customers into frequent buyers.”
Then there is Apple, which is in the position to subsidize its streaming services through selling far more profitable platforms and devices (iPhones, iPads, Apple computers and Beats headphones) on which to use those services. It is only because Apple doesn’t need to earn a profit on music streaming that it could offer publishers and songwriters a much higher royalty rate than its competition, and then turn around and make deals with recording artists like Coldplay, The Black Keys and Beyoncé, who have given iTunes varying degrees of exclusivity to their music. Standalone streaming services like Spotify and Pandora are no match for this kind of integrated market power.
– There’s no such thing as a benevolent monopoly. When companies have monopoly power, they use it. First, it’s no secret that the Majors (and not publishers) earn most of the money paid by streaming services to rights holders. This is solely due to the fact that public performance rights for musical compositions and public performance rights for non-interactive streaming of sound recordings are regulated, while the use of sound recordings in interactive streaming is not. Consequently, services offering interactive streaming have to cut deals with each of the Majors, who use their monopoly power to extract high fees and other terms (such as high advances and royalty guarantees) from the service providers.
Second, it is manifestly clear that if music publishers could use their monopoly power in the same way as the Majors, they would. Under prodding from publishers, in 2011, ASCAP tried to get around the consent decree royalty structure by allowing its members to withdraw new media services (i.e., digital rights) from ASCAP’s performing rights licenses, but it was rebuffed by the court. Had ASCAP succeeded, the Majors’ publishing affiliates could have negotiated “steep license fees, which ASCAP could then use to establish higher royalties in the rate court” for independent publishers. Independent publishers were understandably less enthusiastic, as they knew that the big three publishers would take a disproportionate piece of the royalty pie, leaving crumbs for the independents.
Third, using their monopoly power, the Majors have and will continue to set an extremely high bar for new entrants in the music streaming business. Similarly, Amazon and iTunes will continue to use and extend their monopoly power market to shut out their competition wherever they can.
Congress needs to decide whether the current state of affairs needs to be addressed through legislation. Do publishers and songwriters receive too little a share of the overall royalty pie? The answer appears to be “yes.” Are the Majors extracting too much money from streaming services? To the extent that they leave independent companies and artists with a disproportionately lesser share of royalties, the answer also appears to be “yes.” Congress should consider leveling the playing field for sound recording copyright owners in general, much as the consent decrees leveled the playing field for publishers and songwriters by ensuring that performing rights royalties for publishers and songwriters are paid at the same rate, rather than a rate determined by the relative negotiating power publishers.
However, Congress also needs to decide whether greater competition among streaming services is itself a worthy goal and whether that goal can co-exist with the royalty rates that record companies, music publishers, recording artists and songwriters say they need. To put this into proper perspective, any talk of “fair market value” is empty rhetoric given the high degree of concentration in the music recording and publishing industries and, increasingly, music streaming services. “Fair” is simply whatever the market will bear at any given moment, and one can hardly begrudge rights holders from negotiating the highest possible royalty rates and then engaging in tactics intended to push those rates even higher. What is clear is that rights holders do not view the stand-alone streaming service, whether interactive or non-interactive, to be a viable business model because such a service could never generate the revenues that rights holders want. Rights holders are also aware that consumers will only pay so much for music streaming and that their only viable recourse is to require the streaming services to seek alternative sources of income.
Congress must also address whether terrestrial radio and television should continue to be exempt from paying performing rights royalties for sound recordings. That exemption was won by broadcasters back in 1970 and maintained ever since then under the theory that radio play gives record companies free promotion, which stimulates record sales. However, the rationale fails to be persuasive when digital broadcasters are required to pay such royalties. If Congress decides that terrestrial radio must pay, then it will also need to decide how rates will be set — whether by statute, rate courts or private negotiation, where the Majors can freely exercise their monopoly power. (The latter seems unlikely.)
Finally, Congress should bring pre-1972 recordings under federal copyright law now, so that the owners of these recordings can participate in sound recording performance royalties. Ending state and common law protections for pre-1972 recordings would also reap a positive benefit to the public, since at the moment, there are no pre-1972 recordings in the public domain and won’t be until 2067. Admittedly, it would open up a can of worms: Congress would have to decide exactly when pre-1972 recordings would enter the public domain and under what criteria. Due to the piecemeal way in which Congress has historically dealt with copyright laws, copyrightable works (other than sound recordings) published without a copyright notice prior to January 1, 1978, are currently in the public domain, as are works that were published with a copyright notice between 1923 and January 1, 1964, but never renewed via registration at the Copyright Office. (Works published after 1977 are not required to be registered and enjoy copyright terms ranging from 70 years from the death of the author, 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, depending on a number of factors.) Obviously, copyright protection for pre-1972 recordings cannot depend upon whether they were released with copyright notices – none were – but Congress will have to determine, somewhat arbitrarily, when their copyright terms will expire. Congress will have to address other problems as well, such as what to do about orphan works and the extent to which statutory damages should apply to infringements.