Will the Fair Play Fair Pay Act Get a Fair Hearing This Time?

On March 30, 2017, nearly two years ago to the day that they introduced the Fair Play Fair Pay Act of 2015, Reps. Nadler and Blackburn now re-introduce the bill as the Fair Play Fair Pay Act of 2017. Will this legislation go through or will it just be another “repeat and fade out?” My cursory review of H.R.1836 indicates that it is the same bill as the 2015 version, H.R.1733. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I am re-posting my piece about the prior iteration of the bill from two years ago.

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On April 13,  H.R. 1733, The Fair Play Fair Pay Act of 2015 (FPFPA) was introduced by a group led by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). This bill would make several amendments to the Copyright Act, the most noteworthy of which would be to provide a public performing right in sound recordings for terrestrial radio broadcasts. Most of the provisions in this bill are things that were previously proposed in others and many mirror recommendations in the Copyright Office’s recent 202-page music licensing report (the Report), which I summarized here.

For example, right before last fall’s government shut down, Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-NC), introduced H.R. 3219, the Free Market Royalty Act, which, among other things, would’ve created a public performance right in sound recordings when played on AM or FM radio, something supported in the Report. What’s the big deal about a performing right in a sound recording? As many have pointed out, the US is among the less than handful of nations, including China, Iran and North Korea, that doesn’t have one.

So if you’re groovin’ to a recording of Fly Me To The Moon on AM or FM radio as part of the Sinatra centennial celebrations, the composer, Bart Howard, and his music publisher get paid but Ol’ Blue Eyes and his label get bupkis. However, if you listen to that same recording over Sirius/XM or stream it over the Internet, then everybody gets paid.  How’s that? Well, under amendments to the Copyright law in the 1990s, Congress created a performance right for recordings in digital transmissions but not for traditional radio and TV broadcasts.

The radio industry’s long-time rationale for not paying artists and labels is that airplay promoted the sales of recordings. However, in the current environment where the public is quickly moving from owning (e.g., CDs and downloads) to streaming (e.g., satellite radio, YouTube, Pandora), the “promotional” value of radio isn’t what it used to be. The performance itself is now the value proposition. And it kind of seems kind of unfair that labels and artists get paid for some performances but not others where the user experience is often virtually identical. This bill would provide “platform parity.”

So what else is in this bill? It fixes a loophole where some streaming services wouldn’t pay royalties on pre-1972 sound recordings because they’re not protected by federal copyright laws (although a couple of district court decisions recently told them otherwise). Addressing this situation, the Report recommended full copyright protection for pre-1972 recordings. And last year’s RESPECT Act would’ve provided for royalty payments on performances of these older recordings, but without providing full copyright protection. The FPFPA adopts the RESPECT Act approach and likewise provides for royalty payments without granting full copyright protection.

To make it more likely to pass, the bill has some protections for small broadcasters, capping royalties for stations with less than $1 million in annual revenue at $500 per year and at $100 a year for non-commercial stations, including public and college radio. Religious broadcasters, regardless of size, are exempted altogether.

The FPFPA also provides for royalty payments directly to artists even where the service does a direct deal with the labels if a statutory license were otherwise available. And these payments would be in the same proportion that SoundExchange currently pays on licensed services: 45% to the featured artist, 5% to the backing musicians and 50% to the label. This is a major protection for featured and side artists.

Moreover, there are also technical amendments to the rate-setting provisions for certain statutory licenses that attempt to provide a more uniform, market-based standard more evenly. Again, this issue was addressed in the Report and was handled somewhat differently in last year’s proposed Songwriter Equity Act. However, including statutory considerations like whether streaming is a substitute for sales of recordings or may otherwise interfere with or enhance a label’s revenue as well as the relative roles and value of the labels and streaming services could open a pretty big and murky can of worms.

Will this bill pass? Well, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is vehemently opposing it. And the NAB is a pretty powerful lobby that’s long opposed paying royalties for broadcasting recordings. And while the music industry is largely concentrated in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles, every Congressional district has at least one radio station — and candidates need to advertise during elections.

 

 

BMI Rate Court Judge KO’s DOJ on 100% Licensing

In what had been scheduled to be a mere pre-motion conference, the federal district judge overseeing the BMI Consent Decree, Louis L. Stanton, decided to hold a hearing on Friday, September 16. He then issued a six-page Opinion and Declaratory Judgment, ruling against DOJ’s interpretation of the decree which would have required 100% or “whole work” licensing:

The phrase in Art. II (C) of the Consent Decree defining BMI’s repertory as “those compositions, the right of public performance of which [BMI] has… the right to license or sublicense” is descriptive, not prescriptive. The “right of public performance” is left undefined as to score or form, to be determined by processes outside the Consent Decree. The Consent Decree neither bars fractional licensing nor requires full-work licensing.

Please read my prior post for more background, including a discussion on what is meant by the 100% or whole work licensing sought by the Justice Department as opposed to the fractional licensing regime under which ASCAP, BMI and the rest of the music industry operate.

Both BMI and ASCAP have operated on a fractional licensing basis for all of the 75 years since the consent decrees were entered into, offering licensees for only that percentage of a particular work that each respective performing rights organization (PRO) controls pursuant to its agreements with its member copyright owners and pricing their licenses accordingly. And both PROs declared the Court’s decision to be a major victory for songwriters.

After a brief recitation of the facts, including DOJ’s outlining its position last month and BMI’s seeking a declaratory judgment in support of fractional licensing, Judge Stanton began his discussion by stating: “Nothing in the Consent Decree gives support to the  [Antitrust] Division’s views.” He went on hold that the BMI Consent Decree “does not address the possibilities that BMI might license performances of a composition without sufficient legal right to do so, or under a worthless or invalid copyright, or users might perform a composition licensed by fewer than all of its creators.” The Court supported its conclusion by relying on Section XIV (D) of the Consent Decree, which reads as follows:

Nothing in this Article XIV shall prevent any applicant from attacking the aforesaid [rate court] proceedings or in any other controversy the validity of the copyright of any of the compositions in defendant’s repertory nor shall this Judgment be construed as importing any validity or value to any of said copyrights.

The Court construed this provision to mean that “[q]uestions of the validity, scope and limits of the right to perform compositions” are left, like the redress of copyright infringement, to determinations outside of the application of the Consent Decree. Neither DOJ in its statement, nor the Copyright Office in its memorandum addressing 100% licensing, nor BMI in its application for a declaratory judgment, cited Section XIV (D).

Judge Stanton then distinguished the situation where he had ruled in the Pandora case that the BMI decree forbids the partial withdrawal of rights by publisher members (i.e., where BMI would not be authorized to license performances online services like Pandora, leaving the publishers to license such services directly.  With regard to “partial withdrawal,” the Court, quoting its prior decision in the Pandora case, stated that “[t]he BMI Consent Decree requires that all compositions in the BMI repertory be offered to all applicants” that seek a license.

Judge Stanton’s quick and summary rejection of 100% licensing gives BMI a knockout victory over DOJ. However, this is not the end of the matter. ASCAP is governed by a separate but very similar Consent Decree that is overseen by its own Rate Court judge, Denise Cote, also of the Southern District of New York. Either ASCAP or DOJ could seek a declaration from Judge Cote, who could rule contrary to Judge Stanton. Similarly, DOJ could appeal Judge Stanton’s decision to the Second Circuit, regardless of whether Judge Cote rules on the issue. Moreover, as DOJ’s review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees encompassed several other issues besides 100% licensing, ASCAP has already started the process of seeking relief from Congress – something even DOJ suggested. BMI beat DOJ in the first battle but the war wages on.

Why DOJ’s Mandate of 100% Licensing of Works by ASCAP and BMI is 100% Lunacy

On August 4, the Department of Justice (DOJ) publicly released its “Statement of the Department of Justice on the Closing of the Antitrust Division’s Review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees” (DOJ Statement).  The Justice Department issued the DOJ Statement after nearly two years of reviewing, at ASCAP and BMI’s request, whether the decades-old consent decrees under which these performing rights organizations (PROs) operate should be modified.

By way of background, ASCAP and BMI are the two major PROs and license the non-dramatic public performing right in copyrighted musical works. So when songs are broadcast on radio and TV, streamed over the Internet or performed in nightclubs, concert halls and arenas, the PROs issue “blanket licenses,” which allow the user to perform any and all of the works in ASCAP and BMI’s respective repertories as often as the user wishes.

The ASCAP and BMI Consent decrees were entered into between DOJ and the two PROs in 1941 (back when 78s were big and TV was in its infancy) in settlement of antitrust litigation instituted by the Justice Department.  A third PRO, SESAC, controls a small, but important share of licensable songs and is not currently regulated by a consent decree. BMI’s Consent Decree hasn’t been amended since 1994 and ASCAP’s Consent Decree was last amended in 2001.  Since the music licensing landscape has changed dramatically since these decrees were last updated at the dawn of the digital age, ASCAP and BMI sought modifications that would allow for more licensing flexibility, such as the ability to issue licenses covering more than just the public performing right.

DOJ’s review began in 2014 and included two rounds of public comments and I submitted mine in the second round.  During its review, DOJ, asked for comment on the issue of 100% licensing, something that took most of the music business community, especially songwriters and music publishers, by surprise. We’ll do a quick review of basic copyright and contract principles in order to understand what “100% licensing” is about.

As a matter of basic copyright law, when two or more people choose to collaborate in writing a song, they create a “joint work” under the US Copyright Act.  This means that, in the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, each songwriter controls an equal share in an “undivided interest” in the song they wrote together. This is best illustrated by example:  Jack and Jill decide to write a song together.  Jack writes the music and Jill writes the lyrics. Who owns what? The answer is that both Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the music and the lyrics.

While this may seem counter-intuitive at first,  a copyright like a patent, is a form of intellectual or intangible property. And the law of intellectual property borrowed from the law of tangible property, such as real estate. For example, if Jack and Jill buy a house, they are tenants and common and each will own a share in the entire property. So absent some weird agreement between them, Jack wouldn’t be confined to just 50% of the property but would have a share of the front and back yards, as well as the kitchen, family room and bedrooms. So, since Jack and Jill have created a joint work of copyrighted property, their song, they each own an undivided 50% interest in the entire song.  This means, for example, that Jack can license 100% of the rights in the song for use in a TV commercial and doesn’t have to get Jill’s permission to do so. Jack would, however, have to pay Jill her 50% share of the proceeds.  This default or “off-the-rack” rule of US copyright law is what DOJ refers to as 100%  or full-work licensing.

Remember, however, I said that this rule applies in the absence of a written agreement. Imagine that Jack and Jill are professional songwriters. They may be represented by different music publishers and different PROs.  And what if Jill is a deal-making genius while Jack doesn’t know jack about the music business? Clearly Jill wouldn’t want Jack making deals for her share without her consent.

So what typically happens in the music business is that collaborators (often through their music publishers) enter into contracts that state that each party will separately administer its respective share in the work.  And having multiple songwriters, each with different publisher and PRO representation, is more common than ever. Many contemporary hits contain samples or are written by multiple songwriters and producers, one who may produce beats, another top line melody and others may write lyrics.

“Fractional licensing” is where parties separately administer their shares – and only their shares– in co-written works. The music business, generally, and ASCAP and BMI, in particular, have operated on a “fractional licensing” as opposed to a “100% licensing” basis for decades.  For example, users typically purchase both ASCAP and BMI licenses. The PROs price their licenses based upon the proportional market share of the works in their repertories. ASCAP pays its member writers and music publishers in accordance with their membership agreements and rules and BMI does likewise.  Neither ASCAP nor BMI currently pay writers that aren’t signed up with them.

Now, however, DOJ has concluded that ASCAP and BMI must license on a 100% basis, negating decades of industry practice and myriad privately negotiated agreements among entities who are not party to either consent decree, namely all the songwriters and music publishers who license through ASCAP and BMI. This means that if either ASCAP or BMI has a miniscule share of a given song (e.g. 5%), they have to license 100% of the song:

As discussed in detail below, the consent decrees, which describe the PROs’ licenses as providing the ability to perform “works” or “compositions,” require ASCAP and BMI to offer full-work licenses. The Division reaches this determination based not only on the language of the consent decrees and its assessment of historical practices, but also because only full-work licensing can yield the substantial procompetitive benefits associated with blanket licenses that distinguish ASCAP’s and BMI’s activities from other agreements among competitors that present serious issues under the antitrust laws. Moreover, the Division has determined not to support modifying the consent decrees to allow ASCAP and BMI to offer “fractional” licenses that convey only rights to fractional shares and require additional licenses to perform works.

DOJ justifies this position because the ASCAP Consent Decree states that ASCAP shall “license to perform all the works in the ASCAP repertory” and BMI’s Consent Decree states that it must provide music users with access to its “repertory” which includes “those compositions, the right of public performance of which [BMI] has or hereafter shall have the right to license or sublicense.”  DOJ defines “works” and “compositions as entire works (i.e., 100% of the work), even though ASCAP and BMI have never operated in this way and other forms of licensing such as mechanical (licenses for audio-only recordings like CDs and MP3s) and synch (use of music in audio-visual works like film, TV, videogames) continue to be done on a fractional basis.

It is a basic principle of contract law that you can’t grant greater rights than you’ve been given. That’s why fractional licensing has long been the norm in the music business. It’s also a principle of contract interpretation (and a consent decree is a contract) to look to course of conduct or industry practice to determine the parties intent as to the meaning of words like “works” and “compositions.” For instance, BMI’s writer affiliation agreements have long stated that the member grants to BMI only “all the rights that you own or acquire” and asks requires its members to submit works registration forms specifying co-writer and co-publisher’s PRO affiliation and shares in each registered song. DOJ should be aware of this given that these form agreements have been used hundreds of thousands of times over several decades.

Acknowledging that it can’t abrogate contracts between private parties that aren’t bound by either Consent Decree, DOJ concludes that its 100% licensing mandate may require ASCAP and BMI to delete from their respective repertories those works where private contracts preclude 100% licensing:

To the extent allowed by copyright law, co-owners of a song remain free to impose limitations on one another’s ability to license the song. Such an action may, however, make it impossible for ASCAP or BMI – consistent with the full-work licensing requirement of the antitrust consent decrees – to include that song in their blanket licenses.

DOJ distinguished synch licensing from the blanket licenses ASCAP and BMI issue as follows:

Unlike synch licensing, where a producer knows in advance what songs to license and can make substitutions where all fractional instances are not available, this doesn’t work for TV and radio stations and other users who don’t control song selection and fractional licensing, if allowed, would leave these users “exposed to infringement liability” to the point where they might “simply turn off the music.”

Of course, this belies more than seven decades of actual practice, where as DOJ, admits, most users get licenses from all three PROs.  Moreover, 100% licensing is a creature of US law. There is only fractional licensing under the copyright laws of many European countries so many works that originate overseas would have to be excluded from the ASCAP and BMI repertories under DOJ’s new view (which in an Orwellian twist DOJ maintains has always been how the Consent Decrees have been interpreted). But in its infinite magnanimity, DOJ has decided to refrain from enforcing its new “old” interpretation for one year to allow ASCAP and BMI to sort through the chaos DOJ has created.

For example, DOJ blithely suggests that co-writers of songs with agreements that stipulate fractional licensing (i.e., separately administered shares) can simply amend their contracts. Of course, the transactions costs for these contract revisions are imposed upon the songwriters and publishers who are not even parties to the Consent Decrees. And many of these agreements are decades old. Is one writer going to contact a former band mate from thirty years ago to amend a contract – if they can find it? And what if one or more of the writers is deceased? This “suggestion” from DOJ is not terribly practical. The probable outcome, however, is that thousands of enormously popular songs will not be licensable through PROs’ blanket licenses. Hardly a pro-competitive outcome.

But don’t take my word as to the improper and impractical nature of DOJ’s 100% licensing mandate. The Copyright Office did not mince words when it expressed its views on DOJ’s 100% licensing proposal back in February:

The Office believes that an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require these PROs to engage in 100-percent licensing presents a host of legal and policy concerns. Such an approach would seemingly vitiate important principles of copyright law, interfere with creative collaborations among songwriters, negate private contracts, and impermissibly expand the reach of the consent decrees. It could also severely undermine the efficacy of ASCAP and BMI, which today are able to grant blanket licenses covering the vast majority of performances of musical works – a practice that is considered highly efficient by copyright owners and users alike.

And that was just on page three of its 29-page report. You can read more about the background of the Copyright Office’s report, its prior Music Licensing Study and my comments to the DOJ here. But the Copyright Office pretty much sums it up:

In sum, an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require 100-percent licensing or removal of a work from the ASCAP or BMI repertoire would appear to be fraught with legal and logistical problems, and might well result in a sharp decrease in repertoire through these PROs’ blanket licenses. It would seemingly punish copyright owners who have chosen to exercise their rights under the Copyright Act to manage their separate interests through the PRO of their choice.

As hinted in the Copyright Office’s summation, a songwriter could be compelled to accept payment from ASCAP and its rates and rules regarding distribution when she decided to join BMI. ASCAP writers may similarly be tethered to BMI without their consent as well.

ASCAP and BMI intend to vigorously fight DOJ’s ruling. In a joint statement, ASCAP states that it will pursue legislation in Congress addressing the 100% licensing issue, partial withdrawal of works and other issues. Meanwhile, BMI intends to pursue a ruling in its Rate Court in favor of fractional licensing.

Who benefits from a 100% licensing regime, something that nobody in the music industry believed to be applicable? It’s certainly not songwriters. But Google/YouTube and other streaming services might welcome a 100% licensing regime which would theoretically enable users to purchase fewer blanket licenses, which would, in turn, create downward pressure on the price of those licenses.

[For a more in-depth discussion of 100% licensing, please click here to listen to my hour-long discussion with composer, Dennis Tobenski, on episode 14 of his Music Publishing Podcast]

The De Minimus Exception to Infringement is Now in Vogue for Sound Recordings

On June 2, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of summary judgment to defendants and vacated an award of attorney’s fees in the case of VMG SalSoul, LLC v. Ciccone. Plaintiff alleged that Madonna’s mega-hit, Vogue, infringed both the copyright in the composition and the copyright in the sound recording of the song, Love Break, recorded several years earlier by defendant, Shep Pettibone, who also worked on the recording of Vogue. Pettibone sampled, altered and incorporated the “horn hit” from Love Break into Vogue.

The “horn hit” consists of two forms, a single and a double hit, and occurs 27 and 23 times, respectively during the course of the 1982 recording of Love Break that is 7:26 in duration. By contrast, the “horn hit” sampled in Madonna’s 1990 recording of Vogue, is sampled solely from the single hit and is pitched a half tone higher than the original “horn hit” in Love Break. There are two versions of Vogue in issue: the “radio edit” that’s 4:53 in duration and contains one “single hit” and three “double hits” and the “compilation version” that’s 5:17 in duration and contains one “single hit” and five “double hits.” The single “horn hit” lasts less than a quarter of a second and the double “horn hit” also clocks in at less than a second in duration. The Court’s opinion includes the musical notation for both versions of the “horn hit” as heard in Love Break and in Vogue.  You can listen to the respective recordings here and here.

The Ninth Circuit had previously established the de minimus exception to copyright infringement for musical works in the 2003 case, Newton v. Diamond, where the court noted that the unauthorized use “must be significant enough to constitute infringement,” and that a plaintiff “must show that the copying was greater than de minimus.” Quoting Newton, the Court stated that a “use is de minimus only if the average audience would not recognize the appropriation.” After analysis, including listening to both recordings, the court held that the appropriation of both the underlying musical work and the master recording of the two versions of the “horn hit” was de minimus.

Addressing the alleged copyright infringement in the sound recording, the Court stated:

After listening to the audio recordings submitted by the parties, we conclude that a reasonable juor could not conclude that an average audience would recognize the appropriation of the horn hit. That common-sense conclusion is borne out by dry analysis. The horn hit is very short – less than a second. The horn hit occurs only a few times in Vogue. Moreover, the horn hits in Vogue do not sound identical to the horn hits from Love Break. As noted above, assuming that the sampling occurred, Pettibone truncated the horn hit, transposed it to a different key, and added other sounds and effects to the horn hit itself. The horn hit then was added to Vogue along with many other instrument tracks.  Even if one grants the dubious proposition that a listener recognized some similarities between the horn hits in the two songs, it is hard to imagine that he or she would conclude that sampling had occurred.

In applying the de minmus exception to sampling of sound recordings, the Ninth Circuit explicitly broke with the Sixth Circuit, the only other circuit to directly address the issue. In the 2005 case, Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films, the Sixth Circuit adopted a bright-line rule, summarized by the Ninth Circuit as follows: “For copyrighted sound recordings, any unauthorized copying – no matter how trivial – constitutes infringement.”

Plaintiff, however, argued that there was a statutory basis for treating sound recordings differently from other copyrighted works and that the de minimus exception should not apply. The Court looked at Section 102, the list of copyrightable types of works, and found no basis to treat sound recordings differently from other copyrightable works, such as literary works. Similarly, in addressing the “bundle of rights” of Section 106, the Court concluded:

Again, nothing in that provision suggests differential treatment of de minimus copying of sound recordings compared to, say, sculptures. Although subsection (6) deals exclusively with sound recordings, that subsection concerns performances; nothing in its text bears on de minimus copying.

Plaintiff’s main statutory argument apparently was premised on the third sentence of Section 114(b), which reads as follows:

The exclusive rights of the owner of copyright in a sound recording under clauses (1) and (2) of section 106 do not extend to the making or duplication of another sound recording that consists entirely of an independent fixation of other sounds, even though such sounds imitate or simulate those in the copyrighted sound recording. As the Court pointed out, this section is a limitation on a copyright owner’s rights and states that “sound alike” recordings that do not incorporate a separate master recording (i.e., no sampling) are permissible.

Addressing this provision dealing with sound-alike recordings, the Court stated:

But the quoted passage does not speak to the question that we face: whether Congress intended to eliminate the longstanding de minimus exception for sound recordings in all circumstances even where, as here, the new sound recording as a whole sounds nothing like the original.

The Sixth Circuit’s Bridgeport decision was premised on an interpretation of Section 114(b) that the Ninth Circuit explicitly rejected, knowing that doing so would create a split in the circuits and uncertainty in this area of the law. The Court noted that as a practical matter, the circuit split already exists as district courts outside the Sixth Circuit have almost uniformly declined to follow Bridgeport Music’s bright line rule.  However, the Court did reverse the award of attorney’s fees:  “It plainly is reasonable to bring a claim founded on the only circuit-court precedent to have considered the legal issue, whether or not our circuit ultimately agrees with that precedent.

In dissent, Judge Silverman defended the Bridgeport precedent:

I find Bridgeport’s arguments well-reasoned and persuasive. Equally compelling is, I think, Congress’s Silence in the wake of Bridgeport, especially in light of the fact that the Sixth Circuit explicity invited Congress to clarify or change the law if Bridgeport’s bright-line rule was not what Congress intended. While it’s true that congressional inaction in the face of judicial interpretation is not ironclad evidence of Congressional approval, it’s not chopped liver, either. In this case, Bridgeport has not been hiding out in the woods, waiting to be found; it has been governing the music industry in Nashville and elsewhere for eleven years.

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My own view is that the Ninth Circuit got it right here. There is no reason to treat sound recordings differently from other types of copyrighted works and the de minimus exception should apply where appropriate. Sampling is merely a form of aural collage art and there is no doubt that a court would find the incorporation of small snippets a copyrighted work of visual art such as a painting or photograph in another painting, photograph or sculpture either to constitute fair use or a non-actionable de minimus appropriation. In sum, Madonna has made de minimus usage as in vogue in copyright as she has long done with her clothing.

The Question Songwriters Should Ask Obama at SXSW

This Friday, President Obama will be delivering the keynote address at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. Although originally just a music conference, SXSW now has three overlapping sections, Interactive, Film and Music. While it is doubtful that the President will be taking questions from the audience, songwriters and other musicians who may attend the Interactive portion of the should question him about what his Justice Department has proposed to do to them.

For over a year the Justice Department has been undertaking a review of the decades-old consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, neither of which has been amended since the dawn of the digital age. Those of us who represent songwriters and publishers had been cautiously optimistic that the restrictions would be lessened. Indeed, in February 2015, the Copyright Office, in its comprehensive music licensing study and report, Copyright and the Music Marketplace (the “Music Study,” which I summarized and critiqued here), recommended several modifications.

However, last summer DOJ, of its own initiative, threw in a monkey wrench when it asked for comment on the possibility of ASCAP and BMI licensing entire works even where either performing rights organization (PRO) had only been assigned a portion of the copyright to the particular song by its members. This is referred to as “100% licensing.” Traditionally, music publishers and the PROs that represent them only license the percentage of the rights in a particular song that they own, which is referred to as “fractional licensing.”

On January 29, in response to a January 12 request of Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the Register of Copyrights, Maria A. Pallante, issued a 29-page report, replete with footnotes, Views of the United States Copyright Office Concerning PRO Licensing of Jointly Owned Works (the Report). The Report addresses the PROs and joint licensing more specifically than was done in last year’s Music Study. On February 4, Rep. Collins forwarded the Report to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch for consideration by the Antitrust Division, which has oversight over the PRO consent decrees and is conducting the review of them.

In short, the Copyright Office stated in no uncertain terms that DOJ’s proposed 100% licensing scheme is a really bad idea that is based upon a misunderstanding of both the Copyright Act and plain old contract law, as well as long-standing music industry custom. The Copyright Office’s takedown of DOJ’s proposal is impressive. I’ll give you a few highlights below.

The Office believes that an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require these PROs to engage in 100-percent licensing presents a host of legal and policy concerns. Such an approach would seemingly vitiate important principles of copyright law, interfere with creative collaborations among songwriters, negate private contracts, and impermissibly expand the reach of the consent decrees. It could also severely undermine the efficacy of ASCAP and BMI, which today are able to grant blanket licenses covering the vast majority of performances of musical works – a practice that is considered highly efficient by copyright owners and users alike.

And that was just the top of page three! The Report goes on to discuss the divisibility of individual copyright rights and that the default rule is that each joint owner of a work may license the entire work subject to a duty to account to the other owners for their proportionate share of the proceeds. Against that backdrop, the Report states:

While the 1976 Act establishes default rules for joint works, it must be remembered that they are subject to the Act’s express provision that a copyright, and the exclusive rights thereunder, can be divided and separately owned. As a leading treatise explains, the default rules within the Act are merely a” starting point, “ with collaborators… free to alter this statutory allocation of rights and liabilities by contract.”

Addressing industry custom among co-writers of songs, the Report also noted:

The co-authors of jointly created musical works often enter into agreements that define the percentages of copyright ownership of each co-author and provide that each will retain control over his or her “share” of the work. For example, a typical clause might stipulate that each contributor “shall administer and exploit only [his or her] respective ownership share” of the work. The “administration” of the copyright is commonly understood in the music industry to encompass the right to issue licenses and otherwise exploit the song and collect royalties from those uses.

Turning specifically to the interpretation of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, the Report stated:

Even setting aside the express mandate of the Copyright Act, the decrees – like any contract – must be interpreted in light of the prevailing customs of the industry. Thus, while the consent decrees require ASCAP and BMI to license users to publicly perform their respective “repertoires,” each consent decree describes those repertoires in a manner that can, and should, be read consistently with the practice of fractional licensing.

Again turning to basic contract principles, the Report stated:

The PROs’ practice of fractional representation is consistent with the basic legal precept that one cannot validly convey rights to more than what one owns or controls….. Accordingly, the ability of ASCAP or BMI to license public performances for their respective members’ works is ultimately constrained by the terms of songwriter, publisher and administration agreements entered into by those members, which, as explained above, typically reflect understandings of divided ownership and fractional licensing.

And these choice comments only get us about half way through the Report! It goes on in this vein and addresses the practical concerns that ASCAP and BMI do not have contractual privity with non-members and are not able to account to any non-members for their interests in a 100% licensing regime. Here’s the heart of what I submitted to DOJ last November during the public comment period – about 27 pages shorter than the Report but making many of the same points:

While it is true that absent a written agreement to the contrary, an author of a joint work may license 100% of the rights in that work subject only to a duty to account to that author’s co-writers for their share of the proceeds, that is not how the music industry operates. For decades, songwriters and publishers have routinely entered into, and continue to enter into agreements where each party separately administers that party’s interest – and only that party’s interest — in the particular song.

In the area of synch licensing, music supervisors and other music clearance professionals know that they need to obtain permission from all parties that separately administer a portion of the copyright in the song. Similarly, mechanical licenses are issued on a fractional basis where multiple publishers separately administer their interest in a particular work. ASCAP and BMI likewise administer only their shares in the song and price their licenses accordingly.

ASCAP and BMI operate on a fractional licensing basis because contractually they cannot license greater rights than they are granted by the underlying rights holders, the music publishers. To require ASCAP and BMI to license on a 100% basis not only flouts decades of industry practice but vitiates the myriad agreements voluntarily entered into by songwriters and music publishers . It would also require songwriters and publishers to be involuntarily subjected to the licensing and payment terms of a PRO other than the one the parties chose to represent their interests in the particular works.

At a recent meeting of the AIMP [Association of Independent Music Publishers], we were informed that it in the Justice Department’s view, if the songwriters and publishers either do not – or cannot – agree to 100% licensing, ASCAP and BMI simply will not be able to represent the works where that is the case. If true, that would be a horrendous result, mandating that DSPs and other licensees would have to engage in the grossly inefficient process of directly licensing innumerable works from each individual rights holder. Given the way most popular songs are now written, this would require separate negotiations with multiple rights holders for the performance rights in each and every song rather than two or three PROs for all songs.

In sum, 100% licensing is contrary to longstanding industry practice and countless voluntarily negotiated contracts. It would turn a relatively straightforward and efficient licensing scheme for performance rights into one that is fractured, unwieldy and unworkable.

The Report reaches the same conclusion:

In sum, an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require 100-percent licensing or removal of a work from the ASCAP or BMI repertoire would appear to be fraught with legal and logistical problems, and might well result in a sharp decrease in repertoire through these PROs’ blanket licenses. It would seemingly punish copyright owners who have chosen to exercise their rights under the Copyright Act to manage their separate interests through the PRO of their choice.

***

Songwriters are unique among artistic creators in that about 75% of their income is regulated by the federal government. The biggest chunk of income songwriters receive is from public performances licensed by the PROs, of which the two largest, ASCAP and BMI and accounting for about 90% of the market, operate under consent decrees. The second biggest chunk, income songwriters receive from the purchase of recordings (whether in the form of CDs, LPs or downloads), is subject to a compulsory license with rates set by the Copyright Royalty Board. By contrast, recording artists, filmmakers, novelists, dramatists, and other fine and visual artists are under few, if any, federal restrictions on their livelihoods.

There are myriad articles in the popular press about the paltry royalties songwriters receive from streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. Few address the fine points of the PRO consent decrees and other statutory licensing regimes that form the backdrop for these payments. The Copyright Office, in its Music Study, recommended changes to the current music licensing regime that would relax restrictions on songwriters and music publishers and enable them to obtain income that more closely reflects fair market value.

It is somewhat telling that the President will be speaking not at the SXSW Music conference for creators of music, but at the Interactive conference, dominated by companies that use music and benefit from a licensing regime that keeps fees low. So the question songwriters should ask is “when will the government, specifically your Justice Department, stop screwing us?”

Do Candidates Have The Right To Conscript Songs For Political Purposes?

[Note: This piece was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for composers and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 24, 2015.]

It’s another presidential election cycle and—in addition to PAC moneymen, countless commercials, polls, trolls, sound bites, and sniping—there’s the new tradition of one candidate or another pissing off some well-known recording artist by using the artist’s song without consent. Already we’ve had Neil Young trashing Trump’s use of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” REM is suing Trump, along with Sen. Cruz, over their use of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” “Survivor” is suing over the use of “Eye of The Tiger” during Gov. Huckabee’s rally in support of Kim Davis, the county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue any marriage licenses since she’d have to issue them to same sex couples. And the election is still more than a year away!

Are the artists’ claims likely to be successful? Readers of my prior posts can probably postulate that my answer will be “it depends.” Let’s see what you can and can’t do when using recordings of songs in connection with political campaigns. While some of the dos and don’ts involve some now-familiar copyright and music licensing principles, others potentially involve the federal trademark statute and various states’ laws on the right of publicity as noted in ASCAP’s FAQs on music in political campaigns.

Who can forget The Donald riding down the escalator to the Neil Young classic to announce his candidacy? That use is probably permissible. If a venue, such as a hotel, convention center, or other public gathering place has licenses from the PROs (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC), then the use of the music is almost likely allowed and there’s not much the songwriters can do about it. The songwriters probably have a better case against Kim Davis and her cohorts, as the organizers of the impromptu outdoor post-prison rally probably didn’t obtain PRO licenses for the event.

Notice I mentioned songwriters and not recording artists. There has long been a public performance right in musical works and that right is codified in Section 106 of the Copyright Act. However, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, the US is one of less than a handful of nations, including North Korea and Iran, that doesn’t have a public performing right in sound recordings for traditional television and radio broadcasts or for playing the recording over loudspeakers. Although legislation has been introduced in recent years and the Copyright Office endorses such a right, currently the only public performance right in a sound recording is in “digital transmission,” i.e., internet streaming, and Sound Exchange is the U.S. collective that licenses those rights and pays out royalties on behalf of artists and labels.

Readers of my most recent post on fair use would not be surprised that the use of the clips of politicos and other notables on newscasts would be clear examples of fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Before you even get to the four factors of Section 107, the statute states that items like “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research” are among the uses typically found to be fair. And TV networks and stations have PRO licenses to cover the music use.

Both songwriters and recording artists would have a compelling case under copyright law if a candidate used a song in a commercial without permission. Using pre-recorded music in any audio-visual work requires synch licenses from both the copyright owner of the song (the music publishers) and the copyright owner of the recording of the song (the label). As I explained in my last post, a fair use argument for this kind of usage would almost certainly fail, given that these uses are typically licensed. Nor could a candidate claim that the use of the music is permitted as First Amendment “political” speech. The First Amendment protects the right of individuals (and according to the Supreme Court, corporations) to freedom of expression, especially political speech. It doesn’t generally give you the unfettered right to use someone else’s expression, however.

But consideration of Copyright Act provisions isn’t the end of the inquiry here. Artists may also claim violations of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, the federal trademark statute. Although it’s generally applied to false advertising claims, the statute could be used to claim that the association with an artist creates a “likelihood of confusion” based upon a misleading “association… with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services…” or in other words, a false or misleading endorsement of the candidate. So, regardless of PRO licenses, candidates would be well advised to get permission if they wanted to use anyone’s hit as a theme song.

Moreover, it’s possible that a candidate could violate an artist’s actual trademark, which would constitute a direct violation of the Lanham Act, which—like the Copyright Act—can subject an infringer to money damages and injunctive relief. While it’s not likely that a candidate would use a band’s trademarked logo, names and phrases associated with recording artists and other entertainers often are trademarked. Just see how fast Michael Buffer’s legal eagles will swoop down on you if you use the phrase, “let’s get ready to rumble” in any kind of commercial activity. Many artists, including Madonna, have trademarked their names, and Taylor Swift recently filed a whole bunch of trademark applications for phrases associated with her 1989 album. As any copyright maven knows, titles, names, short phrases, and slogans can’t be copyrighted. But they can be trademarked for all kinds of uses from apparel to greeting cards.

Then there’s the “right of publicity” (sometimes referred to as the right to privacy), which, unlike copyright and trademark, is governed by individual state’s laws. While many states have statutes governing this right, including New York and California, other states enforce these rights based on common law (judicial precedents). The right of publicity typically includes the use of an individual’s name and likeness for commercial purposes. That’s why songwriter, label, management, and other agreements typically have provisions granting the use of the person’s name and approved likeness and bio for a variety of uses. While most composers would hardly object to their music publisher or label using their name and image to promote their works, these rights don’t automatically flow with the copyrights to songs or recordings of them. A candidate’s using a song without permission could constitute a violation of the artist’s publicity/privacy rights.

And there’s another wrinkle to the right of publicity. In some states, like California, a celebrity’s right to exploit his persona extends beyond the grave. In others, like New York, the right terminates when the individual does. So, in addition to wills, trusts, and other documents, if you’re a celebrity, a very important aspect of estate planning is deciding upon your domicile at the time of your eventual demise.

So, what have we learned here? Campaigners, much like cover bands, should be careful about using songs. If you’re paying tribute to a band by simply performing covers of their songs in a venue that’s got PRO licenses, then you’re almost certainly okay. But if you start selling hats, T-shirts, and mugs emblazoned with the band’s logo, a picture of its members, or a well-known phrase from one of their songs, or use the songs to sell products or services, then you’d better be prepared to pay tribute in the form of cold cash as you could run afoul of trademark and publicity laws.

One would think that politicians and their advisors would know this by now. Given that there are artists on every point in the political spectrum, a candidate could simply solicit one sympathetic to their views and avoid all sorts of tsuris. So when it comes to using someone else’s stuff, whether in political campaigns or artistic collages, when in doubt, leave it out. Or as I’ve said before, you might want to seek consent of the rights holder (or the advice of competent counsel) before putting it in.

Google Books’ Dubious Distinction Between Transformative Use and Derivative Works

Given its prior ruling in last year’s substantially similar HathiTrust case, the Second Circuit’s October 16 decision in The Author’s Guild v. Google, Inc. was as inevitable as the Cubs failing to win the World Series. Still those in the content creating community feel it’s fundamentally unfair that Google gets to scan millions of copyrighted books in their entirety without paying a dime for the privilege under the banner of fair use. The opinion, written by Judge Pierre N. Leval (Mr. Transformative Use, himself), not surprisingly held that Google’s usage was a transformative, and therefore fair, use under the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, which had relied upon Judge Leval’s own Harvard Law Review article advocating a transformative use analysis.

The facts are briefly as follows: Google digitally scanned more than 20 million of books that were submitted by participating university libraries – but without the consent of the rights holders – to create a searchable database for these materials. In return, the submitting library gets a digital copy of each work it submitted, providing that the library agrees to use the digital copy only in compliance with copyright laws. The database, which can be searched online by the public for free, provides a list of works containing the key terms searched as well as snippets from each book containing the search terms in context. Google has built in safeguards that limit the number of snippets and the amount of text displayed so that a searcher cannot obtain a copy of the book, or a substantial portion of it, simply by doing repeated searches.

I’ll leave it to others to critique the Court’s analysis of the finding of fair use under the four factors of Section 107 of the Copyright Act. My focus is on the opinion’s distinction between “transformative” fair uses of copyrighted works, for which no permission is needed, and the creation of “derivative works” as defined in Section 101 and for which authorization from the copyright owner is required pursuant to Section 106(2).

Judge Leval, in pages 17 through 19 of his opinion, including a lengthy footnote 18, appears to address the Seventh Circuit’s issues with the transformative test, particularly as voiced in Judge Easterbrook’s opinion in last year’s Kienitz case, which I’ve previously written about. Kienitz concerned alterations to a copyrighted photograph of the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. The District Court found that the usage was fair, relying on a “transformative use” analysis.

Although the Seventh Circuit affirmed the result, it rejected the transformative use approach as articulated in the Second Circuit’s much-criticized Cariou decision, finding a conflict with protected derivative works:

Fair use is a statutory defense to infringement. The Copyright Act sets out four non-exclusive factors for a court to consider. The district court and the parties have debated whether the t-shirts are a “transformative use” of the photo – and , if so, just how “transformative” the use must be. That’s not one of the statutory factors, though the Supreme Court mentioned it in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. The Second Circuit has run with the suggestion and concluded that “transformative use” is enough to bring a modified copy within the scope of §107. Cariou applied this to an example of “appropriation art,” in which some of the supposed value comes from the very fact that the work was created by someone else. We’re skeptical of Cariou’s approach, because asking exclusively whether something is “transformative” not only replaces the list in §107 but could also override 17 U.S.C. §106(2), which protects derivative works. To say that a new use transforms the work is precisely to say that it is derivative and thus, one might suppose, protected under §106(2). Cariou and its predecessors in the Second Circuit do not explain how every “transformative use” can be “fair use” without extinguishing the author’s rights under §106(2). We think it best to stick with the statutory list, of which the most important usually is the fourth (market effect). (Citations omitted)

While agreeing with Judge Easterbrook that the fourth factor is the most important, Judge Leval also noted that the Supreme Court stressed the importance of the first factor, the “purpose and character of the use,” in making a determination of fair use. Citing Campbell (but coyly omitting the Supreme Court’s approving citation – more than Judge Easterbrook’s mere mention – of his own seminal article promulgating the concept of transformative use), Judge Leval wrote: “The more the appropriator is using the copied material for new, transformative purposes, the more it serves copyright’s goal of enriching public knowledge and the less likely it is that the appropriation will serve as a substitute for the original or its plausible derivatives, shrinking the protected market opportunities of the copyrighted work.”

Judge Leval further elaborated: “In other words, transformative uses tend to favor a fair use finding because a transformative use is one that communicates something new and different from the original or expands its utility, thus serving copyright’s overall objective of contributing to public knowledge.” But, as the Court’s opinion cautions: “The word ‘transformative’ cannot be taken too literally as a sufficient key to understanding the elements of fair use. It is rather a suggestive symbol for a complex thought, and does not mean that any and all changes made to an author’s original text will support a finding of fair use.“ Fair enough, but how is this dictum helpful in practice?

Here’s how the Second Circuit addressed the tension between transformative fair use and protected derivative works:

A further complication that can result from the oversimplified reliance on whether the copying involves transformation is that the word “transform” also plays a role in defining “derivative works,” over which the original rights holder retains exclusive control…..The statute defines derivative works largely by example, rather than explanation. The examples include “translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgement, condensation,” to which list the statute adds “any other form in which a work may be…transformed (emphasis added). As we noted in Author’s Guild v. HathiTrust, “[p]aradigmatic examples of derivative works include the translation of a novel into another language, the adaptation of a novel into a movie or play, or the recasting of a novel as an e-book or an audiobook.” While such changes can be described as transformations, they do not involve the kind of transformative purpose that favors a fair use finding. The statutory definitions suggest that derivative works generally involve transformations in the nature of changes of form. By contrast, copying from an original for the purpose of criticism or commentary on the original or provision of information about it, tends most clearly to satisfy Campbell’s notion of the “transformative” purpose involved in the analysis of Factor One.” (Citations omitted)

I’m doubtful the foregoing answers Judge Easterbrook because even this formulation of transformative use sounds like it could cover a lot of protected derivative works as translations and abridgements of texts and arrangements of musical works surely expand their utility and often communicate something new. For example, the Southern District of New York recently held that taking the characters, settings and entire scenes from the TV series, Three’s Company, and adapting them into a stage play (a mere “change of form” and presumably a derivative work under Judge Leval’s revised formulation), was a transformative fair use that parodied the original.

As I’ve previously written, the transformative use test remains amorphous and something akin to a restatement of Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” standard where wholesale copying of large swaths or entire works can be found to be fair use if transformative. As the Court concluded in its epic footnote 18: “Attempts to find a circumspect shorthand for a complex concept are best understood as suggestive of a general direction, rather than as definitive descriptions.” Yeah, right.

Despite the not terribly helpful attempts to define the ineffable, the quoted portion of the Court’s opinion does posit two instances of transformative use that do not appear to conflict with the general understanding of what constitutes a derivative work: 1) where the use of the underlying work is to comment on or criticize it; and 2) where the use provides information about the work. The Second Circuit cited Campbell as an instance of the former and clearly views Google’s actions as an example of the latter:

Google’s making of a digital copy to provide a search function is a transformative use, which augments public knowledge by making available information about Plaintiffs’ books without providing the public with a substantial substitute for matter protected by the Plaintiffs’ copyright interests in the original works or derivatives of them.

However, in Campbell, the Supreme Court pointed out that the musical parody of Roy Orbison’s iconic “Oh, Pretty Woman,” used only as much as was needed to conjure and comment upon the original song. Here, the Second Circuit blesses the copying of millions of complete works in the name of transformative use. There’s no doubt that Google’s database is incredibly useful and can provide substantial benefits to the public. However, as with derivative works, there are lots of really useful and beneficial things for which licenses are routinely obtained.

Transformative use analysis can be a helpful tool in applying the first statutory factor but it shouldn’t override all four §107 factors as it seems to do under current Second Circuit jurisprudence. And however formulated, it doesn’t adequately distinguish between fair and derivative uses. There is, however, one other point on which the estimable judges Leval and Easterbrook agree: fair use is an affirmative defense, as pointed out in Campbell. However, this seems to conflict with the Ninth’s Circuit’s recent opinion in the “dancing baby case” where, in the context of DMCA takedown notices, it states that fair use is something that is substantively “authorized by law.” Perhaps it’s time once again for the Supreme Court to transform fair use jurisprudence by providing some clarity to the concept.

Why the RIAA Indirectly Sued Aurous For Willful Copyright Infringement

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) wasted no time in going after the new streaming site, Aurous. A mere three days after its “alpha” launch, RIAA’s constituent major labels, Atlantic, Warner Bros., UMG Recordings, Sony Music and Capitol Records (the entities that have standing to sue) filed their copyright infringement action against the company and its founder and principal designer, Andrew Sampson. The 20-page complaint, filed October 13, seeks temporary and permanent injunctive relief, statutory damages for “willful” infringement in the amount $150,000 (or, alternatively actual damages to be proven at trial), as well as costs and attorney’s fees, pursuant to Copyright Act §§501-502 and §§504-505.

So what is Aurous and why is the RIAA so miffed? In an interview in Billboard the day before the suit was filed, Sampson explained that the service is a mere music player, or an aggregator of other players:

At the most fundamental level, it’s a music player like any other. What stands out is that it can take advantage of other existing platforms and piggyback off those, and integrated those into platform…..You have YouTube, Spotify playlists, Apple Music playlists — the end goal, once we’re out of alpha, is to put those playlists into our app, and it’ll do the rest of the work. So you can listen from anywhere that you have a playlist.

Obviously, the RIAA sees a more sinister operation, one that offers access to pirated music files through the BitTorrent network, but with an interface that makes it much easier for ordinary non-geeks to use. As touted on the Aurous site: “Aurous is BitTorrent Music for Your Dad.“ The complaint makes a less flattering comparison: “Like Grokster, Limewire or Grooveshark, it is neither licensed nor legal.” RIAA alleges that Aurous is set up to receive music exclusively from overseas pirate sites. The complaint further alleges that Aurous unfairly and unlawfully competes with legitimate, licensed sites such as Apple Music, iTunes, Google Play, Rhapsody and Spotify.

The complaint contains three counts of infringement: 1) inducement of copyright infringement, 2) contributory copyright infringement, and 3) vicarious copyright infringement. Notice that neither defendant is sued for actual, direct copyright infringement.

Why is this? Since the heady, ‘ster crazy days of Napster, Grokster, Aimster and other first generation pirate sites, newer avatars of unlicensed free services are careful not to upload any content on its own servers. Instead, they act as convenient portals for users to search and access allegedly infringing files stored elsewhere. Aurus, the so-called “Popcorn Time for music,” apparently does not store files on its systems. That’s why defendants aren’t alleged to be committing any actual infringement themselves. So what are these three distinct, but related claims of indirect infringement?

Inducement of copyright infringement, as described by the Supreme Court in the Grokster decision, is where “one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.” That is precisely what RIAA alleges:

Defendants have designed and launch and are operating Aurous with the object of promoting its use to infringe Plaintiff’s copyrights. Defendants knowingly and intentionally induce, entice, persuade and cause users of Aurous to infringe Plaintiff’s copyrights in their sound recordings….

Contributory infringement is where a party has knowledge of another person’s direct infringement and engages in “substantial” participation in the infringement. Here, RIAA alleges: “Defendants have specific, actual, and constructive knowledge of both the infringing activity at the sources of unauthorized copies of Plaintiff’s works that Aurous locates and to which it links, and of the infringing activity of Aurous’s users.” Together, the first two counts amount to Aurous touting that they’ve got lots of infringing files for you to find (inducement) and then they provide the tools to make it easy for you to access these files they know or should know aren’t legit (contribution).

So what’s vicarious copyright infringement? That’s where a defendant has the right to supervise or control the conduct of the actual infringers and also receives a “direct financial interest” in the infringing activity. While this theory of liability is an outgrowth of the doctrine of respondeat superior, there need not be an employer-employee relationship, as is the case with Aurous and its users. Vicarious copyright infringement is the theory upon which performing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI are able to hold the owners of nightclubs that perform music without a license liable even though the club may be owned by a corporate entity. This basis of copyright infringement allows RIAA to sue Sampson individually without having to “pierce the corporate veil.”

Here’s how RIAA alleges the elements of a vicarious liability claim:

By providing and operating their service, Defendants are receiving a direct financial benefit from copyright infringement in the form of a growing base of users that Defendants can monetize now or later with advertising and other methods of generating revenue. Defendants have stated their intention to display advertising on Aurous. Defendants have the right and ability to stop or limit the infringing activity occurring via their service but they take no steps to do so. Defendants are able to supervise or control the infringing activity of their users in many different ways, including by deciding the sources from which Aurous can and cannot retrieve music files, and through the ability to remotely alter the behavior of the Aurous service by issuing automatic updates to software installed on users’ computers.

Aurous promptly tweeted its view of RIAA’s “direct financial benefit” claim: “@RIAA principle [sic] complaint is that we’re ‘profiting’, anyone see any ads? We sure don’t.” The complaint doesn’t allege any specific activity by Sampson other than to state that “he describes himself as the lead software developer for the Aurous service and the individual responsible for decisions regarding the service” and that he’s the company’s President.

So now you know why RIAA doesn’t allege any direct infringement by defendants but instead bases its claim on three related and often overlapping theories of indirect copyright infringement. The word “aurous” means something that’s made of or contains gold. Whether Aurous might be a gold mine for RIAA or the defendants depends upon whether the court buys the RIAA’s assertion that Aurous is “illegally profiting from piracy by free riding on the creative efforts and investments of others” or takes the EFF‘s view that “[o]nce again, @RIAA asks a court to order the entire world to block & filter an app they don’t like.” Apparently, the Florida federal district court seems inclined towards the former, having issued a temporary restraining order effectively shuttering the site until a hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction scheduled for October 28.

Update: On December 10, 2015, it was announced that RIAA and Aurous reached a settlement whereby Aurous would pay $3 million and shut down permanently. Considering that the site barely launched before RIAA sued, this is a tremendous victory for RIAA against a site that blatantly used copyrighted songs without authorization.

The Second Circuit Terminates Copyright in Santa Claus Song

In its October 8 decision in Baldwin v. EMI Feist Catalog, Inc., the Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s granting of summary judgment to defendant music publisher, holding that a 2007 termination notice effectively severed a portion of EMI’s US copyright interest in the Christmas classic, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (the “Song”). The Song was written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. Plaintiffs are Coots’s statutory heirs.

In order to understand the Court’s 40-page opinion, one must briefly delve into the differences between the Copyright Act of 1909 and the current copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1976, which became effective as of January 1, 1978. Works created since 1978 enjoy a copyright term of life of the author(s) plus 70 years. Under the 1909 Act, the US copyright consisted of two distinct terms, an initial term of 28 years, followed by a renewal term of an additional 28 years. One reason for the bifurcated term of copyright under the 1909 Act was to give authors such as songwriters a second chance to negotiate for the value of their creations as fledgling artists often lack the information or bargaining power to do a good deal. However, writers often, but not always, assigned both the initial and renewal terms of US copyright to the grantee, here a music publisher. This assignment of both terms was valid so long as the assigning author lived into the renewal term so that the grant of those rights would vest.

When the 1976 Act was passed, it included some provisions that affected copyrights under the 1909 Act. First, it extended the renewal term so that a pre-1978 copyright would last for a total of 75 years. Second, the 1976 Act introduced similar, but not identical, termination provisions for both old and new copyright assignments, allowing authors or their statutory heirs (who are often different from, and for copyright purposes superior to, those designated under a will or state intestacy statutes), another chance to reclaim their share of the US copyright. Although termination notices can be served prior to the effective date, no termination of a US copyright interest can be effective until 35 years after the original assignment was made.

Section 203 governs terminations of copyright assignments occurring after January 1, 1978 and Section 304(c) covers those that occurred pre-1978. Since book and music publishers had better lobbyists than struggling writers, the termination provisions are deliberately difficult to execute. Both Section 203 and 304(c) require that the termination notice must: a) be served within a specific window of time, b) contain all of the required information including the date of the grant to be terminated, c) be served on the proper party, d) be executed by the author or the requisite percentage of statutory heirs; and e) be recorded in the Copyright Office. The details are contained in the statutory provisions and the Copyright Office regulations for terminations.

Both Sections 203 and 304(c) contain an additional clause: terminating parties cannot re-assign their post-termination US copyright interest until after the effective date of the termination – except they may do a new deal covering the post-termination period prior to the effective date with the party whose rights are being terminated. This gives the incumbent rights holder a leg up in negotiations and it is often the case that termination notices are used by authors and heirs merely as leverage to get a better deal with their current publisher.

With this somewhat simplified legal background, let’s review the salient facts in our Santa Claus suit. Coots and Gillespie wrote the Song and assigned the copyright to Feist, EMI’s predecessor-in-interest, in 1934. Copyright for the song was registered later that year. However, Coots didn’t assign his renewal rights in the 1934 agreement but did so separately in a 1951 agreement. A renewal registration was timely filed in 1961 as was required under the 1909 Act to prevent the copyright in the Song from going into the public domain. As of 1961, the copyright in the song was due to expire at the end of 56 years, in 1990.

In September 1981, Coots served a notice under §304(c) terminating the 1951 agreement, effective as of October 1990. By that time, the 1976 Act had passed and the copyright in the Song was now due to expire in 2009. Coots’s attorney sent the termination notice to the Copyright Office for recordation, as required by the statute. Under the doing a deal with the current publisher exception, Coots’s lawyer then engaged in negotiations with the music publisher to secure a new (and presumably better) deal. This usually consists of one or more of the following: the writer receiving a larger percentage of royalties, the writer being paid an acquisition fee for the post-termination term and the writer receiving a hefty recoupable advance on post-termination royalties.

The new deal concluded with Coot’s signing a 1981 agreement and the assignment clause included the usual boilerplate: “all rights” including “all renewals and extensions” of the copyright as well as “reversionary and termination interests” pursuant to section 304. The 1981 agreement further stated that the termination notice was filed in the Copyright Office and, in addition to payment of royalties, included a “non-recoupable bonus” (i.e., an acquisition payment) of $100,000 for the post-termination rights. After the 1981 deal was done, apparently Coots’s lawyer contacted the Copyright Office and the unrecorded termination notice was returned to him.

With the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Act of 1998, the term of pre-1978 copyrights was again extended (as were post-1978 copyrights from life plus 50 years) for another twenty years, bringing the duration of copyright protection for pre-1978 works to a total of 95 years. As a result, the Song now would not enter the public domain until 2029. Moreover, the 1976 Act added yet another termination provision for an author or his statutory heirs to obtain these final twenty years of copyright protection. However, this provision, section 304(d), stipulates that it is available only if there had not been a prior exercise of termination rights under section 304(c).

Although the Coots heirs served a section 304(d) termination notice with respect to the 1951 agreement in 2004 (under the theory that because the prior 304(c) notice had not been recorded it was a nullity), EMI and the Coots heirs ultimately agreed (at least at that time) that any termination rights should be directed against the 1981 agreement in accordance with §203, governing post-1978 grants.

So in early 2007, the Coots heirs served – and recorded—a notice of termination of the grant under the 1981 agreement pursuant to §203, with an effective date of December 15, 2016. EMI offered the heirs $2.75 million for their post-termination copyright interest but that offer was rejected as being too low. Because of additional complications dealing with “publication” rights, the Coots heirs subsequently served another termination notice in 2012, with an effective date of December 2021. The lawsuit over the Song about red-suited St. Nick ensued.

The District Court held that since the 1981 termination notice (under §304(c)) was never recorded, the termination of the 1951 agreement was ineffective and therefore EMI still controlled the copyright as a pre-1978 grant (here, 1951) cannot be terminated pursuant to either notice served pursuant to §203, which only covers post-1978 transfers.

The Second Circuit reversed, holding that the 1981 agreement superseded the 1951 agreement and that latter agreement was properly terminated by the 2007 notice pursuant to §203. While EMI argued that the 1981 agreement conveyed only post-termination rights, the Court held that the parties’ intent was such that the 1981 agreement, which was executed by Coots himself rather than his statutory heirs (thereby not running afoul of prior Second Circuit precedent in the Penguin Group v. Steinbeck case), replaced the 1951 contract, even in the absence of an integration clause, based upon the broadness of the grant.

What do we take away from all this? First, exercising termination rights is complicated. Second, you may have noticed that I’ve consistently referred to the “US copyright” in discussing the case. That’s because the statutory termination provisions, whether under §203 or §304, apply only to US copyrights. By contract, songwriters and other creators typically assign worldwide rights, although recent vintage agreements assign rights “throughout the universe.” So, EMI will still continue to own the rights corresponding to Coots’s share outside of the US, despite the effect of a valid termination notice.

What does that mean? By music industry convention, the US interest is typically valued at 50% of the economic value of the worldwide copyright and the rest of the world constitutes the remaining 50%. So let’s say someone wants to do a synch deal to use the Song in a feature film and the producers pay $40,000 for a worldwide, all rights buyout for several seconds of underscore in an upcoming Christmas caper. By custom, the party that owns the US rights would collect $20,000 and the party that controls the rest of the world would also get $20,000.

Mind you, these fees only cover the composition; the rights to the master recording of the composition would be separately licensed and would command a commensurate fee. And remember, this case only concerns Coots’s share of the Song. As to that of his co-writer, Gillespie, ASCAP’s online database indicates that the US rights are controlled by another publisher (but it’s possible EMI may still control world-ex US rights). So while Santa Claus may no longer be coming to towns in the US for EMI, it’s still possible St. Nick may sojourn through a few foreign cities on its behalf.

A Peek at the Congressional Briefing Book on the Music Business

On September 22, the Congressional Research Service (“CRS”) of the Library of Congress, released a report, Copyright Licensing in Music Distribution, Reproduction and Public Performance (the “Report”). The Report states its purpose as follows:

This report provides an overview of the complexities of the Copyright Act’s provisions concerning music licensing. It also discusses four issues involving copyrights in musical works and sound recording that have been the subject of recent congressional and judicial consideration: (1) extending copyright protection to pre-1972 sound recordings; (2) requiring radio broadcasters to compensate recording artists; (3) changing the standard used to calculate royalties for digital music transmissions; and (4) modifying antitrust consent decrees governing songwriter performance royalties.

For those of you unfamiliar with CRS, this is what it does, according to its website:

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation. As a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, CRS has been a valued and respected resource on Capitol Hill for more than a century.

The CRS defines its mission as follows: “CRS serves the Congress throughout the legislative process by providing comprehensive and reliable legislative research and analysis that are timely, objective, authoritative and confidential, thereby contributing to an informed national legislature.” Accordingly, the Report provides a briefing book for members of Congress – or at least their staffs – on the current statutory and regulatory issues shaping the music industry. So it might be interesting to  know what’s in it.

The 41-page report provides a dense, but useful summary of much of the statutory framework of the current music licensing landscape, including a discussion of recently introduced legislation. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because the Copyright Office traversed this terrain earlier this year in its comprehensive 202-page report, Copyright and the Music Marketplace, and which I summarized here. And of course, the Copyright Office, like the CRS, is also a division of the Library of Congress, although perhaps may change, as the Register of Copyrights has proposed that the Copyright Office leave the Library of Congress and become an independent agency.

In keeping with its stated purpose, the CRS Report (as well as the Copyright Office’s earlier iteration) covers several key issues, including:

  • The Justice Department’s ongoing review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, including the issue of “partial withdrawal” of works from their respective repertoires;
  • The background to the Fair Pay Fair Play Act of 2015, which would mandate that traditional AM/FM radio stations pay public performance royalties on sound recordings, just like their internet streaming counterparts do, as is done in virtually every other country in the world; and
  • The Songwriter Equity Act of 2015, which would modify regulatory standards to have all licenses fees set by statute, as  under the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, to be under a “willing buyer / willing seller” standard.

The Report also refers to the Copyright Office’s prior music licensing survey and its various recommendations, but does not contain any of its own.

The CRS Report provides a particularly detailed history of the current statutory framework, including case law and legislative developments, something one would expect in a Congressional briefing memo. However, in attempting to educate Congress about the relevant issues facing the music industry, the Report falls somewhat short in that there is no discussion of the music marketplace as a whole, as opposed to the particular statutory and regulatory scheme currently in place. One might think that putting the various legislative and consent decree proposals in context with the overall music marketplace would be highly relevant to Congressional consideration.

For example, there is no discussion about synchronization or “synch” licenses, which are the permissions required from both the copyright owner of the song (the music publisher(s)) and the copyright owner of the particular recording (the record label) to use a piece of recorded music in film, TV, advertising and other audio-visual uses. This significant portion of the music business is a free market, unregulated by statute or consent decree. Typically, music publishers and record labels command the same fees for synch licenses.

This is in stark contract to license fees for the distribution or downloading of  recordings or the streaming of them over the internet. Both of these areas are regulated and there is a large disparity between the fees labels and artists receive as opposed to those received by publishers and songwriters.   It is critically important that Congress understand the overall music licensing marketplace when considering any change in music licensing policy, including the pending legislation.