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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.