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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?”

On Presidents, Copyright and a King

As we all know, today was the ceremonial inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President (although the official one was yesterday). Many have pointed out how fitting that the inaugural of our first African American President would occur on the day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.   But while Mr. Obama took the oath of office on one of Dr. King’s personal bibles and alluded to his ideals, the President did not choose to quote Dr. King as he did the Declaration of Independence.

And what if someone wanted to make an artistic statement quoting speeches by President Obama or Dr. King? Anyone who may be inspired to incorporate any of President Obama’s speech it into a musical or other creative work should not have any difficulty doing so. Section 105 of the Copyright Act states  “[c]opyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government.” Section 101 defines a “work of the United States Government” as “ a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.”  Certainly, the President is an officer of the United States Government. And while the  Constitution doesn’t require the President to deliver an inaugural address (unlike the State of the Union address), every President since Washington has done so.

However, many would be surprised that Dr. King’s very publicly delivered “I Have a Dream” speech is protected by copyright and has been registered in the U.S. Copyright Office. And while Dr. King, like President Obama, was a public figure who delivered many noteworthy speeches, he was not a government officer or employee. As with every other private citizen, Dr. King (or his estate) was entitled to obtain copyright protection for the fruits of his creative labors.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the President chose not to quote Dr. King because of copyright considerations.  A small quotation, along the lines of what Mr. Obama used from the Declaration of Independence would undoubtedly have constituted fair use.  But it would be a different matter altogether if someone wanted to incorporate Dr. King’s speech in musical composition or other artistic work.

And while quoting from most government documents probably won’t make for great artistic achievement (although John Adams did try with “Doctor Atomic”), some Presidential utterances are worth remembering.   So, feel free to liberally quote President Obama’s inaugural address – or those of Presidents Reagan or either Bush if you’re so politically inclined (although you may still need to get permission for any audio or video recordings of them), but be careful  when dealing with the public speeches of private citizens.  If you want to use portions of the “I Have a Dream” speech or any of Dr. King’s other well-known (and copyrighted) works, in your own creative endeavors you will probably need to obtain permission – a topic I’ve previously written about.

Why The Obama Big Bird Ad’s Going Bye-Bye

Since last week’s Presidential debate, Big Bird’s eight-foot high profile has grown even larger.  It started with a comment that Republican contender, Gov. Mitt Romney, made to the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS , about cutting federal funding for PBS programs, including Lehrer’s own NewsHour and Sesame Street. Mr. Romney specifically singled out Big Bird for the budget ax.  Thereafter, Big Bird, who claims he’s normally in bed well before 11:30 p.m., made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to address the issue.  Being non-partisan, however, Mr. Bird declined to make any political pronouncements, stating, “No, I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

Unfortunately, he’s managed to do so, courtesy of a TV ad from President Obama’s campaign.  Prominently featuring Big Bird and the familiar green Sesame Street  sign, the ad has a satiric quality to it that one doesn’t typically see in Presidential campaign ads. It seemed, at least to me, more like one of the fake ads produced by Saturday Night Live. But it’s real and Sesame Workshop, the company that owns the rights to Sesame Street and its many characters, made it known that they are not amused.

Sesame Workshop’s demand that the Obama campaign cease using the Big Bird ad has been widely publicized.  But you might well ask, “doesn’t the President’s campaign have a First Amendment right to use Big Bird?” After all, “political speech” is the very core of our right to free speech.  And wouldn’t the use of Big Bird constitute “fair use” under copyright law? Wouldn’t it be considered a protected “parody”?

Well, probably not. Let’s first look at “fair use,” something that’s often misunderstood. Much ink has been spilled in recent years over so-called “fair use rights.” Actually, “fair use,” which is codified in Section 107 of the Copyright Act, is a defense to copyright infringement – not a “right.” And one of the purposes of “fair use” is to balance first amendment speech rights with copyright law’s limited monopoly.  Section 107 does state that use of a work may be “fair use” when used “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research….” Moreover, the courts have repeatedly held that there are no black line rules for determining fair use and that each decision is to be made on a case-by-case basis through an analysis of Section 107’s four factors. These include the “the purpose and character of the use”, such as whether it’s a “commercial use” and how much of the underlying work is used in the allegedly infringing work.  More recent cases also look to see if the use is “transformative,” meaning that the underlying work is not merely reproduced but is used in a new way.

One thing’s clear: just because it’s a political ad doesn’t mean you can use someone else’s copyrighted work.  The First Amendment guarantees free speech, but it doesn’t give you the right to freely use someone else’s speech.  A few years ago, Joe Walsh of The Eagles sued Joe Walsh the Congressional candidate over the use of one of his songs in a TV ad.  Many composers won’t allow their works to be used for political purposes. For example, Aaron Copland’s estate won’t allow the use of the iconic “Fanfare for the Common Man” to be used in political campaigns. A few years ago, when I was at Boosey & Hawkes, I was able to slap Comedy Central on the wrist for an unauthorized use of the Copland anthem on The Daily Show that was discovered by my staff. The result: a hefty license fee and some tickets to a taping of the show.

So what about the Big Bird ad? The use of the clip of Gov. Romney from the Presidential debate is likely  a fair use. It’s a short clip of a public, newsworthy event and the ad is commenting on Gov. Romney’s views and criticizing them.  With respect to Big Bird, it’s a bit more tricky.  He’s not the subject of the criticism, but his name and likeness is being used to criticize Gov. Romney’s statements.  And there’s an awful lot of Big Bird in the ad.

But, isn’t it a “transformative” use? After all, parody is one of the uses that may be considered transformative.  But, sometimes a parody is not a parody in the legal sense. The 1994 Supreme Court case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. (involving 2 Live Crew’s unauthorized use the Roy Orbison hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman” in one of its songs) and many subsequent cases, hold that a new work is a protected parody under copyright law only when it is commenting on, i.e., parodying, the underlying original work.  In the 2 Live Crew case, the Supreme Court found that the rap group’s song did, in fact, comment upon the Orbison hit.  In the Obama ad, it appears that the parody is directed not at Big Bird (the underlying copyrighted work), but at Gov. Romney. That would tend to defeat the parody defense. For example, it’s not a legally protected “parody” if you take a popular song and merely change the lyrics to comment on some topical issues of the day as opposed to scorning the song itself. But what about Weird Al Yankovic? Actually, Weird Al gets permission from the copyright owners of the songs he “parodies.”  And, as the Supreme Court noted in the 2 Live Crew case, the parody doesn’t have to be either good or funny.

So, it’s murky at best under copyright law as to whether the Obama campaign can use Big Bird in its ad without permission.  But it doesn’t end there. Remember the “Sesame Street” street sign? Sesame Workshop has a trademark in that famous logo.  Not surprisingly, there’s a “fair use” provision in the federal trademark act (that’s Section 33(b)(4) of the Lanham Act for you footnote freaks) and the courts construing it typically consider three factors, including whether the use of the mark suggests sponsorship or endorsement by the owner of the trademark.  Under that test, it looks like Sesame Workshop has a legitimate gripe about the use of its trademark “endorsing” the President’s position.

And remember, I mentioned the use of Big Bird’s “name and likeness.” That’s typically an area of law known as the right of publicity, which allows celebrities, often very dead ones, to make lots of money off of their name and likeness and to prevent others from cashing in without their consent.  However, unlike copyright and trademark, the right of publicity is a matter of state law, not federal law, and every state’s law is different. And while I know of cases where actors portraying fictional characters have successfully made publicity claims (e.g., George Wendt and John Ratzenberger suing over a “Norm” and “Cliff” robot impersonators), I’m not aware of any right of publicity cases involving characters such as the likes of Big Bird, Mickey Mouse or Spiderman.

So, the Big Bird ad, on intellectual property law grounds, is likely to fly the coop. However, that’s not why it’s going bye-bye. While I’m sure the lawyers working for the Obama campaign know that they’re not on solid ground, the Sesame Workshop folks aren’t likely to file a lawsuit. For one, Sesame Workshop’s gotten a lot of favorable free publicity.  But more importantly, the Big Bird brouhaha has a shelf life that will last only until the October 11 Vice Presidential debate and I suspect both sides know this and don’t want to spend a lot of money fighting over something so ephemeral.  Even if there weren’t any legal issues, I’d be very surprised if the Big Bird ad continues to air after this week, by which time it’ll be as fresh as last week’s leftover chicken.