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More US politicians back American record industry’s bid for radio royalties

By | Published on Wednesday 27 September 2017

US Congress

Two more members of Congress in the US have formally backed the legislation that is attempting to force American radio stations to pay royalties to record labels and artists as well as music publishers and songwriters. Democrats Jim Cooper and Brad Sherman have now signed on as co-sponsors of the proposed Fair Play Fair Pay Act.

As much previously reported, US copyright law is unusual in that it doesn’t provide a general ‘performing right’ for sound recordings, meaning third parties do not need to secure a licence or pay any royalties to artists and labels when they play a track on the radio or in public. There is, however, a digital performing right, meaning online and satellite broadcasters do need a licence.

This peculiarity of American law means artists and labels do not earn any royalties when their music is played by traditional radio stations, unlike their counterparts in most other countries, and the songwriters and publishers in the US itself. Meanwhile online and satellite broadcasters in America are at a disadvantage to AM/FM broadcasters.

There have been various efforts over the years to introduce a general performing right for sound recordings in the US, the bipartisan Fair Play Fair Pay Act being the latest. The proposed legislation was reintroduced into Congress back in March.

Welcoming the new support of Cooper and Sherman for the radio royalty proposals, Chris Israel from lobbying group musicFIRST said yesterday: “We are so pleased to have Congressmen Jim Cooper and Brad Sherman join our effort to ensure music creators are compensated fairly for their work”.

He went on: “Congress has a historic opportunity to modernise the US copyright system by enacting the ‘Fair Play Fair Pay Act’ and their support shows growing bipartisan momentum behind reform. This bill establishes market-based compensation for music creators across all platforms, and creates fair, technology-neutral rules for music services”.

“With digital and streaming services on the rise in popularity”, Israel continued, “the radio industry needs to adapt to the new market realities and continue to grow alongside them. By clinging on to an antiquated and unfair model – and failing to pay for the music that powers its frequencies – the radio industry is bound to be left behind”.

Fair Play Fair Pay isn’t the only proposed legislation looking to reform musical elements of American copyright law, though not all the proposals have the support of the music community. As previously reported, in July four members of Congress proposed the Transparency In Music Licensing & Ownership Act, which would oblige the US Copyright Office to build a publicly accessible database of music rights ownership information.

The lack of a publicly accessible one-stop database of music rights data has been a big talking point within the music community in recent years of course, poor data adding to the complexities of the streaming business, especially when it comes to paying publishers and songwriters. To that end, various initiatives are underway within the music community attempting to address the music rights data problem.

One of the issues with copyright data is that in most countries there is no copyright registration – copyright is automatic – meaning there is not government agency where copyrights are logged. Actually, in the US there is some copyright registration, overseen by the aforementioned Copyright Office. But that hasn’t helped when it comes to getting publishers and songwriters paid, hence the proposal the Copyright Office set up and run a more sophisticated and substantial database of music rights information.

Which might sound like the sort of thing the music community could get behind. Except the Transparency In Music Licensing & Ownership Act is mainly the result of lobbying by music users rather than music creators – so digital firms and broadcasters – and the US music community reckons that the proposals are impractical, and the sanctions that would be put in place to force creators to input their data unfair.

Or at least, that was the viewpoint expressed by the Content Creators’ Coalition – another lobbying organisation for music people – in a letter sent to the House Committee On The Judiciary last week. While conceding that the music licensing process is currently too complex, and admitting that artists and songwriters more than anyone would like more transparency, the Coalition declared that the TIMLO Act “represents a one-sided approach that would fail to simplify music licensing”.

On the impracticalities of the proposed new database, the Coalition’s letter says “the record keeping mandates in the bill are voluminous and incredibly vague”, noting the use of terms like ‘catalogue number’ which, it says, “are undefined and could mean a number of things”. It also criticises proposals that basically make songwriters and publishers responsible for logging cover versions of their songs. Asks the letter: “How is an artist supposed to register every album on which one of her songs has been recorded, including recordings by other artists they may not even know about?”

The TIMLO Act also proposes some sticks to force music makers to input their data into the proposed new database. In particular, if a non-data-inputting music maker successfully sued for copyright infringement, they might be deprived access to statutory damages and legal costs. “The law should help creators understand and protect their rights”, states the Coalition. “Not create obstacles courses for them to navigate on pain of losing control over their creative work”.

The letter then argues that the TIMLO proposals “actually incentivise the appropriation of creators’ work based on technical or other often innocent shortcomings, removing key deterrents that should discourage music services from doing so”. After name-checking the proposed copyright reforms the Coalition likes – including Fair Play Fair Pay – the letter concludes: “We urge the Committee to reject [these proposals] and to press ahead at full speed with more genuine music licensing reform”.

Although, as mentioned, various industry initiatives are underway to tackle the music rights data problem – after the TIMLO Act was proposed US collecting societies BMI and ASCAP announced their own combined database venture – some reckon that, ultimately, external pressure is required to force the music industry to get its copyright data in order. Though, it has to be said, a government-run database of this kind – even if launched with good motives – would probably be God awful.