Performance rights organizations (“PRO’s”) are organizations that track and collect performance royalties on behalf of songwriters and music publishers. In the United States, there are four PRO’s: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and Global Music Rights (“GMR”). ASCAP and BMI are the two largest U.S. PRO’s and are also non-profit organizations. Since 1941, ASCAP and BMI have been subject to consent decrees issued by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”). These consent decrees are agreements that allow the government to regulate ASCAP and BMI’s license fees and how they operate in order to prevent monopolization and encourage competition. SESAC and GMR are both independent, privately owned companies that operate on a for-profit basis and are not subject to consent decrees.
In 2014, the music community asked for a review of these decrees and requested the removal of digital licensing from the blanket licenses offered by the PRO’s, allowing publishers to negotiate directly with and be paid higher rates by companies licensing music for digital uses. This is referred to as “Digital Rights Withdrawal” or “DRW.” Digital giants like Google, Pandora, and Sirius/XM, joined by terrestrial radio, lobbied against DRW in order to pay smaller licensing fees to music owners. The DOJ denied the music community’s request for DRW and has now mandated that music publishers be either “all-in” or “all-out” with the PRO’s, meaning that publishers must allow the PRO’s to license all types of performances of their catalogues or none at all.
In its recent ruling, the DOJ also chose to enforce “full-work licensing,” also known as “100% licensing.” Under the practice of 100% licensing, any person with a percentage of ownership of the work has the right to license 100% of the work, not just the percentage owned. That licensor is then liable to account to other co-owners of the work for those co-owners’ share of compensation. This principle is in line with the provisions of copyright law governing joint works, and the longstanding language of the consent decrees supports the practice of full-work licensing. Despite the language of the consent decrees, the music industry has never operated on a 100% licensing basis. The principle of allowing one co-owner to license an entire work can be overridden by a contract between the parties, and the music industry has always operated on a “fractional licensing” basis where most owners agree in writing that each owner will administer its own share. Music users obtaining licenses have also historically accepted the practice of fractional licensing, and those users experienced with PRO licenses know that one must get a license from each PRO so that all shares of co-written compositions are covered. PRO’s also collect license fees from music users and pay its members/affiliates on a fractional basis, i.e. the amount collected or paid is proportional to the share of the composition controlled by that PRO.
While the language of the consent decrees and the practice of the industry have long been out-of-sync, the DOJ’s sudden decision to enforce 100% licensing may force an entire industry to change its longstanding way of doing business. The DOJ’s ruling stipulated that if a PRO cannot license 100% of a composition, then that PRO cannot license that composition at all. This means that any compositions written by co-writers belonging to different societies would potentially become unlicensable by the PRO’s.
What Problems Does This Create?
Those that lobbied against reforming the consent decrees failed to realize that their efforts to pay less may also prevent them from using or playing a large percentage of music, or may require them to remove music from rebroadcasts of older programming, because much of the music they wish to use may become unlicensable by the PRO’s. If compositions are unlicensable by the PRO’s, then music users will have to go directly to music owners for performance licenses. While obtaining direct licenses may be feasible for more experienced users, many music users will not know where to find composition owners or how to go about obtaining licenses from them. If compositions become unlicenseable by the PROs and licenses are not obtained directly from the music owners, it is possible that many compositions may not be used, or many compositions may be used without permission resulting in copyright infringement.
All of these scenarios may hinder music owners from receiving payments for performance royalties, and without the PRO’s, music owners will be responsible for tracking and policing all uses of their music, which is normally too labor intensive and financially burdensome for most music owners.
Foreign performance societies, writers, and publishers are also affected by the DOJ’s ruling. Via reciprocal agreements, U.S. and foreign PRO’s work together to track and collect royalties for performances in a work’s home country and foreign countries. If certain works become unlicensable by U.S. PRO’s, then foreign societies and owners may have to track U.S. performances of their works in the U.S. Anyone in the U.S. wishing to use a foreign work not licensable by a U.S. PRO will have to get a direct license from the foreign licensor. In addition, U.S. owners issuing direct licenses may have to track and collect on foreign performances outside of the societies. Again, this creates burdens on all societies and owners, as well as opening the door for mass amounts of infringement and owners not receiving payments.
The DOJ proposed a solution of modifying all past agreements between co-writers of different societies to allow administration by one owner or PRO. This would apply to both U.S. and foreign writers and publishers. However, this is an impractical solution because many writers will not want another PRO that is not their chosen PRO collecting on their behalf; many writers do not speak to past co-writers or know where to find them; many writers are deceased, leaving one or more co-writers to deal with heirs that may not understand the principles involved or cannot be found; and many writers will not have the financial resources to have their agreements amended.
From a creative standpoint, many writers feel the DOJ’s decision will restrict them to only writing with co-writers from their chosen PRO. Restricting the freedom of writers to collaborate would be a fatal blow to creativity itself and cause many musicians to relegate music to a hobby rather than a career.
Where Are We Now?
The DOJ has allowed ASCAP and BMI a period of one year to comply with the new mandated changes, and if they are still non-compliant after one year, the DOJ can sue ASCAP and BMI for non-compliance with its decision. However, the one-year compliance period has not started yet, and will be delayed by the current efforts of BMI and ASCAP to get this decision reversed.
As of this writing, BMI has sued the DOJ and is appealing the ruling through legal proceedings. ASCAP is developing a lobbying strategy to seek much needed Congressional support and achieve changes from the legislative side. Those of us on the forefront of this issue feel it is best to wait until we have a definite outcome before spending time and resources on modifying agreements or making other changes to longstanding industry practices. However, consult with me on this issue if you are concerned.
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