For years now, a huge battle has been brewing between proponents of performance royalties for the owners of sound recording copyrights to be paid by terrestrial radio stations (those broadcasting through the air) and it has been gathering steam in the last several months.

The battle is being waged between the giants of industry,  the RIAA, representing the four major record labels, aRep. Michael Conawaynd organizations like the National Association of Broadcasters and the Free Radio Alliance, representing the broadcast radio industry.  The latest round of fire was shot on Oct ober 31, 2007 on behalf of the broadcasters when two Texas lawmakers, Michael Conaway, a Republican, and Gene Green, a Democrat, co-sponsored concurrent resolution H. Con. Res 244, the “Local Radio FRep. Gene Greenree Act.”

 A concurrent resolution is a legislative measure passed by both the House and the Senate generally used to address the sentiments of both chambers with regard to certain matters.  Since they do not have the force of law, concurrent resolutions are generally used to provide for adjournments, recess, use of the Rotunda, and other such matters.  The “Local Radio Free Act” is essentially a policy statement supporting free local broadcast radio and opposing any new performance fees, taxes or royalties for the public performance of sound recordings over the airways.  Ever wonder what is behind all of this noise?

When a company wants to use a sound recording of a musical composition, there are two copyright owners with whom it must deal:  the owner of the musical composition copyright and the owner of the sound recording copyright.  For example, Dolly Parton (or her publishing company) owns the copyright to I will always love you, but two different record companies own the copyright in the sound recordings performed independently by Dolly Parton and, later, by Whitney Houston.  And, of course, one of the rights granted by the Copyright Act to the owner of a copyright is the right to publicly perform the work.

For years, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC have collected the performance royalties on behalf of the composers and writers of the music compositions.  All radio stations, whether terrestrial or digital (over the Internet or Satellite), pay performance royalties for the musical compositions they play over their broadcasts — to the tune of around 500 million dollars per year.  It wasn’t until 1995 and the passage of The Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Acts that the public performance right was created in the sound recording of a musical composition.  At that point in time, the digital broadcasters of music, including Satellite and Internet stations, were required to start paying a performance fee to the owners of the sound recording copyright, i.e., the record labels and artists who perform the song.  The Act specifically exempts, however, the local radio stations that broadcast the music over the airways, ostensibly on the grounds that the recording artists and labels were receiving free publicity from the broadcast radio stations in exchange for the use of their sound recording.

Now, with the demise of the CD and the rise of illicit downloading, the record industry is pressing Congress hard to extend the Digital Performance royalty to the local broadcasters and, of course, those broadcasters, with their extremely old and strong political ties, are fighting hard against it. 

The RIAA, for its part, is sending CEO Mitch Bainwol onMitch Bainwol, CEO of RIAA the interview circuit.  Bainwol is consistently hailed by many Washington publications as one of the most powerful and influential lobbyist in Washington.  In an L.A. Times article in which he discussed the performance fee, Bainwol is quoted as saying that “the creation of music is suffering because of declining sales.”  This group has the formidable support of the U.S. Copyright Office, which has support the removal of the exemption for terrestrial stations for many years, and the chair of the House subcommittee on intellectual property, California representative Howard Berman, who is actively pursuing legislation to remove the exemption.

The National Broadcast Association is fighting the RIAA with a barrage of print ads and radio ads in support of their position.  They use the word “tax” as an emotive term to sway people to their side.  The NBA stress that it is the major label conglomerates that would get the bulk of any new performance fees.  The radio broadcasters are a formidable force themselves with corporate entities such as Cox Radio, Citadel, Cumulus, Clear Channel, just to name a few, in opposition to the expansion of the digital performance fee. This new legislation is a result of this group’s hard fought efforts against any new measures, claiming that with profit margins already in the single digits in some instances, a performance tax would obliterate their business.  

In the grand scheme of events, the concurrent resolution is probably a non-event.  It is the efforts of one group’s successful lobbying finding a materialization.  Don’t expect this to be the last word on the subject, however.