Royalty Rate Determination
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Not Your Grandfather’s Internet Royalties? DMCA Favorable Rates Might Apply to Internet Offerings

Reversing the Copyright Royalty Board’s determination that a favorable grandfathered royalty rate did not apply to internet streaming audio transmissions, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that internet transmissions are not categorically excluded from the definition of “service” in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA). Music Choice v. Copyright Royalty Bd., Case No. 19-1011 (DC Cir. Aug. 18, 2020) (Rao, J.).

In the late 1990s, Music Choice, a company best known for its cable television genre-specific music channels, also offered some digital audio transmissions over the internet. These audio transmissions—and their alleged continuation through today—are the subject of this case.

Seeking to establish a new regime governing royalties for digital music services, Congress required in the DMCA that service providers pay copyright holders a market-based rate for playing digital music, but set a generally lower “reasonable rate” for certain preexisting subscription services. A preexisting subscription service—i.e., a service offering digital audio subscriptions for a fee before July 31, 1998—was entitled to the lower rate for its subscription transmissions “made in the same transmission medium used by such service on July 31, 1998.” The question here was whether those transmissions could be made over the internet.

In 2016, the Royalty Board held proceedings to set the preexisting royalty rates for 2018 to 2022, during which it referred the legal question of whether Music Choice’s internet transmissions qualified for the grandfathered rates to the Copyright Register. The Register concluded that, based on the DMCA’s legislative history, the grandfathered rates were intended to apply only to cable and satellite offerings. Accordingly, when the Royalty Board set rates for Music Choice’s offerings, it excluded its internet transmissions from the more favorable grandfathered rate.

Music Choice appealed, and the DC Circuit reversed the Royalty Board. The Court found nothing in the DMCA that required that the definition of “service” categorically exclude internet transmissions. As long as the entity existed as of July 31, 1998 (as Music Choice undisputedly did), internet transmissions could be eligible for the grandfathered rate so long as such transmissions were in the medium in existence on that date. The Court found that nothing in the clear and broad statutory definition of “transmission medium” excluded internet transmissions. The Court also concluded that the structure of the DMCA supported such a conclusion, because in other places it distinguished between particular types of transmissions, whereas in the grandfathered copyright rate at issue, the statute used language capturing all types of transmissions available before the key date.

Having concluded that the Royalty Board wrongly excluded internet transmissions per se, the DC Circuit remanded to the Board to consider “the extent to which Music Choice’s current internet offerings can be fairly characterized as included in the service offering Music Choice provided on July 31, 1998.”

Practice Note: It remains to be seen how narrowly the Royalty Board will define the service offered by Music Choice as of July 31, 1998. Regardless of what the Board finds, this case [...]

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Copyright Board Ordered to Take a New Look at Streaming Services Rate Structure

Reversing the Copyright Royalty Board’s (Board) determination of a revised rate structure governing musical works, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that the Board reached a final structure without providing adequate notice. George Johnson v. Copyright Royalty Bd., Case No. 2019-1028 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 7, 2020) (Millett, J.).

Every five years, the Board holds a proceeding to determine the royalty rate and terms for reproducing and distributing musical works, where interested stakeholders are permitted to present evidence and argument. At issue in Johnson is the Board’s decision, made after a five-week evidentiary hearing, setting the compulsory rate for the right to reproduce and distribute recordings of copyrighted musical works, known as a mechanical license, through streaming services for the period of January 1, 2018, to December 31, 2022.

Before the Board’s determination, depending on the type of service provided, the service provider owed a royalty based on a formula that considered two factors: (1) the service provider’s revenue associated with the particular offering, known as the “revenue prong,” and (2) the royalties paid by the service provider to sound recording copyright holders, known as the “total content cost prong.” For some streaming service offerings, the royalty was subject to a mechanical floor, and for some, the total content cost prong was subject to a cap. The Board’s final determination uncapped the total content cost prong and decided to phase in, for all categories over five years, a 15.1% revenue rate and a 26.2% total content cost rate, both higher than prior rates. Streaming services Amazon, Google, Pandora and Spotify, along with copyright owners and pro se songwriter George Johnson, appealed various aspects of the ruling.

On appeal, the challenges ran the gamut of administrative arguments: among others, that the Board’s decision was improperly retroactive, that the Board failed to give proper notice before settling on the rate structure in its final determination and fixed rates arbitrarily and capriciously, that it rejected certain evidence without an adequate explanation, and that it made certain changes to its decision without statutory authority to do so.

Although the D.C. Circuit found most of these arguments unavailing, it was convinced of a few, warranting remand to the Board for further proceedings. Primarily, the Court concluded that the Board failed to provide proper notice that it would uncap the total content cost prong combined with a significant increase in the mechanical royalty license rate. Specifically, the Court held that the Board’s ultimate rate structure, while adopting pieces from various proposals (some of which were never even offered at or before the hearing), was not within the zone of reasonably contemplated outcomes. By eliminating the cap on total content cost for all categories and increasing the royalty rates, the mechanical royalty licenses would be subject to the copyright owners’ unchecked market power.

The D.C. Circuit found two other errors. First, the relevant stakeholders had a settlement history from which the Board could draw conclusions regarding an appropriate rate structure. Nonetheless, the [...]

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