ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Friday, June 14, 2019

The challenges of licensing music

This isn’t, strictly speaking, about contracts, I guess. But it is about a consent decree, which is at heart a document that binds parties to terms. The Department of Justice has announced that it is reviewing the antitrust consent decree that governs ASCAP and BMI, the two major performing rights organizations used by songwriters and music publishers. Because ASCAP and BMI control so much of the music licensing market, they have been governed by a consent decree for several decades, with the Department of Justice worried about the competitive effects of their near-monopoly over music licensing.

I thought, therefore, that maybe it was time for me to share my friend's Music Licensing Experience.

The music copyright holders keep noting that piracy is a major problem. However, piracy tends to decrease if you make it easier for people to gain legal access to the work in the question. For some time now, studies have shown that people will pay for content, if they are given a feasibly legal way to do it.

A friend of mine was starting a noncommercial podcast. Podcasts are all the rage now. They’re low-cost and have few barriers to entry, and recording equipment is so cheap and easy to come by these days, basically anyone can have a podcast. I am frequently asked by students for information about using music on podcasts. They’ve heard, of course, that any length of time less than thirty seconds is “automatic fair use.”

So my friend’s got this noncommercial podcast and they want to use, in a single episode, two separate clips of the same copyrighted song. Together, the clips total less than forty seconds. My friend, who is not a lawyer, was inclined to do what so many lawyers do, and just take the risk and use the song. “But no!” I protested. “You know me, a copyright lawyer! You should properly license the song!”

I had, in actuality, never licensed a song before. But, I thought, how hard can it be? It shouldn’t be hard, right? Wouldn’t it be in the best interest of the music copyright holders to make it relatively easy for this kind of use to be licensed? Especially given the apparent stance BMI takes that there is no way for you to use music without a license.

Capture

(Fair use? What fair use?)

I told my friend that either BMI or ASCAP would probably have the rights to the song, and they should just ask for a license through the right one. So they looked into it. BMI ended up being the organization to contact, and my friend found a literal tab for Podcasts on the BMI website, so they contacted BMI.

I thought that would be the end of it for my friend, but BMI’s response, unfortunately, was not very helpful. BMI said that the only license it offers is a blanket license, so my friend could not license a single work the way they wanted. The blanket license would be an annual license of almost four hundred dollars a year – a lot of money for a noncommercial podcast that wanted to use a grand total of forty seconds of music from a single song. But, BMI informed them, that license would get my friend access to fourteen million songs!

The problem: My friend didn’t want access to fourteen million songs. My friend wanted one song. Also, I’m pretty sure that BMI is actually required by that consent decree currently under review to offer per-song licensing rates. See Section IX.C ("[BMI] shall not, in connection with any offer to license by it the public performance of musical compositions by music users other than broadcasters, refuse to offer a license . . . for the performance of such specific (i.e., per piece) musical compositions, the use of which shall be requested by the prospective licensee."); see also United States v. Broad. Music, Inc., 275 F.3d 168, 178 n.2 (2d Cir. 2001) ("[T]he per piece license . . . is explicitly required in Section IX(C).”). My friend told me what BMI said, and I told my friend that maybe they should try again, maybe they weren’t clear the first time. So they wrote back to BMI, clarifying that they wanted a per-song rate.

BMI responded saying that it was not capable of providing my friend with the licensing rights they wanted. Despite the fact that it had been very willing to provide my friend with a license for several hundred dollars in the previous email, it now took the stand that it did not have the ability to provide rights for a song used within a podcast, and my friend had to contact a different entity. I don’t know if I’m more alarmed by BMI trying to sell my friend a license that wouldn’t actually cover their use, or BMI lying about whether it could sell them a license that would cover their use.

At any rate, BMI at least provided my friend with the contact information for another entity, which my friend contacted. But that entity wrote back and said it was not the right entity and provided the contact information for yet another entity. Which never wrote back to my friend’s request at all.

So, in the end, that’s how music licensing goes if you’re a little guy, I guess: It doesn’t. My friend lost a little bit of faith in the U.S. copyright legal system as a result of their experience, and that definitely harms all of us. And as we’re thinking about the music business in the context of the consent decree, maybe we should also think about the people who use music. Because, sometimes, as studies keep showing, they’d really love to pay the artist, they literally can’t find the way to do it.

(Could my friend’s use qualify as fair use? I am offering no legal opinion on that. What I will say is that, fair use doesn’t stop you from getting a DMCA notice.)

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/contractsprof_blog/2019/06/the-challenges-of-licensing-music.html

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