I recently read an article by Northwestern Law professor Peter DiCola entitled, “Copyright Equality: Free Speech, Efficiency, and Regulatory Parity in Distribution” 93 Boston University Law Review 1837 (2013) available here. Prof. DiCola offers an interesting take on the disparity between royalty rates and rate setting standards for different music distribution platforms: these disparities violate the First Amendment. How does Prof. DiCola reach this conclusion?
Unequal treatment, moreover, threatens freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The distinct features of each distribution technology represent several choices about what content will be available, in what sequence, with what user interface, and so on. For example, the playlists of AM and FM radio are vastly different than the playlists of webcasting services. By allowing some technologies, like traditional and satellite radio, to pay lower royalties, Congress is implicitly favoring the kind of content that those media tend to provide. By treating different media for music distribution unequally, both procedurally and substantively, Congress is shaping the public sphere and implicitly favoring some types of content over others. This violates the principles developed in two lines of First Amendment Supreme Court cases. Thus, the unequal treatment of the distributors of copyrighted works is not just arcane, bureaucratic, and complicated; it is also inefficient and a violation of free speech values. (page 1842)
Prof. DiCola compares the “distortion of consumers’ choices among [music distribution platforms] … [to] an unjustified tax or subsidy that favors certain firms or industries and disfavors others. One can think of the differential royalty rates in the music industry as analogous to farm subsidies, which have caused an overemphasis on corn and other “base crops.” In the music industry, copyright’s policy on music distribution has had the effect of propping up traditional and satellite radio while hampering webcasting and on-demand streaming. Congress, in short, has been picking winners in the music industry. (page 1841)
Prof. DiCola offers three ways in which these disparities can be reduced:
First, copyright should contain a general performance right in sound recordings to require AM and FM radio to pay royalties to sound recording copyright owners. This legislative change is necessary to achieve parity with all the other music distribution services. Second, Congress should direct the Copyright Royalty Board to determine the sound recording royalty rates for different types of radio – AM, FM, satellite, cable, webcasting, and on-demand streaming – under the same process and based on the same standard. Congress mandating equality of the process would not necessarily produce equal royalty rates, but it would ensure that any deviations from equality are justified. Finally, differences in substantive royalty rates resulting from this process should have a basis in substantial evidence that could survive heightened First Amendment scrutiny. (page 1895)
I found the argument very compelling.