Category Archives: Royalties

If “Ambient” Music Is “as ignorable as it is interesting,” Can It Be Worth $15mm?

ESPN recently initiated a rate proceeding with performing rights organization BMI. ESPN claimed that the rate BMI was seeking was above market and asked the federal district court for the Southern District of New York, which has continuing jurisdiction over the consent decree between BMI and the Department of Justice to determine “reasonable” rates. BMI has responded (attached below) and claims it is simply asking ESPN to continue paying the same percentage of revenue rate to which it agreed 10 years ago.

BMI claims that ESPN utilizes a BMI blanket license to cover so-called “incidental and ambient” music performances, such as in broadcasts of live sporting events; e.g., at Heinz Field the Pittsburgh Steelers sometimes play Styx’ “Renegade” during commercial breaks when the Steelers are on defense to “hype” the crowd. If the Steelers are on Monday Night Football and ESPN breaks back to the game before “Renegade” has stopped playing, for the purpose of music copyright licensing ESPN has “performed” that song, for which it must have a license. This is true even though Heinz Field already has its own license to perform that song to the fans sitting in the stadium to watch the game. In a bit of litigation hyperbole BMI argues that “ambient stadium music is a critical component of the broadcast that allows ESPN to attract viewers by making them feel like they are sitting in the stadium cheering on their favorite team.” How can something that is “ambient” (e.g., “as ignorable as it is interesting”) also be a “critical component” of a broadcast?

So how much does BMI want ESPN to pay for this ambient but “critical component”? $15 million per year. That figure is the product of ESPN’s annual revenue ($11b in 2014) multiplied by 0.1375%, the lowest rate among the rates charged for cable television broadcasts (“music intensive” programming networks pay 0.9% of gross revenue, “general entertainment” programming networks pay 0.375% of gross revenue, and “news and sports” programming networks pay 0.1375% of gross revenue.).

However, in 2005, the last year of ESPN’s prior license with BMI, ESPN’s annual revenue was “just” $5b. 1 This is one of the problems with a percentage of revenue royalty rate: while it may be that ESPN viewed its “incidental and ambient” music performances on live broadcasts of sports to be “worth” $6.875mm annually, it does not mean that those same performances are “worth” more than twice that amount. This is especially true at a time when ESPN’s revenues are declining rapidly and content acquisitions costs are increasing. 2

BMI’s answer is below:

Espn v Bmi (Bmi Answer)

  1. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2005-10-16/in-the-zone
  2. “ESPN’s subscriber losses, which have seen it lose nearly 8.5 million homes in the last 4 1/2 years, according to Nielsen estimates, or down about 8 percent, are at a rate that is declining faster than the rest of the industry.” http://awfulannouncing.com/2015/espn-make-3-billion-lost-revenue-increased-fees.html

No (un)Original Thoughts

As I’ve often said, reviewing litigation dockets is a great place to learn new things. Instead of focusing on a judge’s final decision, one can often learn more by reading the party’s pleadings, which provide the strongest advocacy for a particular legal position. [caveat–it is critical to read BOTH side’s pleadings]. It is also often the case that a recording artist or songwriter’s contract will be appended to the complaint, providing useful insight not only into the issues in a particular litigation, but towards how the music industry evolves over time. I was reading Rita Ora’s recording contract with Roc Nation–a copy of which can be found here–and I remembered some research I’d done a while ago but never bothered to post here. Specifically, a review of 3 recording contracts executed between 1983 and 1992 demonstrate how public performance for sound recording royalties made their way into major label recording contracts. [caveat–this is not intended to be scientific; it is merely an interesting fact based on the 3 contracts in question]

So, check this out.  In 1983, CBS did *not* have any language about public performance rights in sound recordings—check out the Toto contract below.  By 1989, the language does exist—see 10.04 of the Allman Bros. agreement with CBS reproduced below.  Identical language appears in the Interscope license with Dr. Dre is 1992—see 10.05 of the Dre agreement reproduced below—even though I’m not aware of any relationship between CBS (which was bought by Sony) and Interscope (which was bought by UMG)!

Pre 72 Comparison

The Toto recording contract is below.

Toto 1983 Recording Contract w CBS (Sony)


The Allman Bros. recording contract is below.

Allman Bros Record Contract w CBS 1989

Dr. Dre’s recording agreement is below:

Dre Death Row Records Agreement (1992)

A Fool for Who? Can the Ray Charles Foundation Challenge Terminations?

The 9th Circuit recently reversed and remanded a Central District of California’s dismissal of a case involving an attempt by the Ray Charles Foundation to invalidate terminations of copyright transfer effected by 7 of Charles’ 12 heirs. The 9th Circuit found that the Foundation had standing to sue the 7 heirs and challenge the validity of their terminations.

Terminating transfers of copyright rights is one of the most arcane areas of copyright law. When Congress amended the Copyright Act in 1976, it eliminated the 2-term structure of copyright, whereby an author received an initial term of copyright and the could file a renewal notice to further extend the term. In its place, Congress created a single term of copyright, but provided [nearly all] authors or their heirs the inalienable right to terminate any transfer of copyright ownership at some specified future date. The public policy rationale for both constructs is the belief that authors need to be protected “against unremunerative transfers … because of the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work’s value until it has been exploited.” H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476, at 124 (1976).

As relevant here, the 1976 Act contains two separate provisions that govern how and when an author may terminate a transfer. Sec. 203(a) covers grants made on or after Jan. 1, 1978 (the effective date of the 1976 Act), which Sec. 304(c) covers grants made before Jan. 1, 1978. While both sections specify who may file a termination of transfer (the author or her heirs), neither section specifies who may challenge a termination. In this case, the 9th Circuit had to determine whether the Foundation had standing to challenge the terminations filed by the 7 heirs.

Noting that the Act does not specifically provide for a private right of action to challenge a termination, the Court of Appeals concluded that the Copyright Act created an implied private right of action to challenge terminations. Next, the 9th Circuit looked at “whether Congress intended to allow a party receiving royalties under a contractual assignment or will to challenge the validity of termination notices.” To answer that question, the 9th Circuit considered whether the Foundation fit within the “zone of interest” of this implied right. In concluding that it did, the Court noted that the Foundation had a material interest in the dispute (e.g., the future payment of royalties), had the proper incentive to forcefully litigate the dispute (more on that below), and resolution of the dispute in its favor would satisfy its grievance with the 7 heirs.

One may wonder why the owner of the copyright (in this case, Warner Chappell, one of the 3 major music publishers and sister company to Warner Music Group) wasn’t the one bringing this litigation. After all, if the terminations are valid, then Warner Chappell runs the risk of losing its share in those future royalties as well. The 9th Circuit reasoned that Warner Chappell’s interest was actually less direct than the Foundation’s. It is common practice for music publishers to renegotiate with songwriters after receiving a termination notice, so the 9th Circuit concluded that Warner Chappell (a) didn’t want to litigate and make the 7 heirs angry because (b) its most likely worst outcome was receiving less royalties in the future, not receiving no royalties in the future.

The Circuit’s decision is here:

Ray Charles Foundation 9th Cir. Appeal

Sony Sued for Self-Dealing with Spotify

Last year, 19 Records, the label that represents the recording artists from the TV series American Idol, sued Sony, 19 Records’ distributor, for underpayment of royalties. Specifically, 19 Records claimed that Sony paid royalties at the lower rate corresponding to the sale of physical records instead of the higher rate corresponding to a license for use. As background, attorney Richard Busch successfully represented Eminem’s former management team in a similar lawsuit against Universal and has filed numerous similar lawsuits against each of the major labels.

Yesterday, 19 Records amended its complain to include allegations that Sony’s agreements with Spotify amount to self-dealing; alleging “Sony … structured its agreement with the streaming service, Spotify, in a manner designed to rob 19, its artists, and other artists of royalties.” The amended complaint contains the specific allegation that Sony’s insisted on receiving free advertising to generate revenue that it would not have to share with artists: “For instance, Sony’s agreement with Spotify gives Sony up to [REDACTED] in advertising which Sony is free to resell or have resold for it. Thus, Sony is able to collect up to [REDACTED] under the terms of its agreement with Spotify and then claim that none of the income is attributable to the exploitation of a master recording, and thus not subject to the payment of royalties to Sony’s recording artists and 19.”

If history is a guide, Busch will file similar suits against the other majors on behalf of his other clients.

19 Records v Sony (Amended Complaint Re Spotify)

Toto v. Emenim

The SDNY recently found that Toto’s recording contract with Sony did not obligate Sony to pay Toto 50% of royalties from digital sales through Internet retailers such as iTunes.  This outcome is different from the FBT case out of the 9th Circuit, where similar language was interpreted differently.  So, what is the difference?

 

Toto v Sony (9!29!14 Order)

Are You Sirius?

As readers of this blog will recall, aging rockers Flo & Eddie filed three separate lawsuits alleging that Sirius XM has infringed certain state- or common law copyrights of a class of owners of sound recordings fixed prior to 1972. Sirius XM has filed a motion to transfer the California case, which was transferred from state to federal court, and the Florida case to the Southern District of New York.  While this legal maneuver is relatively uninteresting, the motion does indicate at least one defense that is likely to feature prominently in this and the related case filed by the so-called “major” record companies, – titled Capitol Records, LLC et al. v. Sirius XM Radio Inc., No. BC520981 – in California state court raising similar issues: laches.

Laches, an equitable defense based on the doctrine of estoppel, is the unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim that prejudices the opposing party.  According to Sirius XM’s motion,

Plaintiff apparently has become aggrieved by the distinction drawn by Congress in withholding copyright protection from its Pre-1972 Recordings; thus now, after decades of inaction while a wide variety of music users, including radio and television broadcasters, bars, restaurants and website operators, exploited those Pre-1972 Recordings countless millions of times without paying fees, it asserts a purported right under the law of various states to be compensated by Sirius XM for comparable unlicensed uses. Plaintiff’s multiple court filings constitute a form of lawsuit lottery in search of an elusive new state-law right that would radically overturn decades of settled practice.

The laches defense raises a number of interesting issues.  For example, since at least the late 1980s, almost all terrestrial radio stations have used digital copies stored on servers to originate performances; i.e., the days of “disc jockeys” spinning vinyl have been gone for decades.  Presumably, under Flo & Eddie’s complaint, these terrestrial radio broadcasters needed a license to make copies of Pre-72 recordings and, potentially, to perform them.

Terrestrial radio stations have been simulcasting performances over the internet for nearly 20 years, presumably implicating the right of performance by digital audio transmission that Flo & Eddie allege exist under certain state laws for Pre-72 recordings.  Has SoundExchange, which collects and distributes royalties under certain statutory licenses for the public performance of sound recordings by digital audio transmission, been collecting royalties from these terrestrial radio broadcasters and remitting such payments to Pre-72 artists?  Because federal copyright doesn’t apply to Pre-72 recordings, if SoundExchange were collecting such royalties it would owe the terrestrial radio simulcasters a refund. If SoundExchange hasn’t, why hasn’t Flo & Eddie sued terrestrial radio?

Flo & Eddie will undoubtedly respond that they had no way of knowing that they weren’t getting paid by Sirius XM until the most recent Copyright Royalty Board proceeding, at this pre-72 recordings were a significant issue.

[The allegations raised by SoundExchange against Sirius XM that Sirius XM was inappropriately deducting revenue from its royalty calculation to account for Pre-72 recordings are inapplicable in the context of a per-song royalty, where each Pre-72 recording can be identified and appropriately excluded from royalty calculations.  Per-song royalties have existed since at least 2008.]

The motion is here.

Bamboozled! UMG’s Inter-Company Accounting At Issue

The legal battle between brothers Mark and Jeff Bass, the Detroit producers credited with grooming rapper Eminem in his early days, and Aftermath Entertainment, the American record label founded by Dr. Dre and distributed through Universal Music Group’s Interscope Records, has grown to include the inter-company accounting practices of large, multinational record labels.

History

A brief history is in order.  The Bass brothers, working under their nom de rap Funky Bass Team a.k.a. F.B.T. Productions, signed fellow Detroiter Marshall Mathers (a.k.a. Eminem), to a recording contract in 1995.  In 1998 and 2000, F.B.T. signed agreements with Aftermath to (first) distribute and (later) own all of Eminem’s sound recordings in exchange for between 12% – 20% of the retail price of copies of Eminem’s records sold (“Records Sold” provision) or 50% of the net revenue Aftermath obtained by licensing Eminem’s master recordings (“Masters Licensed” provision).

[Side Note: It is quite common in recording contracts for royalties paid on records sold to be lower than royalties paid of masters licensed; see, e.g., here.]

When an audit of Aftermath revealed that F.B.T. was receiving royalties for permanent downloads and ringtone sales under the Records Sold provision (and not the more lucrative Masters Licensed provision), F.B.T. filed suit in 2007.  After a jury found that Aftermath had been correctly accounting to F.B.T. (i.e., digital downloads were Records Sold), F.B.T. appealed.  The 9th Circuit reversed and held, as a matter of law, that digital downloads and ringtones were licensed to various third parties such as iTunes who, in turn, distributed over the Internet.

The agreements also provide that “notwithstanding” the Records Sold provision, F.B.T. is to receive a 50% royalty on “masters licensed by [Aftermath] . . . to others for their manufacture and sale of records or for any other uses.” The parties’ use of the word “notwithstanding” plainly indicates that even if a transaction arguably falls within the scope of the Records Sold provision, F.B.T. is to receive a 50% royalty if Aftermath licenses an Eminem master to a third party for “any” use. A contractual term is not ambiguous just because it is broad. Here, the Masters Licensed provision explicitly applies to (1) masters (2) that are licensed to third parties for the manufacture of records “or for any other uses,” (3) “notwithstanding” the Record Sold provision. This provision is admittedly broad, but it is not unclear or ambiguous.

The 9th Circuit remanded the case back the Central District of California for a trial on damages, which was supposed to begin in April, 2012.

[Another Side Note: If you wonder how Richard S. Busch, a commercial litigator from Tennessee, ends up representing the Bass brothers, I have a theory.  Busch represented Bridgeport Music, a publishing company that owns or controls much of the catalog of George Clinton, and Westbound Records, a record company that released several albums of Clinton’s famous funk band Funkadelic, in a series of cases in the Middle District of Tennessee over alleged unlicensed sampling.  In a controversial landmark decision, Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 792 (6th Cir. 2005), the 6th Circuit held that the unlicensed use of a two-second guitar chord from Funkadelic’s song “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” in gangster rap group N.W.A.’s song “100 Miles and Runnin’” constituted copyright infringement.  In its decision, the 6th Circuit wrote: “Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.”   It turns out that prior to working with Eminem, Mark and Jeff Bass worked as a production team for George Clinton and his label Westbound Records.]

Present Dispute

The present dispute involves whether F.B.T. can supplement the complaint they filed in 2007 on the eve of a second trial, which was to commence on April 24, 2012.  F.B.T. claims that Aftermath’s expert report, served on February 7, 2012, revealed for the first time that Aftermath was receiving only 29% of the revenue generated from foreign sales of downloads and ringtones under an inter-company agreement with its foreign affiliates.  Because under the 9th Circuit’s decision Aftermath is to pay F.B.T. 50% of revenue (under the Masters Licensed provision), it makes an enormous difference whether that calculation includes 100% of revenue generated by the foreign sales or just the 29% of revenue Aftermath recognizes on its books.

In opposing F.B.T.’s motion for leave to file a supplemental complaint under FRCP 15(d), Aftermath argued, in part, that a prior partial summary judgment ruling had already decided the issue of foreign revenue.  In rejecting Aftermath’s argument, Judge Gutierrez noted that

Defendants largely rely on a single sentence from their summary judgment brief for the proposition that the issue they wanted determined was clear: “In audits conducted post-dating the trial, F.B.T. has contended it is entitled to 50% of what is received by any company affiliated with Universal Music Group, anywhere – including 50% of the ‘receipts’ of foreign distribution companies.” Mem. ISO Defs. Mot. for Summ. J., 20:21-25. In light of Defendants’ current position on revenue sharing with foreign affiliates, the import of this sentence now seems clear. However, at the time, FBT did not seem to understand the reference. In opposition, FBT stated in a footnote that the “significance of this sentence is not clear.” Opp. to Defs. Mot. for Summ. J., Dkt. # 710, at 17:24-28 n.11.

Judge Gutierrez went on to complain

[The] Court is deeply troubled by Defendants’ argument. While it is hard to see what FBT could gain by feigning ignorance, it is now quite apparent what Defendants could hope to gain by bamboozling the Court and Plaintiffs on this issue. Defendants’ current stance makes it appear as though Defendants carefully inserted the issue into the motion for summary judgment before they had notified FBT or the Court of what percentage of the revenues from foreign sales of permanent downloads and mastertones would be paid to FBT. An attempt to dupe the Court into a premature ruling will not serve as the basis to deny FBT an opportunity to challenge Defendants’ accounting practices.

So, F.B.T. now has until July 6 to filed its amended complaint.  The parties will then get to conduct further discovery on the issue of inter-company accounting.  Looks like a trial won’t be happening until the end of this year or early next.

Judge Gutierrez’ opinion is below:
[scribd id=99206217 key=key-1lbo4w2u3s37vujrhdna mode=list]

What is Hip? Suing Your Record Label for 50% of Digital Download Revenue!

Oakland, California-based Tower of Power has filed a class action lawsuit against Warner Music Group claiming to represent a class of plaintiffs whose recording agreements entitled them to 50% of revenue for digital downloads.  According to the complaint, which is provided below,

The WMG Agreement provided a significantly higher percentage of royalties under the licensed equation than under the sold equation. In general, the sold equation provides for royalties often percent (10%) (depending on the popularity of the artist, album and price the record was sold at; i.e., the more popular the artist, or the more expensive the album, the higher the royalty rate) while the licensed equation provides for royalties of fifty percent (50%) of net receipts. As a result, a recording artist or producer is paid a significantly lower percentage of the total money received by Defendant for their commercial exploitation of the artist or producer’s master recordings under the sold equation than under the licensed equation.

While I understand the strategic play, class certification is always hard in these circumstances, as even small differences in contractual language may have important implications for the applicable royalty rate.

What is clear is that these suits are going to become more and more common.

Complaint:
[scribd id=87692961 key=key-1b5xh00oq6v6kc88eugu mode=list]