Music Publishers and Writers Lobbying Congress for Additional Compensation for Digital Distribution

CNET reports that a coalition of music groups including publishers, songwriters, and composers is looking to increase the compensation they receive from digital distribution of their work. Having been unsuccessful at negotiating increased fees with distributors such as Apple, the groups, which include the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) among others, have begun lobbying the U.S. Congress for to pass legislation to address their claims.

At a time when many iTunes shoppers are still fuming over Apple's first-ever increase in song prices, the demands by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), and other performing-rights groups, would likely lead to more price hikes at iTunes. This would also undoubtedly confirm the perception held by many that those overseeing the music industry are greedy.

At the heart of the issue is the "performance fee", a type of licensing fee used to compensate composers and publishers when their work is performed in public. The music groups argue that digital distribution of their work, including 30-second song samples and in TV and movie downloads such as those found on iTunes, constitutes public performance and thus requires performance fees to be paid by the distributors.

Apparently, the music industry can't obtain the fees through negotiations. They have begun lobbying Congress to pass legislation that require anyone selling a download to pay a performance fee, according to David Israelite, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Association.

"If you watch a TV show on broadcast, cable or satellite TV there is a performance fee collected," Israelite said. "But if that same TV show is downloaded over iTunes, there's not. We're arguing that the law needs to be clarified that regardless of the method by which a consumer watches the show there is a performance right."

The issue is complicated by the existence of other fees such as upfront "synchronization fees" that cover inclusion of songs in film or TV shows. Those fees are typically supplemented by performance fees when the film or TV shows are aired, although many composers have given away their synchronization fee rights in hopes of obtaining performance fees further down the road, but as the landscape has begun shifting to digital distribution, those composers are finding themselves with shrinking performance fee income.

"This is really a fight about the future," Israelite said. "As more and more people watch TV or movies over an Internet line as opposed to cable or broadcast signal, then we're going to lose the income of the performance. For people who do production and background music, that's how they make their living."

On the topic of 30-second music samples, Jonathan Potter, executive director of the Digital Media Association that represents distributors such as Apple, argues that copyright law protects distributors from being charged performance fees for such offerings.

"They are picking on Apple because they say Apple is making a bundle of money," Potter said. "But these companies should be thrilled that Apple and the other services are selling music and generating millions, maybe tens of millions, in royalties."

The music groups have so far had little success in their lobbying efforts with Congress, and courts have consistently sided with digital distributors in their claims that downloaded songs are not considered public performances. Composers and publishers have not, however, given up the fight.

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