by: Adam Denhoff, Associate Editor, MTTLR
Internet radio broadcasters were given renewed hope of long-term stability when President Bush signed the Webcaster Settlement Act in October. The Act allows webcasters and record labels to continue negotiating for a reduced performance royalty rate while Congress is in recess, as it extends the deadline for a new deal to February 15, 2009. The issue stems from a March, 2007 decision by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB), which would force webcasters to pay for each song streamed to each user at a retroactive rate as follows:
2006: $0.0008 per song, per listener
SoundExchange, the organization that represents artists and record labels, favors higher performance royalties because it believes that musicians deserve their fair share of Internet radio profits. The Digital Media Association (DiMA), a trade organization that represents a number of prominent webcasters including AOL Radio and Yahoo! Music, believes that the decision of the Copyright Royalty Board would bring about the end of Internet radio by forcing webcasters to pay outrageously high performance royalties at rates that they simply could not afford.
The Radio and Internet Newsletter (RAIN) calculates that, assuming the average Internet broadcasting station plays 16 songs per hour, a webcaster would have a royalty obligation of 1.28 cents per listener hour in 2006 (which would skyrocket almost three-fold by 2010). These royalties would only cover use of the sound recording, and webcasters also have to pay an additional fee to holders of copyrights in the composition. Using the CRB’s proposed royalty structure, it would be nearly impossible for an Internet radio station to remain profitable, and most, if not all webcasters would be forced out of business. Tim Westergren, the head of Pandora (one of the nation’s most popular Web radio services), believes that its royalty fees for this year could represent 70% of its projected $25 million dollar revenue. According to David Oxendide, a lawyer representing many smaller webcasters, CRB’s royalty structure would be a fatal blow to small and medium sized stations whose royalties would be between 100% and 300% of annual revenues.
Traditional radio broadcasters, like those represented by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), have seen web-based radio as a serious threat to their dominance. They lobbied against the Webcaster Settlement Act. However, they retracted their aggressive opposition to the Act when the negotiating deadline was extended to February 15; the extension will allow the NAB to negotiate its own performance royalty structure with SoundExchange. Today, terrestrial radio broadcasters pay licensing fees only, but SoundExchange is working to change that.
What does all this mean for Internet radio? Well, even SoundExchange acknowledges that the royalties in CRB’s model might be unworkably high. Nonetheless, SoundExchange officials complain that Internet radio stations have done too little to turn a profit from streaming music on the web. Webcasters counter by arguing that advertisers have yet to embrace Internet radio which makes it nearly impossible to get investment funding.
Although the music is industry is in shambles and record labels are desperate for new sources of revenue (i.e. performance royalties from online radio stations), perhaps biting the hand that feeds is not the right approach. A thriving source of online music is essential for the survival of the music industry. Surely record companies would prefer that new music be spread via web-based radio rather than on illegal file sharing networks? Introducing performance royalties into both the digital and terrestrial radio schemes makes sense; why should radio stations be required to compensate the songwriter, but not the performer or record label for use of copyrighted material? However, the Recording Industry Association of America, SoundExchange, and DiMA should negotiate a performance royalty rate that benefits all parties by ensuring that Internet radio lives on. The impossible-to-interpret “willing buyer, willing seller” model utilized by the CRB is not a transparent approach. The Webcaster Settlement Act, which allows the parties to negotiate further, is a step in the right direction.