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New Webcasting Rates a Win for Radio Broadcasters

In a decision long awaited by webcasters, the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) has released its new webcasting royalty rates.  These royalties are paid by non-interactive streaming services on which listeners cannot choose the specific songs they listen to, such as Pandora and radio stations that stream their programming.  The royalties are paid to SoundExchange, a performing rights organization which collects the payments on behalf of record labels and other holders of copyrights in sound recordings.  Services such as Spotify and Apple Music, which allow listeners to choose individual songs to listen to, negotiate licensing arrangements privately with record labels and are not affected by these rates.  The new rates will become effective on January 1, 2016 and will remain in effect until December 31, 2020.

Under the new rate structure, subscription services will pay 22 cents per hundred performances streamed in 2016, with an adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index for subsequent years through 2020. Non-subscription services such as broadcast radio stations will pay 17 cents per hundred performances streamed (with the same CPI adjustment).

For commercial radio stations, the 17 cent rate is a substantial decrease from the 25 cent streaming rate currently paid.  In contrast, pure play (non-broadcast) non-subscription streaming services saw their royalty increase from 14 cents per hundred performances to the new 17 cent rate.  Pandora had argued for a new rate equal to the greater of (i) 11 cents per hundred performances and (ii) 25% of the webcaster’s revenues, while the National Association of Broadcasters and iHeart Media had argued for a rate of 5 cents per hundred performances.  SoundExchange, on the other hand, had proposed a rate for commercial webcasters equal to the greater of (i) 25-29 cents per hundred performances, and (ii) 55% of the webcaster’s revenues.  A “performance” generally consists of the delivery of a song to a single device such as a smartphone.

The royalties are paid for a statutory license allowing webcasters to perform the song by delivering it to listeners’ devices, and to make any ephemeral copies of the song necessary for the streaming process. The CRB is required by statute to adjust royalty rates every five years based on rates which hypothetically would prevail in an open market free from government intervention.

The higher rates will make it tougher for pure play webcasters to make a profit, but Pandora CEO Brian McAndrews focused on the bright side, saying: “This decision provides much–needed certainty for both Pandora and the music industry.”  While pure play webcasters obviously were hoping that their streaming rates would go down, having the new rates at least sets a benchmark against which they can seek to negotiate private deals with record labels.

The National Association of Broadcasters applauded the new rates, with NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton stating that the NAB was “pleased that streaming rates have begun to move in the right direction.”  SoundExchange, on the other hand, announced that “it is deeply disappointing to see that [terrestrial] broadcasters are being given another unfair advantage.”  Webcasters had argued that the rates set in the previous rate-setting proceeding were artificially high and were based on a flawed analysis, including the use of rates paid by interactive services as a basis for setting rates for non-interactive services.  SoundExchange asserted that interactive and non-interactive services were “converging,” and that higher rates were necessary to adequately compensate performers and copyright owners.

The precise reasoning behind the CRB’s decision will not be publically available until after the parties to the proceeding have had an opportunity to review the CRB’s written opinion to determine whether any confidential information should be redacted before it is released to the public.  While the parties will have the right to petition the CRB for reconsideration, and to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals, such appeals generally are an uphill battle.  As a result, webcasters and record labels are likely to have to live with the result of today’s decision for the next five years.

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