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While it has been around since 2009, Bitcoin has seen substantial media coverage in the past few months. Media outlets (as well as many other businesses) have been increasingly dabbling in the Bitcoin world, if for no other reason than to show they are up to date with the latest consumer fixations.

While numerous businesses have begun accepting Bitcoin transactions, the most likely place to find them in the media world is as contest prizes or as part of an advertiser promotion. Of course, one of the principal reasons for the novelty of Bitcoin is its goal of being an electronic currency unregulated by governments. As a result, how businesses have been treating their usage of bitcoins from an accounting and legal perspective is highly variable, since it is in many ways a new frontier.

That frontier changed significantly yesterday, when the IRS ruled that virtual currencies like Bitcoin are to be treated as property for federal tax purposes, with transactions using virtual currency subject to much the same tax treatment as those involving U.S. currency. Our own Jim Gatto, head of Pillsbury’s Social Media and Games Team, distributed a Pillsbury Client Alert discussing the ruling. In that Alert, Jim notes that the impact of the IRS ruling includes:

  • Wages paid to employees using virtual currency are taxable to the employee, must be reported by the employer on a Form W-2, and are subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes.
  • Payments using virtual currency made to independent contractors and other service providers are taxable and self-employment tax rules generally apply. Normally, payers must issue IRS Form 1099.
  • The character of gain or loss from the sale or exchange of virtual currency depends on whether the virtual currency is a capital asset in the hands of the taxpayer.
  • A payment made using virtual currency is subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made in property.
  • For purposes of computing gross income, a taxpayer who receives virtual currency as payment for goods or services must include the fair market value of virtual currency received as measured in U.S. dollars, as of the date that the virtual currency was received.

The Client Alert provides additional detail, but if you are using bitcoins for any type of transaction, whether as contest prize, currency for purchases on your website, or payments to employees and vendors, the IRS has made clear that you will need to follow the same procedures (and pay taxes) as though the transaction had occurred in dollars.

While that is a big issue for businesses doing large Bitcoin transactions, businesses dabbling in small and occasional Bitcoin transactions will need to pay even closer attention than they would to a transaction using traditional currency. For example, if the prize in a station contest is one bitcoin, the station will need to assess whether awarding the prize triggers the need for issuing IRS Form 1099 to record the awarding of the prize. In a cash prize contest, that is straightforward, since the Form 1099 currently specifies a prize of $600 or more as the threshold for needing to issue the form. As I write this, however, the current Bitcoin exchange rate is roughly $582 U.S. dollars per bitcoin. That means a one bitcoin prize would not trigger the need for a Form 1099, but a two bitcoin prize would.

Similarly, yesterday’s IRS ruling seems to indicate that the bitcoin must be valued for tax purposes at the time it is received. As a result, the station holding the contest would need to check the value of a bitcoin on the day the prize is awarded to see if it is above or below the $600 threshold for tax purposes. Of course, given the volatility of the Bitcoin exchange rate, this raises other questions, such as how do you value the bitcoin for tax reporting if the exchange rate was below $600 for part of that day and above $600 for part of that day, or if the day the prize is “sent” is not the same day as the prize winner receives or “cashes” it.

Like so many things, Bitcoin appears to be another example of something meant to simplify life, but which is turning out to only make life more complicated. Look for life to get even more complicated as individual states formally adopt a similar approach in treating virtual currency transactions as taxable events.

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March 2014

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Proposes $40,000 Fine for Public Inspection File/License Renewal Violations
  • Short-Term License Renewal and Hefty Fine for Missing QIP Lists
  • $5,000 Fine for FM Station’s Failure to Maintain Minimum Operating Hours

Failure to Disclose Rules Violations Leads to $40,000 Fine

Late last month, the FCC issued two essentially identical orders against co-owned Milwaukee and Chicago Class A TV stations in response to a number of missing Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists and Children’s Television Programming Reports and for not reporting the missing issues/programs lists in the stations’ license renewal applications. The FCC’s Media Bureau proposed a $20,000 fine against each station, for a total fine of $40,000.

In late December of last year, the FCC issued Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) for the two stations, noting that the stations had mentioned in their license renewal applications that they had failed to timely file numerous Children’s Television Programming Reports, but had not disclosed the absence from their online public files of over a dozen (each) Quarterly Issues/Program Lists. Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to maintain information about station operations in their public inspection files so the public can obtain “timely information about the station at regular intervals.”

The base fine for failure to file a required form is $3,000, and the base fine for public file violations is $10,000. After considering the facts, the FCC concluded in each NAL that the respective station was liable for $9,000 for the missing Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, $9,000 for the missing Children’s Television Programming Reports, and an additional $2,000 for failing to disclose the missing Quarterly Issues/Program Lists in their renewal applications.

After receiving the NALs, each station requested that the fine be reduced due to an inability to pay. The FCC will not consider reducing a fine based on a claimed inability to pay unless the licensee submits federal tax returns for the last three years, financial statements, or other documentation that accurately demonstrates its financial status. In this case, each station submitted appropriate documentation about its financial condition. However, the FCC was not persuaded that the amount of the fines exceeded each station’s ability to pay, and declined to reduce the fines.

Public Inspection File Violations Lead to $46,000 in Fines and Limited License Terms
In connection with recent license renewal applications, the FCC issued four essentially identical Memorandum Opinions and Orders and Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture, resulting in $46,000 in fines for a Washington radio licensee. In addition, three of the licensee’s four stations’ license renewal applications were granted for only a four-year term rather than the normal eight-year term.

The first three of the licensee’s stations were missing, respectively, 24, 26, and 20 Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists for various periods during the license term. The fourth station’s public inspection file was missing 12 reports for a two-year period spanning from 2006 to 2008. Continue reading →

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March 2014

TV, Class A TV, and locally originating LPTV stations licensed to communities in Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming must begin airing pre-filing license renewal announcements on April 1, 2014. License renewal applications for all TV stations in these states are due by June 2, 2014.

Pre-Filing License Renewal Announcements

Stations in the video services that are licensed to communities in Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming must file their license renewal applications by June 2, 2014 (June 1 being a Sunday).

Beginning two months prior to that filing, full power TV, Class A TV, and LPTV stations capable of local origination must air four pre-filing renewal announcements alerting the public to the upcoming license renewal application filing. These stations must air the first pre-filing announcement on April 1, 2014. The remaining announcements must air on April 16, May 1, and May 16, 2014, for a total of four announcements. A sign board or slide showing the licensee’s address and the FCC’s Washington DC address must be displayed while the pre-filing announcements are broadcast.

For commercial stations, at least two of these four announcements must air between 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific) or 5:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. (Central/Mountain). Locally-originating LPTV stations must broadcast these announcements as close to the above schedule as their operating schedule permits. Noncommercial stations must air the announcements at the same times as commercial stations, but need not air any announcements in a month in which the station does not operate. A noncommercial station that will not air some announcements because it is off the air must air the remaining announcements as listed above, i.e., the first two must air between 6:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific) or 5:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. (Central/Mountain).

The text of the pre-filing announcement is as follows:

On [date of last renewal grant], [call letters] was granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee until October 1, 2014. [Stations which have not received a renewal grant since the filing of their previous renewal application should modify the foregoing to read: “(Call letters) is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee.”]

Our license will expire on October 1, 2014. We must file an application for renewal with the FCC by June 2, 2014. When filed, a copy of this application will be available for public inspection at It contains information concerning this station’s performance during the last eight years [or other period of time covered by the application, if the station’s license term was not a standard eight-year license term].

Individuals who wish to advise the FCC of facts relating to our renewal application and to whether this station has operated in the public interest should file comments and petitions with the Commission by September 1, 2014.

Further information concerning the FCC’s broadcast license renewal process is available at [address of location of the station] or may be obtained from the FCC, Washington, DC 20554.

If a station misses airing an announcement, it should broadcast a make-up announcement as soon as possible and contact us to further address the situation. As noted above, special rules apply to noncommercial stations that do not normally operate during any month when their announcements would otherwise be required to air, as well as to other silent stations. These stations should contact us to ensure they give the required public notice.

Article continues — the full article can be found at Pre-Filing and Post-Filing License Renewal Announcement Reminder

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There was quite a stir today when the FCC, despite being closed for a snow day, issued a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing very large fines against Viacom ($1,120,000), NBCUniversal ($530,000), and ESPN ($280,000) for transmitting false EAS alert tones. According to the FCC, all three aired an ad for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that contained a false EAS alert tone, with Viacom airing it 108 times on seven of its cable networks, NBCUniversal airing it 38 times on seven of its cable networks, and ESPN airing it 13 times on three of its cable networks.

The size of the fines certainly drew some attention. Probably not helping the situation was the ad’s inclusion of the onscreen text “THIS IS NOT A TEST” and “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” while sounding the EAS tone. The FCC launched the investigation after receiving complaints from the public.

All three entities raised a variety of arguments that were uniformly rejected by the FCC, including that “they had inadequate notice of the requirements and applicability of the rules with respect to EAS violations.” What particularly caught my eye, however, was that all three indicated the ad had cleared an internal review before airing, and in each case, those handling the internal review were apparently unaware of Section 325 of the Communications Act (prohibiting transmission of a “false or fraudulent signal of distress”) and Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules, which states that “No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS.”

Back in 2010, I wrote a post titled EAS False Alerts in Radio Ads and Other Reasons to Panic that discussed the evolution of the FCC’s concerns about false emergency tones in media, which originally centered on sirens, then on Emergency Broadcast System tones, and now on the Emergency Alert System’s digital squeals. Two months later, I found myself writing about it again (The Phantom Menace: Return of the EAS False Alerts) when a TV ad for the movie Skyline was distributed for airing with a false EAS tone included in it.

That was the beginning of what has since become a clear trend. Those initial posts warned broadcasters and cable programmers to avoid airing specific ads with false EAS tones, but were not connected to any adverse action by the FCC. After three years of EAS tone tranquility, the issue reemerged in 2013 when hackers managed to commandeer via Internet the EAS equipment of some Michigan and Montana TV stations to send out false EAS alert warnings of a zombie attack. The result was a rapid public notice from the FCC instructing EAS participants to change their EAS passwords and ensure their firewalls are functioning (covered in my posts FCC Urges IMMEDIATE Action to Prevent Further Fake EAS Alerts and EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality), but no fines.

From there we moved in a strange direction when the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed a public service announcement seeking to educate the public about the Emergency Alert System, but used an EAS tone to get that message across. Because it did not involve an actual emergency nor a test of the EAS system, the PSA violated the FCC’s rule against false EAS tones and broadcasters had no choice but to decline to air it. The matter was resolved when the FCC quickly rushed through a one-year waiver permitting the FEMA ad to be aired (Stations Find Out When Airing a Fake EAS Tone Is Okay).

Late last year, however, the evolution of the FCC’s treatment of false EAS alerts turned dark (FCC Reaches Tipping Point on False EAS Alerts) when the FCC issued the first financial penalties for false EAS alerts. The FCC proposed a $25,000 fine for Turner Broadcasting and entered into a $39,000 consent decree with a Kentucky radio station for airing false EAS alert tones. The FCC indicated at the time that other investigations were ongoing, and more fines might be on the way.

We didn’t have to wait long, as just two months later, the FCC upped the ante, proposing a fine of $200,000 against Turner Broadcasting for again airing false EAS alert tones, this time on its Adult Swim network. The size of the fine was startling, and according to the FCC, was based upon the nationwide reach of the false EAS tone ad, as well as the fact that Turner had indicated in connection with its earlier $25,000 fine that it had put in place mechanisms to prevent such an event from happening again. When it did happen again, the FCC didn’t hesitate to assess the $200,000 fine.

Today’s order, issued less than two months after the last Turner decision, ups the ante once again, proposing fines of such size that only some of the FCC’s larger indecency fines compare. The FCC is clearly sending a signal that it takes false EAS tones very seriously, and the fact that the ads containing the EAS tones were produced by an independent third party didn’t let the programmers off the hook. In other words, it doesn’t matter how or why the ads got on the air; the mere fact that they aired is sufficient to create liability.

So what lesson should broadcasters and cable networks take away from this? Well, the all too obvious one is to do whatever it takes to prevent false EAS tones from making it on air. However, an equally useful lesson is to make sure that your contracts with advertisers require the advertiser to warrant that the spots provided will comply with all laws and to indemnify the broadcaster or network if that turns out not to be the case. That won’t save you from a big FCC fine and a black mark on your FCC record, but it will at least require the advertiser to compensate you for the damages you suffered in airing the ad and defending yourself. Unfortunately, many advertising contracts are not particularly well drafted (and some are just a handshake), which can expose you to a variety of liabilities like this unnecessarily.

It is therefore wise to have both your ad contracts and your advertising guidelines carefully reviewed by counsel experienced in this area of the law. Vigilant review of ads submitted for airing is an excellent first line of defense, but as demonstrated in today’s decision, it won’t do much good if the individuals reviewing the ads don’t know what to look for.