DOJ to Review Music Licensing Rules

Associations Now September/October 2014 By: Chris Vest, CAE

The Department of Justice is considering changes to decades-old music licensing rules, which could affect association events.

Organizers of meetings and tradeshows should pay close attention as the Department of Justice (DOJ) weighs whether to make changes to its decades-old consent decrees with the nation's two largest performing rights societies that license and collect fees for the use of copyrighted music: Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).

DOJ announced a review of the existing consent decrees and had a public comment period last summer. The decrees date back to 1941 and were intended to address antitrust concerns arising from the market power BMI and ASCAP command. Collectively, the two groups represent millions of songs and collect close to $2 billion a year in royalties for their members.

BMI and ASCAP, whose consent decrees were last amended in 1994 and 2001, respectively—before the introduction of the iPod—have pushed hard for changes to the rules in light of technological advances such as the emergence of internet radio providers like Pandora.

While associations and other event sponsors would never dispute the right of performing artists to seek compensation for use of their copyrighted work, many have said they would benefit from clearer, more consistent guidance on the issue of vicarious liability, which holds the show organizer liable for any use of copyrighted music played by exhibitors at the event or by the facility where the event is held. BMI and ASCAP also have different rate structures and different music repertoires, requiring show organizers to purchase blanket licensing agreements with both performing rights organizations to ensure compliance.

DOJ is currently reviewing comments and will presumably announce soon what, if any, changes will be made to the existing consent decrees.

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Rights Review."]

Chris Vest, CAE

Chris Vest, CAE, is director of public policy at ASAE.