Thursday, January 22, 2009

The RIAA's 'big enchilada' for 2009: not what you'd think

A reader of copyright blogs could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the Recording Industry Association of America concerns itself with is litigating to the death against college students and, for sport, torturing puppies.

So it may come as a surprise to many to learn that when asked in a recent Variety interview about the trade group's 2009 priorities, RIAA Chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol barely mentioned Internet piracy, or the best method for sticking burning bamboo slivers under baby beagles' toenails. Rather, said Bainwol:
The big enchilada, the No. 1 cause of the year, is the performance rights bill. It will receive a substantial focus. It remains an uphill battle but we have been working together with MusicFirst, NARAS, RAC and (other groups) to make inroads on the Hill.
So what's the "performance rights bill," and how big an enchilada is it? First a little background: under US copyright law, there are 2 separate copyrights in music: 1) the "musical composition" (the underlying notes and lyrics), which is generally owned by a music publisher; and 2) the "sound recording," (the actual noise a listener hears), which is generally owned by a record label (i.e., an RIAA member). The owners of copyrights in musical compositions enjoy, under current copyright law, the exclusive right to publicly perform their works. The owners of sound recordings, however, do not. So, when a radio station plays (publicly performs) a song, it must pay a royalty to the publisher, but not the record label. (There are complicated historical reasons for all this that are beyond the scope of this post, and my brain.)

As you can imagine, the RIAA is not thrilled about this state of affairs. Its members, often described as "circling the drain," want more royalties. (And they are deeply jealous of their cousins in the music publishing world. Forbes does not write articles titled "The One Bright Spot In The Music Business" about the record labels.) The labels have been trying "for decades" to get Congress to grant them a public performance right, at least for broadcasts -- to no avail. And they're trying again, with the help of music-industry-friendly Members of Congress like Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Howard Berman (D-CA), Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

Their opponents, of course, are the radio broadcasters, who have little interest in paying a new set of royalties, or, as they call them, a "tax" or, more politely, "
a government-imposed bailout of foreign record labels estimated to cost up to $7 billion [that] would ... cause serious economic harm to U.S. radio stations." (Even today, $7 billion buys a lot of enchiladas.) The radio stations' own trade association, the National Association of Broadcasters, doesn't just oppose the new public performance right for sound recordings (sorry, the "music tax"); it issues calls for a "probe." Scary!

So will the labels finally get their wish this year? Just ask yourself how many Congressional Districts are home to record labels. Next, ask yourself how many have radio stations. I think you know the answer to my original question.

Photo credit.

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