The news that Sony/ATV made a direct deal with Pandora produced some strangely paranoid chatter in the echo chamber. Sony/ATV can bring Pandora to their knees, getting around the rate court, etc. I think it’s actually much simpler than that.
What appears to have happened is quite simple–Sony/ATV opted out of letting ASCAP and BMI license their catalog (which now includes EMI so is really quite massive). This is perfectly legal, nothing shady, although a bit unusual. They’ve announced they intend to take some digital licensing in house, so everyone should have expected this was coming.
It is perfectly legal because of the antitrust consent decrees that ASCAP and BMI operate under. A condition of these consent decrees is that every affiliate of ASCAP and BMI retains the right to “opt out” of the blanket licenses (and rates) offered by these societies. No reason need be given–it is a right that all enjoy. (SESAC is a private company that does not (yet) operate under a consent decree.)
If a publisher opts out of one license or type of license, they can remain in the blanket license for all other licenses that are in place. So for example, Sony/ATV can opt out for Pandora, but stay in for broadcast radio or venue licenses.
Why might a publisher opt out of a blanket license? One reason is financial–they don’t have to pay the PRO collection fee on that revenue stream. But another reason is that if they stay in the blanket license, then they are subject to rate court proceedings brought against the PRO if negotiations with a licensee (say Pandora) fail.
Rate court proceedings were relatively rare occurances prior to the arrival of Big Tech in our lives. They have become increasingly common and almost always involve digital services. In fact, they almost always involve the same lawyers representing the digital services.
Rate court proceedings cost a lot of money. Millions in legal fees. And the twist is that if you stay in the blanket license, ASCAP and BMI pretty much have no choice but to submit to the rate court proceeding which is required by their respective consent decrees. So in this way while the PRO licenses are voluntary–not statutory like the compulsory mechanical license–and the rates are not set by the Copyright Royalty Judges–because they are not statutory rates–the rates are set by U.S. Federal District Courts sitting as rate courts. (For example, Judge Stanton is the BMI rate court judge in the Southern District of New York. MTP readers will remember him as the judge in the Viacom v. Google lawsuit who handed Google a complete victory over Viacom at trial in an opinion I found meandering and bizarre, which subsequently was substantially overturned on appeal.)
Rate court proceedings are in many ways similar to the Copyright Royalty Judges and take into account a variety of economic factors, including market rate deals for the same type of license.
Blanket licenses issued by the PROs are one of the great efficiencies in music licensing. Rate court proceedings gum up the works and undermine the benefit of lower transaction costs in collective licensing. I wonder if at the end of the day when one takes into account the legal fees and transaction costs concerned when Big Tech fights negotiated rates whether anyone actually comes out ahead.
Meaning if you compare the position of the parties before the rate court black hole and the ultimate rate imposed by the rate court, did the Big Tech company that used its litigation budget to force songwriters into the rate court proceeding actually end up better off? Or did they just get their jollies from dragging songwriters through costly litigation so that the next time around the PROs were more likely to acquiesce?
One thing that you often hear these Big Tech types say about their direct licenses is that songwriters are better off to not be represented by PROs because even though the direct license rate is lower, it’s more than the songwriter would get through the PRO because they don’t have to pay the PRO “commission”.
Of course, the other benefit from PRO licensing that songwriters get that isn’t discussed is that the songwriters can audit collectively under the PRO’s blanket license. Big Tech companies hate audits. The more direct licenses, the less likely that any one songwriter will ever exercise an audit right. And eventually the audit right will be withdrawn (as is already happening with the YouTube indie publisher license).
So how does this effect Sony/ATV? Recall that Pandora sued ASCAP in the rate court to try to screw songwriters right about the same time they began their campaign to screw artists in the Congress with the so-called Internet Radio Fairness Act.
If I had to bet, I would bet that Sony/ATV said enough of this BS and withdrew from ASCAP and BMI for purposes of licensing Pandora. That takes Sony/ATV out of the rate court. They made a deal with Pandora for a higher rate and shorter term than will ultimately come down in the ASCAP rate court.
Note: Of course, ASCAP may be able to use the Sony/ATV deal as evidence of a significant market rate for the Pandora service in the rate court, even though Sony/ATV is not party to the case.
Pandora had the choice of excluding all Sony/ATV songs from their service or make a direct deal with the publisher. And now that Pandora has made that deal once, they will always.
And that’s really all there is to it.
But–if Pandora had not been advised to go to the rate court, would Sony/ATV have made the same decision?
Is Pandora lucky that Sony/ATV didn’t just opt out of the ASCAP and BMI blanket licenses and not license Pandora at all? That would probably have brought down the service.
And–given the antagonism that was heaped on Pandora by songwriters from outside the US, will the societies representing these songwriters elect to opt out of the reciprocal agreements they have with ASCAP and BMI regarding Pandora and just not license Pandora?
Will other publishers follow Sony/ATV and avoid the rate court? Won’t that mean that the cost of the rate court will be shared by an ever smaller group of songwriters forced to litigate by Big Tech?
One thing we don’t need is less efficiency and higher transaction costs in music licensing. Most Big Tech companies and their shills whine about fragmented music licensing, yet the same people drive up those transaction costs while enriching a small group of lawyers who undermine the benefits of blanket licensing.
Do these Big Tech companies have the right to do this? Sure. Does it benefit them in the long run to jack songwriters around? Not really. If there’s anyone who has an existential threat from Big Tech it is the professional songwriter, often overlooked yet the most important part of the equation.
Continually trying to jack these people around accomplishes one thing: It hastens the day of full commoditization of culture by Big Tech. This is what they may think they want, but I would suggest to you that they really don’t.
So they may have the right to do it, but that doesn’t make it smart. But then I’m just a country lawyer and I’m not as smart as these city fellers.
You can’t blame Sony/ATV given their options. I’d have done the same.