A strange facet of intellectual property rights in the United States has traditionally allowed terrestrial AM and FM radio stations to play music recorded by anyone without paying them. This situation has cost performing artists a huge amount of potential revenue. If that legal approach applied across the board, it could at least be described as “consistent” if unfair, but that’s not the case. Streaming services, online outlets, and satellite radio stations all have to compensate artists when their music is used. (Just try putting up a YouTube video on your own channel using popular songs without paying and see what happens.)
That may be about to change. A new bill called the American Music Fairness Act is making its way through Congress this month. It would ensure that larger, profitable AM and FM radio stations compensate the artists when they play music while exempting smaller non-profit and college radio stations. And in an exceptionally rare moment in Washinton these days, there appears to be some bipartisan support for the bill. (American Commitment)
Sometimes it seems like the only legislation that gets prioritized in Washington are bills that rip off taxpayers. But in a welcomed change of pace, Congress has an opportunity to stop American artists from being ripped off via the American Music Fairness Act, which has been introduced in the House and will soon be unveiled in the Senate.
It should go without saying that artists should be paid for their work. A painter shouldn’t have his or her painting taken without compensation and, similarly, music performers should not have their works used without compensation. While this may seem like common sense, this is not how we treat music currently.
Under current law, while streaming services, online platforms and even satellite radio stations are all required to pay music artists when they use their work, AM/FM “terrestrial” radio stations enjoy a zero-cost compulsory license that allows them to play any music they want while paying artists (unless they also wrote the songs – songwriters are paid) exactly zero.
One area of these laws that’s always left me a bit confused is the legal distinction drawn between the person (or people) who actually compose or write the songs and the artists or groups that perform and record them. If a solo artist writes her own songs, she’s compensated when they are used, as seems appropriate. But if one member of a band writes a song, all of the band members wind up being paid. Of course, the recording companies do their best to rip them all off, but that’s a complaint for another day.
The current, odd situation seems to be essentially unique to the movie industry. As the linked article points out, you couldn’t have a legal structure where movie production companies weren’t allowed to charge theaters for the right to show their movies. The entire movie industry would collapse if you did that. (Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing given the movies being pumped out lately.)
Another portion of the proposed bill would enable American artists to collect royalties when their music is played overseas. That might work out well for the artists, though it also sounds like it will create a cottage industry for lawyers to bring lawsuits against foreign entities.
This is one of the few instances in recent years when Congress has managed to give a name to a proposed law that actually describes what the law is attempting to do. And it doesn’t appear to be undermining anyone or attacking the middle class. (For a change.) Will the swamp creatures in Washington actually be able to pull their heads out of the muck long enough to do something productive? We shall see, though I’m not holding my breath.