As DisCo has covered before, a major legal battle is being waged in the music industry. The battle concerns the intersection of music copyright and antitrust law, and it could dramatically change how consumers interact with music. On May 18, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) is expected to file its opening brief in an appeal of a district court decision rejecting its interpretation of a consent decree entered into in 1941 (and amended since). The outcome of this appeal could have major and long lasting repercussions for Internet radio and music streaming.
How the Music Industry Historically Worked Out Its Issues
The music industry joins a handful of other industries, like major league sports, which have a unique relationship with antitrust laws. These industries all have very significant and unique problems that are solved through competitor coordination, but competitor coordination is normally illegal under the antitrust laws. These industries generally operate under some kind of exception to the antitrust laws, because the problems outweigh the competitive concerns in a limited coordination. In the case of the music industry, a complicated basket of rights extended across millions of songs would make it nearly impossible for music services to exist without some market intervention. Every recorded song is covered by two copyrights, one for the recording and one for the composition, and every copyright can have any number of owners. This leads to a counter-intuitive relationship between buyers and sellers where buyers want the smallest number of sellers possible, as long as those sellers are required to play fair. This leads to the lowest search cost and the easiest way for buyers and sellers to find each other.
Enter the performance rights organizations (“PROs”). These PROs gather many composition licenses together and offer them at a blanket rate to music buyers. This is, of course, called price fixing in antitrust terms. However, the DOJ recognized the benefits of PROs and negotiated a settlement that would allow the PROs to continue to operate unchallenged by antitrust laws as long as they were bound by certain rules that ensure the PROs played fair and didn’t abuse their immense power. This assessment of the PROs was later endorsed by the Supreme Court. The set of rules the PROs operate under is called the consent decrees, which cover the two largest PROs in the music industry – ASCAP and BMI. These consent decrees provide a floor of protections for music buyers.
Today, virtually all music services take blanket licenses from the major PROs. The PROs in turn gather composition rights primarily from large publishing houses like Sony and Universal Music Publishing Group.