In a non-precedential summary order on December 19, the Second Circuit affirmed a decision interpreting the BMI consent decree, which governs Broadcast Music International, a performance rights organization (“PRO”) that gathers music rights together to be packaged in a single blanket license. The details of the music battle and its implications are discussed in my previous posts [1, 2, 3, 4]. The affirmance means that BMI can not only fractionally license, it can do so under the consent decree as it is currently drafted. This decision will be terrible for the music industry, enabling new forms of market power that could be abused by license holders to increase prices.
On August 31, the Department of Justice made an interesting strategic move that turned a fight over consent decree language into an epic standoff. In its reply brief, the DOJ called BMI’s bluff and almost completely turned BMI’s legal strategy on its head. Reading the brief, one could almost imagine the DOJ reciting Dirty Harry’s famous line “You have to ask yourself, do I feel lucky?”
The fight is over fractional licensing, or the licensing of only a portion of a song’s copyright. Fractional licensing does not give a licensee the rights to play a song, because the licensee must first contract with all other fractional owners to assemble 100% of the rights. Fractional licensing can be a drag on the use of music, so Congress set the default rule as full-work licensing – meaning each copyright owner can license the full work but owes each co-owner their share of profits. While parties are free to change the default rule by contract, the DOJ argues that the antitrust consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI contain restrictions on the use of fractional licensing. BMI disagrees.
If that explanation seems vague, it’s because it is now clear that what we all thought the DOJ was arguing is dramatically different from their actual position. It all started with BMI’s attempt at a strawman argument. BMI thought the DOJ was taking the position that fractional licensing is completely barred by the consent decrees. BMI argued that under current law on consent decree construction, the DOJ can’t get all the way there, due to the way the consent decree is drafted. BMI argued that if you only take DOJ’s plausible arguments, you get the result that fractional licensing is not regulated under the consent decree at all. Perhaps believing that this could not possibly be what the DOJ wants, BMI then advanced its interpretation where it gets to engage in fractional licensing but under the antitrust restrictions of the consent decree.
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.
Less than a week after agreeing to pay $1.75 million to the Department of Justice to settle an investigation into antitrust misconduct, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was on Capitol Hill yesterday, asking lawmakers to roll back the consent decree to which the performing rights organization is bound.
On May 12, DOJ had asked a federal court to hold ASCAP in contempt, stating that the PRO had “undermined a critical protection of competition” and violated its federal commitments. Concurrently, DOJ and ASCAP filed a settlement relating to the alleged misconduct.
As DisCo has previously covered, two federal courts found “troubling coordination” among ostensible competitors in the music publishing industry, which contributed to Justice’s recently concluded investigation. The 7-figure settlement is a stark reminder of the continuing need for antitrust protections, even as Congress is being asked to relax those commitments.
This afternoon, U.S. Government antitrust policies will come under the microscope as a Senate Judiciary subcommittee holds an antitrust oversight hearing, with testimony from Assistant Attorney General William Baer from the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division and Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.
The Administration is coming into the hearing fresh off a highly publicized win over Apple, as the Supreme Court refused Monday to hear Apple’s effort to overturn rulings that it engaged in unlawful e-book price-fixing with major publishers (DisCo coverage of DOJ’s win here.) With that issue put to bed, attention may turn to other antitrust priorities. For example, just in the area of technology, a number of major DOJ and FTC merger reviews and enforcement actions have recently concluded, and the FTC has had a long-running review of dubious practices by patent assertion entities.
Another issue that may appear on the antitrust radar is the ongoing DOJ review of consent decrees governing collusive practices by performing rights organizations (PROs) licensing of musical compositions. The consent decrees – the product of antitrust suits against music publishers and rightsholders – are credited with enabling the development of new lawful music delivery services, even if transparency concerns persist. Exactly one year ago today, DisCo covered a previous Senate hearing on PRO practices under these rules, noting that DOJ’s review of PRO practices has the potential to increase transparency in the notoriously opaque music licensing landscape. Currently, licensing uncertainty and gridlock are some of the most significant barriers to a robust and viable music marketplace. Courts have previously found that this uncertainty has been weaponized for use in licensing negotiations.
Likely in response to findings of licensing misconduct in private litigation, DOJ’s attention turned to the problem of so-called “fractional licensing” by PROs and their constituent publishers. Fractional licensing deals with the question of when multiple parties hold an interest in a copyrighted work. How many co-owners’ permission must one obtain? (I.e., If nine co-owners agree to license a work and the 10th says ‘no,’ can the licensee proceed?) Conventional copyright law says yes, and the authorizing owners have a duty to account for profits to remaining owners. One co-owner can’t hold up all the others. Music industry practices attempt to reverse this rule, however, such that everyone can say ‘no,’ but no one rightsholder can unilaterally authorize a licensed use of a work. The rationale for challenging this practice is that it magnifies market share in an already concentrated market. With just a 10% interest in a work, a rightsholder can dictate usage of the entire work. Although the practice is a prescription for gridlock, the possibility that the Justice Department might weigh in on this particular practice nevertheless produced much “unhappiness” in the music publishing industry, as Mike Godwin wrote last year for Techdirt.
PRO oversight is not necessarily the top issue on the Judiciary committee’s agenda, and it may not receive sufficient attention in the hearing. Nevertheless, the outcome of DOJ’s investigation into PRO practices under the consent decrees will have a significant impact on music delivery services nationwide.
David Balto and Matthew Lane, antitrust attorneys, have authored a guest paper for DisCo on innovation in the music delivery sector. David previously served as Policy Director at the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy and Evaluation, and attorney advisor to the FTC chairman.
There is no doubt that we live in exciting times. New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, or give us a voice. However, disruptive innovations do not hit all areas of our lives equally. There are some industries that are controlled by companies that don’t want to be shaken up and have the power to prevent it. These consolidated industries are an anathema to disruptive innovation. So how do we enable disruptive competition in these industries?
One answer is found in our competition enforcement agencies and the oversight they can achieve through antitrust enforcement and consent decrees secured when cases are brought. The important role of consent decrees is often overlooked. A properly constructed consent decree between the government and a company accused of anticompetitive behavior can restore competition and foster new competitive entry. Permitting entry is vital to disruptive innovation because much of this innovation comes from start-ups and new entrants.MORE »
Tomorrow night airs the third episode of PBS’s miniseries based on Steven Johnson’s book, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World – one of two new books on innovation by best-selling authors that raise interesting questions about the role of intellectual property in promoting technological development. The other is by Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, who has expanded his scope in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.
Both books place great emphasis on collaborative innovation. And both books place significantly less weight on intellectual property protection than policymakers in Washington.MORE »
The French have a wonderful saying, la plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, which roughly translates to “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” That’s an apt description of current, high-profile wrangling in the United States about music licensing under federal copyright law. Despite all the jarring changes to the recording industry over the past decade — remember Tower Records? — it’s the same issues and (mostly) the same players as always, arguing over a Rube Goldberg-like system of arcane complexity.
Tomorrow the House of Representatives (specifically the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet) will hold a second round of hearings on music licensing. This inquiry coincides with a recent announcement by the Justice Department that it will review — and solicit public feedback on — the 73-year-old antitrust decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, two groups which act as licensing clearinghouses for a range of outlets that use music, including radio stations, websites and even restaurants and doctors’ offices. As the New York Times has observed, “billions of dollars in royalties are at stake, and the lobbying fight that is very likely to unfold would pit Silicon Valley giants like Pandora and Google against music companies and songwriter groups.”MORE »
There’s a famous old political adage — “where you stand is where sit” (also known as Miles’ Law) — meaning basically that government policy positions are dictated more by agency imperative and institutional memory than objective consideration of the public interest. A related concept is “regulatory capture,” where administrative agencies over time become defenders of the status quo and pursue objectives more for regulated firms as their constituency than consumers. Capture theory is closely related to the “rent-seeking” and “political failure” theories developed by the public choice school of economics. Or as Harold Demsetz put it well in his influential 1968 article, Why Regulate Utilities?, “in utility industries, regulation has often been sought because of the inconvenience of competition.”
That’s no longer limited to electricity companies and other public utilities these days. With the advent of rapid, low-cost entry into previously sheltered markets, powered by technology and the sharing economy, today’s incumbent industries are taking regulatory capture and politics as rent seeking to new heights. At DisCo we’ve written extensively about Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Tesla and many other disruptive new start-ups that are facing a backlash from established industries (taxis, hotels and auto dealers, respectively) which use consumer protection as a Trojan Horse to disguise preventing or delaying competition on price, features and service. Politicians in locales as diverse as New York, New Jersey, San Antonio and Seattle (believe it or not!) have, wittingly it seems, gone along so far.
This is where what antitrust lawyers dub competition advocacy comes into play. Most antitrust policy in the U.S. is made in federal court as a result of merger, monopolization and horizontal collusion prosecutions launched by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). But due to our federal-state system and a judge-made doctrine allowing states to exempt some markets from competition despite federal antitrust demands (government action, and private conduct to obtain such action, is challengeable in only relative narrow circumstances), much of the battle takes place in the legislative and regulatory arenas. Accordingly, competition advocacy is the primary tool available to antitrust enforcers in the U.S. to oppose state and local regulations favoring established firms over start-ups and parochially sheltering in-state companies from out-of-state competitors. The result is that for three decades the federal antitrust agencies have engaged in affirmative outreach to state and local legislators and regulators in the form of comments, letters and occasional lawsuits that seek to drive home the basic truths that competition outperforms regulation and the law should not pick winners and losers when it comes to evolving markets. (State attorneys general also undertake competition advocacy, principally through amicus briefs, as well.) MORE »
When is a prediction not worth relying upon? For purposes of analyzing mergers under the Clayton Antitrust Act, a recent decision in favor of the Justice Department indicates that predictions are worth less — perhaps are even worthless — when they are contradicted by the actual facts of the marketplace. The government’s successful legal challenge a couple of weeks ago to the merger of two Internet start-ups ironically shows that the force of predictive judgments remains powerful, even when courts could employ reality as a basis for accurate comparison.
Some background. A 2013 DisCo post authored by the undersigned contrasted “future markets,” where the contours of products and entry do not yet exist and cannot reliably be predicted, with “nascent markets,” in which those features indeed exist but only in their infancy. My thesis was that antitrust enforcement in the latter is preferable because looking back at nascent markets once they have a chance to develop gives the government a more accurate basis on which to assess the actual impact of mergers and concentration than rank projections in which policymakers have no comparative expertise.
The case used to illustrate this theme was United States v. Bazaarvoice, Inc., in which the Justice Department sued to unwind a 2012 merger, already completed, between two firms in what it called the online ratings and reviews platform market. I concluded that
by challenging the merger post-consummation, DOJ has avoided basing its enforcement decisions on predictions of future markets and instead the case should rise or fall on the accuracy of its ex post analysis of actual competitive effects.
That’s not at all what happened, though.