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Music Licensing—La Plus Ça Change?

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.

Today 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.”

ASCAP logo

According to the consent decrees, which were instituted in 1941 after federal antitrust investigations, ASCAP and BMI cannot refuse licenses to music outlets that request them. These two “performance rights organizations” (PROs) have operated under this structure for decades, but in recent years have lost important legal cases having to do with licensing. Earlier in 2014, for instance, ASCAP lost a rate-setting case against Pandora in which several prominent music publishing executives were criticized harshly by the presiding federal judge. In response, major publishers like Sony and Universal Music Group have begun to openly discuss withdrawing from ASCAP and BMI, a move that would further complicate the licensing process.

Continue reading Music Licensing—La Plus Ça Change?

All’s Fair In Love And Viral Videos


Comedy Central’s South Park has opened the door for “fair use” copyright defenses to shut down infringement lawsuits before they saddle defendants with discovery expenses or force a settlement for cost reasons.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago ruled just weeks ago that the cartoon’s parody of a popular Internet video — if you watch South Park, you know which one — was a protected parody. The episode “Canada on Strike” lampoons the juxtaposition of viral videos’ popularity with their typically paltry financial returns through advertising and licensing. Brownmark Films, which owns the copyright on the original video, sued Comedy Central and network owner Viacom for infringement. (Incidentally, both music videos were posted on You Tube, the same company that Viacom had sued for a billion dollars in March 2007 for alleged copyright infringement.) The appeals panel unanimously agreed that the South Park video was “obvious” fair use, “providing commentary on the ridiculousness of the original video and the viral nature of certain YouTube videos,” and upheld the suit’s dismissal.

Fair use under copyright law occurs when an earlier work is used by a latter work for commentary, parody, education or some other purpose whose main goal is not to secure financial gain. Recognizing the essential nature of South Park as a mature, adult-oriented animated series, the 7th Circuit emphasized that “[t]he show centers on the adventures of foul-mouthed fourth graders in the small town of South Park, Colorado. It is notorious for its distinct animation style and scatological humor [and] frequently provides commentary on current events and pop-culture through parody and satire.” Yet without getting into all the procedural wrinkles, the court also broke new legal ground in its discussion of the role of early dismissal of “weak claims” and disposition based on a fair use claim alone, in fighting against the “chilling effects” of First Amendment-related litigation.

Despite Brownmark’s assertions to the contrary, the only two pieces of evidence needed to decide the question of fair use in this case are the original version of [the viral video at issue] and the [South Park] episode at issue… We think it makes eminently good sense to extend the [incorporate by reference] doctrine to cover such works, especially in light of technological changes that have occasioned widespread production of audio-visual works. The expense of discovery … looms over this suit. Ruinous discovery heightens the incentive to settle rather than defend these frivolous suits. [Thus,] district courts need not, and indeed ought not, allow discovery when it is clear that the case turns on facts already in evidence.

An unusually frank and colorful opinion by long-time Circuit Judge Richard Cudahy (first appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979) provides some comedy itself. Brownmark could have offered its own evidence to defeat the fair use defense but chose not to, Cudahy wrote. Its “broad” discovery request made Brownmark look like a “copyright troll” and would allow “expensive e-discovery of emails or other internal communications.” Brownmark’s only plausible copyright claim could be be that the parody harmed the market for its original video, but “as the South Park episode aptly points out, there is no ‘Internet money’ for the video itself on YouTube, only advertising dollars that correlate with the number of views the video has had.” Cudahy concluded “[i]t seems to this court that” the parody video’s “likely effect, ironically, would only increase ad revenue.”

Sometimes the courts actually do get it when technology is involved, although we have no idea whether Judge Cudahy himself watches South Park. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Comedy Central, explained:

The opinion joins a growing body of precedent affirming that it’s proper to dismiss some copyright cases early, and that it’s possible in appropriate cases to determine whether a use is noninfringing without engaging in lengthy discovery. These rulings are important not only to protect speech, but also in fighting back against copyright trolls. Trolls depend on the threat of legal costs to encourage people to settle cases even though they might have legitimate defenses.

Of course, “trolls” are in the eye of the beholder. Like terrorists, one person’s troll may be another’s “freedom fighter.” So whether or not particular litigants merit that somewhat pejorative description, it’s clear that the costs and burdens associated with defending copyright claims — including but not only for Internet-distributed video — just went down a whole lot. While Brownmark involved a seemingly easy fair use case in the defendants’ favor, it will be inter­esting to see whether future courts will grant motions to dismiss where the fair use analysis is less obvious. In any event, copyright infringement plaintiffs should be aware that the road to discovery where a defendant raises a fair use defense is not be quite as smooth as it used to be.

As to judicial comedy, we express no opinion, but do like the district judge’s tact. “For as remarkable and fascinating the parties and issues surrounding this litigation are, this order, which will resolve a pending motion to dismiss will be, by comparison, frankly quite dry.”

The legal issues [in this case] are hardly the sort of subject that would create millions of fans, as the work of all of the parties before the court did. Nonetheless, while the court has a ‘tough job,’ ‘someone has to do it,’ and, ‘with shoulder to the wheel,’ this court ‘forge[s] on’ to resolve the pending motion. Janky v. Lake County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 576 F.3d 356, 358 (7th Cir. 2009).

Note: Originally written for and reposted with permission of my law firm’s Information Intersection blog.


Cover of the Rolling Stone (Not)

My photo from Sunday’s Washington Redskins’ game made the cover of Flipboard. Wow, you say? Not really. See, Flipboard is an iPad app — created by a team led by former Tellme CEO and client Mike McCue — that dynamically creates a magazine layout of all your social media connections and posts.

Still, it’s rare that any specific user’s Tweets appear on the cover page. So this is not quite like that corny 1970s song by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show chosen as the title here. But NOT bad, not bad at all!

Posted via email from glenn’s posterous

Windows For Hollywood

There has been much discussion recently about the movie industry’s efforts to maintain its product release “windows,” so that theatrical performances precede pay-per-view, followed by DVD sales, pay TV (HBO, etc.) and finally advertiser-supported television. My view is that these folks are shooting themselves in the foot, because DVD sales actually declined in 2009 for the first time. The lesson is not that DVDs are being sold OR rented “too early,” rather that technological convergence is making more and more options available to consumers, so building a library of physical DVDs is relatively unimportant, and certainly no longer a priority.

But as usual — see their opposition to the VCR — Hollywood has this all backwards. Again.

Netflix, Warner Bros., Adjust Online Movie Renting [CNet News.com].

In a ground-breaking deal for the online movie renting, Netflix and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment announced Wednesday that they have reached a deal that calls for Netflix to get access to more of the studio’s catalog content.In exchange, Netflix agreed to do something it has never done before. Netflix won’t offer new releases from the studio on DVD and Blu-ray for a period of 28 days after they go on sale.