Second Circuit’s BMI Decision Commendably Overturns the Justice Department’s Interference with Efficient Contracting in Performance Rights Licensing

Alden Abbott —  22 December 2017

Introduction and Summary

On December 19, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit presented Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) with an early Christmas present.  Specifically, the Second Circuit commendably affirmed the District Court for the Southern District of New York’s September 2016 ruling rejecting the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) August 2016 reinterpretation of its longstanding antitrust consent decree with BMI.  Because the DOJ reinterpretation also covered a parallel DOJ consent decree with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), the Second Circuit’s decision by necessary implication benefits ASCAP as well, although it was not a party to the suit.

The Second Circuit’s holding is sound as a matter of textual interpretation and wise as a matter of economic policy.  Indeed, DOJ’s current antitrust leadership, which recognizes the importance of vibrant intellectual property licensing in the context of patents (see here), should be pleased that the Second Circuit rescued it from a huge mistake by the Obama Administration DOJ in the context of copyright licensing.

Background

BMI and ASCAP are the two leading U.S. “performing rights organizations” (PROs).  They contract with music copyright holders to act as intermediaries that provide “blanket” licenses to music users (e.g., television and radio stations, bars, and internet music distributors) for use of their full copyrighted musical repertoires, without the need for song-specific licensing negotiations.  This greatly reduces the transactions costs of arranging for the playing of musical works, benefiting music users, the listening public, and copyright owners (all of whom are assured of at least some compensation for their endeavors).  ASCAP and BMI are big businesses, with each PRO holding licenses to over ten million works and accounting for roughly 45 percent of the domestic music licensing market (ninety percent combined).

Because both ASCAP and BMI pool copyrighted songs that could otherwise compete with each other, and both grant users a single-price “blanket license” conveying the rights to play their full set of copyrighted works, the two organizations could be seen as restricting competition among copyrighted works and fixing the prices of copyrighted substitutes – raising serious questions under section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which condemns contracts that unreasonably restrain trade.  This led the DOJ to bring antitrust suits against ASCAP and BMI over eighty years ago, which were settled by separate judicially-filed consent decrees in 1941.

The decrees imposed a variety of limitations on the two PROs’ licensing practices, aimed at preventing ASCAP and BMI from exercising anticompetitive market power (such as the setting of excessive licensing rates).  The decrees were amended twice over the years, most recently in 2001, to take account of changing market conditions.  The U.S. Supreme Court noted the constraining effect of the decrees in BMI v. CBS (1979), in ruling that the BMI and ASCAP blanket licenses did not constitute per se illegal price fixing.  The Court held, rather, that the licenses should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under the antitrust “rule of reason,” since the licenses inherently generated great efficiency benefits (“the immediate use of covered compositions, without the delay of prior individual negotiations”) that had to be weighed against potential anticompetitive harms.

The August 4, 2016 DOJ Consent Decree Interpretation

Fast forward to 2014, when DOJ undertook a new review of the ASCAP and BMI decrees, and requested the submission of public comments to aid it in its deliberations.  This review came to an official conclusion two years later, on August 4, 2016, when DOJ decided not to amend the decrees – but announced a decree interpretation that limits ASCAP’s and BMI’s flexibility.  Specifically, DOJ stated that the decrees needed to be “more consistently applied.”  By this, the DOJ meant that BMI and ASCAP should only grant blanket licenses that cover all of the rights to 100 percent of the works in the PROs’ respective catalogs (“full-work licensing”), not licenses that cover only partial interests in those works.  DOJ stated:

Only full-work licensing can yield the substantial procompetitive benefits associated with blanket licenses that distinguish ASCAP’s and BMI’s activities from other agreements among competitors that present serious issues under the antitrust laws.

The New DOJ Interpretation Was Bad as a Matter of Policy

DOJ’s August 4 interpretation rejected industry practice.  Under it, ASCAP and BMI were only allowed to offer a license covering all of the copyright interests in a musical competition, even if the license covers a joint work.

For example, consider a band of five composer-musicians, each of whom has a fractional interest in the copyright covering the band’s new album which is a joint work.  Prior to the DOJ’s new interpretation, each musician was able to offer a partial interest in the joint work to a performance rights organization, reflecting the relative shares of the total copyright interest covering the work.  The organization could offer a partial license, and a user could aggregate different partial licenses in order to cover the whole joint work.  Following the new interpretation, however, BMI and ASCAP could not offer partial licenses to that work to users.  This denied the band’s individual members the opportunity to deal profitably with BMI and ASCAP, thereby undermining their ability to receive fair compensation.

As the two PROs warned, this approach, if upheld, would “cause unnecessary chaos in the marketplace and place unfair financial burdens and creative constraints on songwriters and composers.”  According to ASCAP President Paul Williams, “It is as if the DOJ saw songwriters struggling to stay afloat in a sea of outdated regulations and decided to hand us an anchor, in the form of 100 percent licensing, instead of a life preserver.”  Furthermore, the president and CEO of BMI, Mike O’Neill, stated:  “We believe the DOJ’s interpretation benefits no one – not BMI or ASCAP, not the music publishers, and not the music users – but we are most sensitive to the impact this could have on you, our songwriters and composers.”

The PROs’ views were bolstered by a January 2016 U.S. Copyright Office report, which concluded that “an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require 100-percent licensing or removal of a work from the ASCAP or BMI repertoire would appear to be fraught with legal and logistical problems, and might well result in a sharp decrease in repertoire available through these [performance rights organizations’] blanket licenses.”  Regrettably, during the decree review period, DOJ ignored the expert opinion of the Copyright Office, as well as the public record comments of numerous publishers and artists (see here, for example) indicating that a 100 percent licensing requirement would depress returns to copyright owners and undermine the creative music industry.

Most fundamentally, DOJ’s new interpretation of the BMI and ASCAP consent decrees involved an abridgment of economic freedom.  It further limited the flexibility of copyright music holders and music users to contract with intermediaries to promote the efficient distribution of music performance rights, in a manner that benefits the listening public while allowing creative artists sufficient compensation for their efforts.  DOJ made no compelling showing that a new consent decree constraint was needed to promote competition (100 percent licensing only).  Far from promoting competition, DOJ’s new interpretation undermined it.  DOJ micromanagement of copyright licensing by consent decree reinterpretation was a costly new regulatory initiative that reflected a lack of appreciation for intellectual property rights, which incentivize innovation.  In short, DOJ’s latest interpretation of the ASCAP and BMI decrees was terrible policy.

The New DOJ Interpretation Ran Counter to International Norms

The new DOJ interpretation had unfortunate international policy implications as well.  According to Gadi Oron, Director General of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), a Paris-based organization that regroups 239 rights societies from 123 countries, including ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, the new interpretation departed from international norms in the music licensing industry and have disruptive international effects:

It is clear that the DoJ’s decisions have been made without taking the interests of creators, neither American nor international, into account. It is also clear that they were made with total disregard for the international framework, where fractional licensing is practiced, even if it’s less of a factor because many countries only have one performance rights organization representing songwriters in their territory. International copyright laws grant songwriters exclusive rights, giving them the power to decide who will license their rights in each territory and it is these rights that underpin the landscape in which authors’ societies operate. The international system of collective management of rights, which is based on reciprocal representation agreements and founded on the freedom of choice of the rights holder, would be negatively affected by such level of government intervention, at a time when it needs support more than ever.

The New DOJ Interpretation Was Defective as a Matter of Law, and the District Court and the Second Circuit So Held

As I explained in a November 2016 Heritage Foundation commentary (citing arguments made by counsel for BMI), DOJ’s new interpretation not only was bad domestic and international policy, it was inconsistent with sound textual construction of the decrees themselves.  The BMI decree (and therefore the analogous ASCAP decree as well) did not expressly require 100 percent licensing and did not unambiguously prohibit fractional licensing.  Accordingly, since a consent decree is an injunction, and any activity not expressly required or prohibited thereunder is permitted, fractional shares licensing should be authorized.  DOJ’s new interpretation ignored this principle.  It also was at odds with a report of the U.S. Copyright Office that concluded the BMI consent decree “must be understood to include partial interests in musical works.”  Furthermore, the new interpretation was belied by the fact that the PRO licensing market has developed and functioned efficiently for decades by pricing, collecting, and distributing fees for royalties on a fractional basis.  Courts view such evidence of trade practice and custom as relevant in determining the meaning of a consent decree.

The district court for the Southern District of New York accepted these textual arguments in its September 2016 ruling, granting BMI’s request for a declaratory judgment that the BMI decree did not require Decree did not require 100% (“full-work”) licensing.  The court explained:

Nothing in the Consent Decree gives support to the Division’s views. If a fractionally-licensed composition is disqualified from inclusion in BMI’s repertory, it is not for violation of any provision of the Consent Decree. While the Consent Decree requires BMI to license performances of those compositions “the right of public performances of which [BMI] has or hereafter shall have the right to license or sublicense” (Art. II(C)), it contains no provision regarding the source, extent, or nature of that right. It does not address the possibilities that BMI might license performances of a composition without sufficient legal right to do so, or under a worthless or invalid copyright, or users might perform a music composition licensed by fewer than all of its creators. . . .

The Consent Decree does not regulate the elements of the right to perform compositions. Performance of a composition under an ineffective license may infringe an author’s rights under copyright, contract or other law, but it does not infringe the Consent Decree, which does not extend to matters such as the invalidity or value of copyrights of any of the compositions in BMI’s repertory. Questions of the validity, scope and limits of the right to perform compositions are left to the congruent and competing interests in the music copyright market, and to copyright, property and other laws, to continue to resolve and enforce. Infringements (and fractional infringements) and remedies are not part of the Consent Decree’s subject-matter.

The Second Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the district court’s reading of the decree:

The decree does not address the issue of fractional versus full work licensing, and the parties agree that the issue did not arise at the time of the . . . [subsequent] amendments [to the decree]. . . .

This appeal begins and ends with the language of the consent decree. It is a “well-established principle that the language of a consent decree must dictate what a party is required to do and what it must refrain from doing.” Perez v. Danbury Hosp., 347 F.3d 419, 424 (2d Cir. 2003); United States v. Armour & Co., 402 U.S. 673, 682 (1971) (“[T]he scope of a consent decree must be discerned within its four corners…”). “[C]ourts must abide by the express terms of a consent decree and may not impose additional requirements or supplementary obligations on the parties even to fulfill the purposes of the decree more effectively.” Perez, 347 F.3d at 424; see also Barcia v. Sitkin, 367 F.3d 87, 106 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted) (The district court may not “impose obligations on a party that are not unambiguously mandated by the decree itself.”). Accordingly, since the decree is silent on fractional licensing, BMI may (and perhaps must) offer them unless a clear and unambiguous command of the decree would thereby be violated. See United States v. Int’l Bhd. Of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen & Helpers of Am., AFLCIO, 998 F.2d 1101, 1107 (2d Cir. 1993); see also Armour, 402 U.S. at 681-82.

Conclusion

The federal courts wisely have put to rest an ill-considered effort by the Obama Antitrust Division to displace longstanding industry practices that allowed efficient flexibility in the licensing of copyright interests by PROs.  Let us hope that the Trump Antitrust Division will not just accept the Second Circuit’s decision, but will positively embrace it as a manifestation of enlightened antitrust-IP policy – one in harmony with broader efforts by the Division to restore sound thinking to the antitrust treatment of patent licensing and intellectual property in general.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.