Court rejects RIAA’s arguments against 24 cent ringtone royalty rate

Recording Industry Ass’n of America, Inc. v. Librarian of Congress, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 2487842 (D.C. Cir. June 22, 2010)

Recorded music is usually subject to copyright protection in two ways — the musical composition (think sheet music and lyrics) is protected by one copyright, and the actual sound recording is protected by another copyright. In general, for someone other than the copyright owner to use a copyrighted work (e.g., to copy or distribute it), he or she must get a license from the copyright owner (setting aside exceptions such as fair use).

The compulsory license schema

But there’s a kind of zany exception to the general requirement of a negotiated license when it comes to reuse of a musical composition. Others seeking to make such further reuse can do so without obtaining an agreement with the owner of the copyright in the musical composition, provided that the reuser obtain and pay a fee for a “compulsory license.” The mechanics for such licensing system are set up in Section 115 of the Copyright Act (17 USC 115).

There is a Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) that the Library of Congress oversees. This three-member panel sets the fees due to copyright owners under the Section 115 compulsory license schema.

Ring-a-ling cha-ching

As you probably know, ringtones that sample popular songs are popular these days. (As a commuter on public transportation I can attest to what a scourge this is on our modern society.) Since they’re all the rage, they’re big business.

In 2009, after some complex hearings, the CRB set the rate for payment under a compulsory license at 24 cents per ringtone sold. The Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) had argued that its copyright owners were entitled to a percentage of total revenue, not a flat “penny-rate.” Unhappy with the CRB’s determination, it appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court affirmed the CRB’s penny-rate of 24 cents.

How the CRB was right

The CRB determined that a penny-rate was more in line with reimbursing copyright owners for the use of their works. In upholding the CRB’s determination on this point, the court observed that in other cases it had validated the CRB’s preference for a royalty system based on the number of copyrighted works sold — like the penny rate — as being more directly tied to the nature of the right being licensed than a percentage-of-revenue rate.

Moreover, the CRB had determined (and the court agreed) that a percentage revenue model did not make as much sense for the sale of individual copyrighted works as it would in the sale of media that is streamed or broadcast. Simply stated, it is relatively easy to measure how many copies of a ringtone are sold, and thus easy to calculate a penny-rate amount. But that is more difficult to accurately do in the case, for example, of satellite radio. Those difficulties were not present in this situation, and that militated against the adoption of a percentage rate.

Finally, the court agreed with the CRB’s disdain for the complexity of calculating a percentage of revenue licensing fee. A penny-rate structure was much simpler to handle than the “salient difficulties” presented by the RIAA’s percentage mode.

The court found nothing unreasonable about the CRB’s determination (i.e., that the the CRB’s determination was not arbitrary and capricious, and so it affirmed that determination.

Photo courtesy Flickr user totalAldo under this Creative Commons license.

Record companies win $1.92 million in case against individual file sharer

There has only been one copyright infringement case filed against an individual accused of illegally sharing music files over the internet to actually go to trial. That’s the case of Capitol Records v. Jammie Thomas. In October 2007, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota returned a verdict of $222,000 against Ms. Thomas. The court on its own motion vacated that judgment, and ordered a retrial. That retrial concluded on June 18, 2009, with a judgment of a whopping $1.92 million against Ms. Thomas.

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The Pirate Bay verdict is no big deal

The big news story of the day is the guilty verdict from a Swedish court against the four guys behind The Pirate Bay. The judge sentenced them to a year in prison for facilitating copyright infringement and also ordered them to pay millions of dollars. The righteous indignation flows like akvavit.

I cannot see any reason why anyone outside the reach of Sweden’s laws should be all that concerned about this case. Sure, it’s grand spectacle to see an act of civil disobedience deliver its agents to purported martyrdom. But as for any legal significance outside Sweden, there is none. And does it teach us anything about the underlying interests that gave rise to the dispute? No. We have known for a long time that there are some who believe copyright law is too restrictive, and that those interests are pitted against the corporate and pecuniary interests of the big media companies.

So if one is to treat as news the fact that the RIAA and other content owners sometimes overreach, or that zealous advocates for copyright reform believe in their cause, please send me some of that sweet oblivion.

RIAA’s need for discovery was not so urgent

Elektra Entertainment Group, Inc. v. Does 1-6, No. 08-444 (S.D. Ohio February 5, 2009)

The RIAA’s de-emphasis on lawsuits against individual file sharers may underlie the result in a recent case from a federal court in Ohio. The music industry plaintiffs had sought expedited discovery so they could learn which members in a household (either the mother or one of the children) was responsible for illegally trading files. Finding that the need for the discovery was not urgent, the court denied the record companies’ request.

Electra Entertainment and others sued one David Licata in 2007, accusing him of infringing the copyright in sound recordings back in 2005. Licata claimed he did not know who was responsible for trading the files (though AOL had identified Licata’s account as corresponding with the offending IP address). During discovery in that case, however, Licata identified the other members of his household.

Instead of suing one or more of these other members of the household, the recording industry plaintiffs filed another John Doe suit, leaving it to later to find out the identities of the particular individuals who were allegedly infringing. But instead of acting diligently to figure out who to go after, the record companies did nothing for about five months.

Last November, the court ordered the plaintiffs to show cause why the case should not be dismissed, since the defendants had not been served with process (after all, the record companies claimed they didn’t know who to sue). In response to that order, the plaintiffs sought leave under Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(d) to take expedited discovery. The court denied the motion, holding that there was not good cause shown to accelerate the normal discovery schedule.

The court looked to the long period of time — 152 days — that had passed from the suit being filed to the request for expedited discovery. That duration, coupled with the fact that the plaintiffs already knew the names of the other family members who were likely the proper defendants, undercut any argument that the need for discovery was urgent. Without such urgency (which usually exists when there is a risk that evidence will be destroyed or someone will be injured), there was no good cause to allow the depositions of the mother and children prior to the Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f) conference.

[Hat tip to Ray Beckerman for alerting me to this decision.]

Photo courtesy Flickr user swanksalot under this Creative Commons license.

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