Broadcasters, musicians and labels continue royalty fight

Performance royalty row likely to get nastier

WASHINGTON -- The late T. Euclid Raines, a blind Alabama representative from Guntersville, was the first person I'd ever heard say, "Never watch 'em make laws or ba-lon-ee sausage." Raines was lamenting the failure of his colleagues to understand that one man's pork barrel project is another man's critical unmet need.

When I first heard Euclid say it, I thought: That's deep.

After hearing it a couple gazillion times, though, it starts to lose its rustic charm. Maybe that's because nobody puts the knee in on the last syllable of baloney like old Euclid -- the only totally blind baseball coach in Little League history.

I watched the grinder turn recently. I saw Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., jam through legislation that establishes a "copyright czar" in the White House. This is a really good excuse to get the word "czar" in print.

Conyers chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He and his counterpart, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., hold sway over copyright law. They have a lot to say about who gets paid and how much, on everything from movies to software.

For some reason, old Euclid's face popped into my head. What would he say about copyright?

Euclid's ghost was still with me a few days later when I worked the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing line, where lobbyists and an occasional regular citizen queue up to get a good seat. These hearings represent the best theater in town.

This one shouldn't have been standing-room only, though. The "orphan works" bill wouldn't seem to be a big draw -- it spells out how the millions of photographs, films, designs and other copyrighted works out there that have no apparent owner should be treated and what effort is required to find the parent.

But the crowd wasn't there for orphans. They came to see what would happen when one of the music industry's biggest foes, Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, tried to slash the royalty rate that webcasters pay for music, essentially attempting to pull a fast one and get his royalty rollback attached to this bill.

There has been a lot of sturm und drang surrounding royalty rates, and Brownback's attempt to kidnap the bill got everyone riled up again. (The record industry has made its own move, hiring former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas to shill for it as it tries to force broadcasters to pay a performance royalty for music played on the radio.)

Broadcasters don't have to pay the people who sing the songs, play the instruments or record the music. Their claim that the promotional value of airtime compensates musicians and labels is the law of the land.

Musicians and labels want to change that, but I'm not sure hiring a right-wing Republican like Armey, on the day after the GOP lost a congressional seat in Mississippi, wins them the votes. Anyhow, the performance royalty row will only get nastier, as the worst fights come over a shrinking pie.

Broadcasters seem to have the upper hand after 200 congressmen and a handful of senators signed onto a resolution that says a performance royalty is a bad idea. A resolution is a long way from a law, but the last time I counted, 216 votes was a House majority, and one senator can't stop anything.

Getting those guys to flip is going to be tough, especially when people ask them to do some 'splainin', as my old friend Euclid would say.

In his zeal to wade in against the music industry, Brownback actually might have helped as Leahy seemed to commit his committee to vote on the bill.

Brownback got a commitment to take up his bill, too, but a committee vote is good news for the music industry. Instead of leaving the orphan works bill hearing line in shock, music executives seemed quite pleased.

I could hear my old friend Euclid as I left the hearing, and I thought: Man, I love sausage.
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