Bill looks to make radio stations pay royalties


WASHINGTON -- In what is sure to trigger a legislative donnybrook, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol introduced legislation Tuesday to force radio stations to pay record companies and performers for the music they air.

The bills, pushed by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., close the loophole in copyright law that has allowed broadcasters to avoid paying royalties to those who produce records, sing or play music.

"We have taken the first step to provide artists, musicians and labels with compensation for their contribution to the music we hear over the radio," said Berman, who chairs the House's copyright subcommittee. "It's only fair that we work toward parity for the different technology platforms that deliver that music, but we still have a long road ahead of us."

Music delivered via satellite, cable or the Internet pays a performance royalty. Most other nations have recognized a performance right in terrestrial radio as well, but traditional radio operators in the U.S. have escaped a performance royalty by convincing lawmakers that the artists benefit from the "promotional value" they receive for airplay.

Over-the-air broadcasters do pay millions in royalties to songwriters and publishers, but sidemen and people who don't have writing credit and the labels have been left out.

"The work of songwriters is promoted by the airplay, but no one seriously questions the right of the songwriter to be paid for the use of his or her work, but the performing artist is not paid by the radio station," said Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary committee. "The time has come to end this inequity."

The legislation has broad support among the music community.

"The bottom line here is that radio plays music to attract listeners and bring in advertising dollars," said Tom Waits, a founding member of the musicFIRST Coalition. "It's just plain wrong for radio to be allowed to build profitable businesses with growing revenue on the backs of artists and musicians without paying them fairly for it."

MusicFirst is an umbrella group that includes the Recording Industry Association of America, recording artists organizations and independent labels.

While there is some sympathy for artists' plight in Congress, getting a major change in copyright law is a challenge, especially when confronting a well-financed, well-connected industry like the broadcasters.

The National Association of Broadcasters is already fighting the bill as it is pushing a House resolution saying that Congress will not impose a new performance royalty on over-the-air broadcasters. While the resolution is nonbinding, it has 119 co-sponsors, indicating a depth of support.

"NAB will aggressively oppose this brazen attempt to force America's hometown radio stations to subsidize companies that have profited enormously through the free promotion provided by radio airplay," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

"After decades of Ebenezer Scrooge-like exploitation of countless artists, RIAA and the foreign-owned record labels are singing a new holiday jingle to offset their failing business model," Wharton said.