Rep. Mel Watt To Introduce Broadcast Radio Performance Rights Bill To Compensate Labels, Artists For Airplay

Rep. Mel Watt plans to introduce legislation that will establish a performance right that would compensate record labels and artists for airplay on broadcast radio. Watt made the announcement on Thursday during the latest hearing on copyright issues held by the House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees intellectual property issues. 

The bill, to be introduced before the August recess, will establish that a public performance right exists, Watt told the political blog The Hill. Once the performance is established, broadcasters would have to negotiate with labels and artists or face litigation. The legislation will not mimic legislation Watt introduced in 2009 that mandated broadcast radio stations pay performance royalties to labels and artists. 

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Proponents of a performance right also have an ally in Maria Pallante, Register of Copyrights. Pallante called the lack of the right "indefensible" in a hearing before the same subcommittee in March. She also noted the topic has been well researched over the years. "You've been deliberating on that for more than a decade," she told subcommittee members. 

The lack of this performance right for broadcast radio is unique in the U.S. industry. Broadcast radio already pays performance royalties to publishers and songwriters for the use of the compositions related to sound recordings. The performance right that exists for digital transmissions means that services such as Pandora, SiriusXM Radio and YouTube pay for the performance of both the sound recording and their underlying compositions. 

Watt's announcement attracted praise throughout the music community. The Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow called the announcement "an important first step" toward legislation that would recognize a performance right. musicFIRST Executive Director Ted Kalo said the lack of the right "robs Americans of the royalties they have earned for the use of their works overseas." 

SoundExchange, the organization that collects and distributes digital performance royalties to labels and artists, also commended Watt. "Corporate radio – which earns $15 billion in annual revenue – doesn't pay a cent to the recording artists and labels who create the art that ‘draws the crowd’ to their airwaves," said SoundExchange President and CEO Michael Huppe.  

Watt's legislation is certain to meet strong opposition from the broadcasting industry. The National Association of Broadcasters continues to support private negotiations for performance royalties, said Dennis Wharton, Executive Vice President of Communications. "We appreciate the support of 154 members of Congress who know that local radio remains the premiere platform for exposing new music and generating sales  for record labels."

The legislation Wharton referred to is the Local Radio Freedom Act, a bill introduced in both houses of Congress that would prevent Congress from establishing any kind of "any new performance fee, tax, royalty, or other charge relating to the public performance of sound recordings" on local radio stations. Currently 143 members of the House have co-sponsored the bill. The Senate version has 11 co-sponsors.