Two of the copyright issues Public Knowledge has been working on seem disconnected from each other, but there's a common theme. In both the performance rights organization (PRO) and set-top box issues, policymakers should be clear in their understanding that private contracts can't be used to override other provisions of law. Just as the interests of some industry participants don't override legally-binding consent decrees, neither do they provide a reason for the Federal Communications Commission to ignore its statutory mandate to promote set-top box competition.
The increasing frequency with which the Copyright Office has inserted itself into policy debates raises questions about the scope of its expertise and authority. An illustrative example of how the Office’s opinions can cause problems occurred earlier this year. During the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division inquiry into how performance rights organizations (PROs) ASCAP and BMI license songs with multiple authors where not every author is a member of the PRO (i.e., where either PRO represents only a ‘fraction’ of the ownership stake in the song), a member of Congress sought out the opinion of the Copyright Office, and the Office responded. Although it’s unremarkable for an agency to offer its opinion in response to a lawmaker request, it is remarkable for that agency to reach into unfamiliar areas of law, ignore basic public policy concerns in that area of law, and offer its own unqualified judgment on matters properly within the jurisdiction of another agency.
The music publishing industry has reacted in colorful and apocalyptic terms in its response to the leak detailing the expected conclusion of the Department of Justice’s consent decree review, in which the agency extensively examined the antitrust settlements binding the two largest performance rights organizations (PROs) in the nation, ASCAP and BMI. A closer look at Department’s reported conclusions suggests that the music industry response is overblown.
Reports now indicate that the Department of Justice has ended its lengthy process to amend the consent decrees governing music publishing in the United States by declining to make adjustments. If true, this would prevent music publishers from withdrawing digital public performance rights from the blanket licenses offered by the two largest performance rights organizations in the United States, ASCAP and BMI. Due to the threat to competition posed by such large concentrations in licensing authority, ASCAP and BMI operate under antitrust consent decrees that govern their licensing practices.