Hughes bill proposes retrans consent repeal

House copyright subcommittee chairman William Hughes (D-N.J.) has offered a bill on Tuesday that would, in essence, repeal retransmission consent, the new law that allows broadcasters to charge cable operators for the right to carry the local broadcast signal.

The legislation may get a favorable reception in Hughes’ subcommittee, but D.C. insiders predict that it stands only a slim chance of being enacted this year.

Under Hughes’ proposal, a TV station would be deemed a copyright infringer–and subject to criminal lawsuits–if it authorized carriage of programs on a cable system or other “multichannel video programming distributor” without first receiving permission from the copyright owner.

Under a key broadcast industry-backed provision included in the cable bill, broadcasters are given the option of demanding carriage from the local cable system under a system known as “must-carry,” or in seeking payment for their signal via “retransmission consent.”

If passed, the Hughes bill would likely result in broadcasters selecting the must-carry option, due to the hassles involved in getting the okay from copyright owners for the retransmission of every program.

The Hughes measure was also being read in some corners as a backdoor effort to repeal the cable industry’s compulsory copyright license. Under the compulsory license, cable operators are legally granted the right to carry broadcast programming, but are required to pay a government-set fee for the shows. The coin is later split among stations and programmers.

Paramount Pictures lawyer Larry Levinson called the bill a “reaffirmation of fundamental copyright principles embodied in the Constitution and in the 1976 Copyright Act.”

The National Assn. of Broadcasters was cool to the Hughes bill.

“Congress has thrice enacted retransmission consent provisions, in 1927, 1934 and 1992,” said NAB topper Eddie Fritts. “In each instance, Congress clearly recognized that provisions governing broadcast retransmission rights do not have any impact on provisions governing programmers’ copyright interests.”

Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Calif.), an MPAA ally and ranking Republican on Hughes’ panel, was the lone co-sponsor of the bill. A spokesman for Hughes said MPAA was not consulted before the measure was introduced.

Also apparently not given prior notification was powerful House Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas), who last year teamed with Hughes to try to kill retransmission consent.

Some D.C. sources viewed the new legislation as Hughes’ bid to tweak House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.). Dingell blocked the efforts of Brooks and Hughes to review the cable rereg bill in their respective committees. The Hughes bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee as House Resolution 12.

Hughes sought referral of the bill to Judiciary to prevent Dingell’s panel from tampering with the legislation. Hughes plans an early hearing on the bill.

One member of the House copyright subcommittee who is likely to support the Hughes bill is Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Frank this week also offered legislation that would repeal retrans consent.

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