Commerce Dept. supports Performance Rights Act

The Obama administration has signaled its support for a contentious bill that would require radio broadcasters to pay musicians, recording artists and record labels when their songs are played over the air.

The Performance Rights Act would amend U.S. copyright law, which already requires that satellite and digital radio compensate performers, to cover broadcast stations that have long been exempt. The rationale is that their airplay is a source of valuable promotion for artists.

In a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, the general counsel of the Department of Commerce, Cameron Kerry, on Thursday expressed the department’s support for the bill, arguing that to provide “fair compensation to America’s performers and record companies through a broad public performance right in sound recordings is a matter of fundamental fairness to performers. It would also provide a level playing field for all broadcasters to compete in the current environment of rapid technological change, including the Internet, satellite and terrestrial broadcasters.”

He also argued that American performers and record companies do not benefit when their works are played in other countries that do require compensation to artists when songs are played over the air, as there is a lack of “reciprocal protection.”

The bill has created a bitter fissure among musicians and broadcasters. Over the past year a parade of musicians have trekked to Capitol Hill to lobby for it while many radio stations have run public service announcements to rail against it.

Stations say the bill would place an additional burden on them at a time when many are facing serious financial problems.

Dennis Wharton, exec VP of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said they were “disappointed the Commerce Department would embrace legislation the would kill jobs in the U.S. and send hundreds of millions of dollars to foreign record labels that have historically exploited artists whose careers were nurtured by American radio stations.”

He noted that the Department of Commerce under President George W. Bush also supported the Performance Rights Act, but the bill stalled in Congress. Broadcasters say that a resolution calling for no performance fees has the support of 260 members of the House and 27 members of the Senate.

Backers of the Performance Rights Act note that the resolution is non-binding, and they call the administration’s support a momentum builder.The bill has cleared the Senate and House judiciary committees, but so far has not made it to the floor of either chamber.

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