The U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday approved a bill to extend copyright protections, fondly renaming it after its champion, the late Sonny Bono (R Calif.). The Senate is expected to act on similar legislation later this year.
But the victory for the nation’s moviemakers, writers and musicians did not come without a price, industry officials warned. Thousands of songwriters stand to lose millions of dollars a year under an amendment authored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that would allow restaurants, funeral homes and other small businesses to pipe in background music free of the current licensing fees.
“We’re very pleased that the House (passed the Act),” Frances Preston, president and CEO of performing rights org BMI, told Daily Variety. “But the Sensenbrenner Amendment, however, is a direct attack on struggling songwriters and a fundamental American tradition — the protection of intellectual property rights. This amendment enlarges the profits of some of America’s largest corporations at the expense of individual songwriters.”
Preston, who said she will urge the Senate to approve the original bill, said the amendment will “hurt tens of thousands of struggling songwriters and composers throughout the U.S.”
Under current law, the work of most American artists is protected for the person’s life plus 50 years — or in the case of movies and other collaborative works, for 100 years from the time they are created or 75 years from their publication date.
The bill would extend copyright protections for an extra 20 years, bringing the U.S. in line with Europe’s copyright protections and potentially generating big bucks for American artists. Sales abroad add up to more than $50 billion a year, according to Rep. Elton Gallegly (R Calif.).
The bill also would ensure that when films are transferred to new distributors or owners, directors, writers and actors are protected by the original copyright and continue to earn residuals — which can amount to as much as $100 million a year, industry insiders estimated. It would become law that whenever there is a change in a project’s copyright ownership, the new owner would assume the obligation of keeping track of the project’s exploitation and paying appropriate residuals.
Artists’ rights recognized
Screen Actors Guild president Richard Masur said the bill means “a very important recognition of artists rights by the Congress.”
“It represents a critical step towards enshrining this concept in law, whereby the creators of audio-visual works will finally be recognized under federal statute and be afforded some protection for their contractually defined economic interests,” said Masur, whose guild is currently negotiating a new contract with producers. A major focus of the discussions is residuals.
Brian Walton, exec director of the Writers Guild of America West, lauded the bill on behalf of the “8,500 men and women who write America’s films,” and said it demonstrates that “a united effort can benefit all our members and strengthen the creative rights of the artistic community.”
A joint statement released Wednesday by SAG, WGA and the Directors Guild of America said the bill, if passed by the Senate and signed by President Clinton, “will eliminate a problem that could not be solved through the collective bargaining process.”
At the DGA, president Jack Shea said the bill would go “a long way towards changing the way business is done in Hollywood.”
“For our members to have legal protection of their residual payments, regardless of whether copyright ownership of a film changes hands,” Shea said, “is a tremendous boost to their economic security.”
Not so for songwriters, asserted their supporters.
Until now, the dispute over licensing fees has acted as a major stumbling block to getting the copyright bill approved. While some foes of the fees, including religious broadcasters and some smaller business owners, had settled their differences with the licensing agencies in recent months, others — primarily restaurants — had not.
Restaurants pay on average $30 a month in licensing fees to orgs such as BMI and ASCAP to play background music for their diners — a fee opponents during heated debate Wednesday likened to yet another tax on overburdened small business owners.
“The voice of the tavern owner is just as important as the parade of celebrities Hollywood has trotted out,” said Sensenbrenner. The amendment, which was eventually approved by a 297-112 vote, would in part exempt businesses with less than 3,500 square feet of public space from paying the licensing fees.
Marilyn Bergman, president and chairman of the board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, said that while ASCAP is pleased about passage of the copyright bill, “we will be the big loser in international trade as a result of the Sensenbrenner amendment.” She said it highlights the fact that “there is a devaluing of the work of American songwriters.”
“I am concerned they will feel we have really flown in the face of our trade agreements,” said Bergman, who implied she had not lost all hope of seeing the amendment die: “We now have the Senate and we have some very passionate champions in the Senate.”
Congressman Howard Coble (R-N.C.), the main sponsor of the copyright bill, called it “a huge victory for the artists, for our country.”
“You’re talking about a whole lot of money,” Coble said. “This is a very big day for us … Sonny was present on the floor today.”
(Adam Sandler contributed to this report.)