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House Lawmaker Mounts New Push for Radio Performance Right

Rep. Mel Watt to introduce legislation to make stations compensate artists

Musicians and broadcasters are poised to engage in a new round of a decades-long lobbying battle over whether artists should be paid when their songs are played on broadcast radio stations.

On Thursday, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), ranking member of the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet, said that he plans to introduce legislation soon to give musicians and recording artists a performance right, forcing stations to negotiate with them for the right to play their songs over the air. Watt and other lawmakers pushed legislation four years ago to establish such a performance right, and although it passed the House and Senate judiciary committees, it stalled out in the face of opposition from broadcasters.

“We have been talking about this for a while, but it is time for us to act on it,” Watt said.

Such a scenario appears to be the case again, as the National Assn. of Broadcasters was quick to issue a statement in opposition shortly after Watt announced his intention at a House Judiciary hearing on copyright reform.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for NAB, called the proposal a “performance tax” “that would kill jobs at America’s hometown radio stations while diverting millions of dollars to offshore record labels.”

Watt indicated that his legislation would differ from previous efforts in that it would not set up a royalty structure, but merely recognize a performance right for sound recordings. “This will incentivize the parties to negotiate in good faith,” he said. He said he plans to introduce the bill before Congress goes on its summer recess, expected after the end of next week.

Supporters of a performance right say that it would remove an inequity in copyright law, given that songwriters receive compensation when their works are played over the air while the performers are not compensated. There is a performance right for artists when their works are played on digital platforms and satellite radio, established under separate legislation.

Ted Kalo, executive director of the musicFIRST Coalition, an org of labels and musicians that has been pushing for the performance right, said that “AM/FM radio stands alone among all forms of radio in refusing to pay music creators for airing their performances.” He said that while other countries recognize the performance right, foreign royalties cannot be collected because it is not recognized in the U.S.

There are questions about whether Watt can find co-sponsors on the other side of the aisle to help the bill advance in the House, and what will happen if the Senate confirms his nomination to be the next director of the Housing Finance Agency. When such legislation was introduced in 2009, it did gain co-sponsors like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

Broadcasters, however, say that their stations still provide strong promotional platforms for the recording industry, and note that, outside of congressional legislation, Clear Channel has recently struck deals with independent labels to compensate for performances. The broadcasters are pushing for legislation, the Local Radio Freedom Act, which prevents Congress from imposing any “performance fee, tax, royalty or other charge” for playing an artist’s work. It has 143 co-sponsors in the House and 11 in the Senate.

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