Issue of CRJs’ constitutionality is again raised but, again, left unresolved

Decision deferral is one of the practiced arts in Washington. Decisions may need to be made, but often they aren’t. Instead, the particular situation is left to simmer, perhaps because other matters are of a higher priority, perhaps in the hope that, in the end, things will work themselves out and no decision will need to be made after all. And sometimes that’s how things work out.

It is hard to imagine a better illustration of this phenomenon than recent activity on the webcasting royalty front – activity which, coincidentally or not, occurred after the underlying issues had largely been resolved privately.

The backstory here may best be told with a simple timeline:

March 2, 2007:  Copyright Royalty Judges (CRJs) reach a decision regarding the rates and terms applicable to digital performances of sound recordings and making ephemeral recordings for the years 2006-2010. (Rehearing was denied on April 16, 2007.)

April 26, 2007: The Internet Radio Equality, the first of several attempts to overturn the ruling by legislation, is introduced in the House of Representatives (neither this nor any ensuing bill is enacted into law). 

May 30, 2007:  Several webcasters appeal the CRJs’ decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; these are eventually consolidated into one case.

July 12, 2007: The Court of Appeals denies the webcasters’ request to stay the implementation of the new rates and terms, as a result of which the new rates and terms go into effect on July 15, 2007

. . . LOTS of time passes . . .

January 15, 2009: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and SoundExchange, Inc., reach a deal for payment of royalties by eligible public radio stations for the years 2006-2010. This moots any concern about the CRJs’ decision as far as parties to this deal are concerned.

February 16, 2009:  The National Association of Broadcasters and SoundExchange reach a similar deal covering over-the-air broadcasters for the years 2006-2015. This moots any concern about the CRJs’ decision as far as parties to this deal are concerned.

July 7, 2009:  So-called "pureplay" webcasters and Sound Exchange reach a deal for payment of royalties for the years 2006-2010 by these web-only radio stations. This moots any concern about the CRJs’ decision as far as parties to this deal are concerned.

. . . VERY LITTLE time passes . . .

July 10, 2009: The United States Court of Appeals issues its ruling in the appeal of the March 2, 2007 CRJs’ decision.

In other words, more than two years after the CRJs’ decision was issued, the Court finally got around to resolving the appeals – and only after virtually every one of the major parties affected by that decision had already taken matters into their own hands and reached private deals obviating the royalty payment structure established by the CRJs.

The Court of Appeals by and large ruled against the webcasting community, finding the majority of the CRJs’ decision to be valid under the Administrative Procedure Act.  The Court remanded one portion of the case to the Copyright Royalty Judges: the $500 annual minimum fee paid by both commercial and noncommercial webcasters. 

In a move that will be analyzed by close readers of this blog and constitutional scholars alike – and that’s not to imply that these groups are mutually exclusive – the Court declined, for the second time in as many weeks, to rule on the constitutionality of the Copyright Royalty Judges themselves.

Let’s start with what is easily the most interesting part of the case:  the claim by Royalty Logic, Inc. that the Copyright Royalty Judges themselves have been unconstitutionally appointed to their positions.  (FYI – Royalty Logic is a SoundExchange wannabe seeking to be designated as a "receiving agent" allowed to collect webcaster royalties and distribute them to the copyright owners.) 

Does that claim of unconstitutionality ring a bell?  Yeah, we discussed a similar claim last week, when Judge Kavanaugh raised the issue in his concurring opinion in an appeal of a separate CRJ royalty decision (involving satellite radio).  Judge Kavanaugh concluded that the CRJs “appear to be” "principal officers" of the government, whose appointment constitutionally requires Senate confirmation. Since CRJ appointments don’t include any Senate OK, then the current appointment mechanism is unconstitutional, he suggested.

Royalty Logic used a different tack, something along the following lines. The Constitution authorizes Congress to delegate the power to appoint “inferior officers”, but that power can be given only to the President, the courts, or “Heads of Departments”. Everyone agrees that: (a) CRJs – who are appointed by the Librarian of Congress – are “inferior officers”; and (b) the Librarian of Congress is neither the President nor a court. Royalty Logic argued that the Librarian was also not a “head of department” and, therefore, the CRJ appointments were unconstitutional. 

While that latter point was disputed by SoundExchange and the Department of Justice, the Court chose not to resolve the issue. Instead, the Court observed that Royalty Logic hadn’t bothered to raise the issue of constitutionality in its initial brief, and had thrown in the argument only as a supplement several months later. The Courts don’t look kindly on such piecemeal presentation, especially when the issue raised supplementally has potentially “far-reaching consequences” which should not be resolved on the basis of “hasty, inadequate, and untimely briefing”. So the Court politely declined to consider that question further.

Under either Judge Kavanaugh’s or Royalty Logic’s formulation of the constitutionality argument, the result is the same: the entire underpinning of the CRJs’ operation (including every rate they have set) is called into question.  But despite the seemingly crucial importance of this point, the Court chose not to resolve it in either the satellite case or the webcaster case.  

Having sidestepped the constitutionality conundrum, the Court methodically plowed through the substantive challenges to the CRJs’ decision. The Court found in each instance that the CRJs had not exceeded their authority.  A reviewing court, in determining whether an agency has acted in an "arbitrary and capricious manner", generally accords a rather large degree of deference to the forum whose decision is being reviewed.  The Court applied that generous standard of review to the "willing buyer/willing seller" standard applicable to this statutory license in one magnificent summary: 

The statute does not require that the market assumed by the [CRJs] achieve metaphyiscal perfection in competitiveness.  

Given this wide and forgiving scope of statutory authority, the CRJs got it right, for the most part.  The lone exception was the annual minimum payment of $500 required to be paid per channel (or station) by commercial and noncommercial webcasters alike.  This figure – which actually serves as more of a "deposit" with regard to most commercial webcasters, who can count this against amounts paid throughout the year – was supposedly chosen as a reasonable reflection of the administrative costs incurred by SoundExchange in receiving and distributing the royalties incurred by each webcaster. 

However, after combing through the 13, 288 pages of testimony and 192 exhibits introduced through 39 witnesses over 48 days of trial, the Court found absolutely no evidence supporting this $500 annual minimum payment.  With regard to commercial stations, the imposition of this annual minimum payment without a cap on the overall stations to which it applies constituted an unexplained departure from two voluntary agreements that had been in place.  That, my friends, is the epitome of arbitrary and capricious. 

The Court remanded this issue to the CRB for further consideration.  We wonder whether proceedings will actually continue.  Not only are most of these matters already settled, but this is one area where most webcasters really haven’t raised much of a complaint. It’s been our experience that commercial webcasters invariably exceed that $500 figure anyway and – though this isn’t to say they’re happy with the amount or wouldn’t mind paying less – most noncommercial webcasters pay their $ 500 per year and don’t complain if it ends there.

If that’s the case – and it’s indeed the end to this case – was this decision ultimately nothing more than "too little, too late"?  Perhaps with respect to the narrow issue of webcast royalties, but obviously not with respect to the much more fundamental issue of the constitutionality of the CRJs. Having shone a bright light on that issue twice in two weeks, but having left it undecided, the Court has effectively invited future parties to litigate it properly. That’s when the fireworks may begin.