Comments, objections, due by May 25, 2012

If you’re a noncommercial educational (NCE, a/k/a “public”) broadcaster, heads up. The Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) has issued proposed rates and terms for the use of various copyrighted works by public broadcasters from January 1, 2013 through December 31, 2017. You’ve got 30 days – to May 25, 2012 – to sift through the complex series of rate schedules the CRB has put on the table.

So just what’s on the table? The rates that NCE broadcasters will have to pay to copyright holders (through those holders’ agents, including ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) for the right to broadcast, during 2013-2017, the underlying music and lyrics in all those copyright holders’ songs. (Technically, the CRB proposal also covers the use of pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, but those tend to have less impact on broadcasters.) For the CRB’s purposes, the universe of NCE broadcasters encompasses all entities treated as NCE licensees by the FCC, including educational institutions and large scale public radio and TV licensees.

The proposed rates are the product of an arcane ratemaking process that began on January 5, 2011. First, the CRB invited potentially interested parties to, in effect, sign up to participate. Who showed up? The usual suspects. For the copyright holders, there were: ASCAP; BMI; SESAC; the National Music Publishers Association and the Harry Fox Agency; and the Church Music Publishers’ Association. Broadcasters on board included: the Educational Media Foundation; NPR/PBS/CPB; the National Religious Broadcasters Noncommercial Music License Committee; the Catholic Radio Association; and the American Council on Education. 

The CRB then turned all the players loose for a three-month negotiation period. The goal was to see if the parties could come to agreement on the rates to be applied to the various subsets of noncommercial broadcasting.  Some specific agreements were reached between specific public broadcasting entities and specific copyright owners (or their representatives). Those were not, and will not be published, in the Federal Register, as their reach is limited to the particular parties to the various agreements.

The more generally applicable agreements are submitted to the CRB for its approval.

There were seven such agreements. In its latest notice, the CRB sets forth those proposals in a collection of proposed rules (actually, proposed changes to the rules found in 37 C.F.R. Part 381). They include eight separate grids of rates covering licensees of various types and sizes, in various markets, providing various types of programming. To say that there’s a lot of information to consider and digest here is a gross understatement.

Since the CRB’s notice (with all of its proposed rules, tables, rates and terms) has just been released, we can’t pretend that we’ve studied it carefully. But we will. In the meantime, here’s a very early, very quick and dirty review of what we see as the high points: 

It’s unclear what is happening with regard to NPR and PBS stations. The rule that previously applied to this subset of noncommercial broadcasters has been removed and the space held open for future use. No explicit reason was given. It could be that NPR and PBS reached specific licensing agreement; could also be that these stations are just going to be treated as equals to their fellow non-college and university noncomms.

Those general noncommercial broadcasters will pay slightly more for performance of musical works (as would be expected) during the upcoming five-year period, but the change is not drastic. Also as expected, they will pay the same amount to ASCAP that they pay to BMI, with each of those entities receiving more per station than SESAC.   While smaller stations (according to their predicted 60 dBU contours) will pay about the same whether they are playing large amounts of music or not, there are distinct differences among larger stations, depending on whether those stations are music- rather than talk-focused.

There is also a slight increase for noncommercial stations affiliated with a college or university. However, the bigger change on this end is the elimination of a one-size fits all flat fee in favor of a tiered system that takes into account the size of the student body when determining payments to ASCAP and BMI (no such tiering exists for SESAC). However, even within this tiered system, smaller stations (those with an ERP of 100 watts or less) get a break.

Anyone who might be affected by copyright rates to be charged NCE broadcasters until the end of 2017 would also be well advised to dig into the CRB’s notice. With a paltry 30-day comment period, the sooner you get started on figuring out how the proposals could affect you, the better off you’ll be.