Justice Department Antitrust Division Starts Terminating Legacy Antitrust Judgments–What Next for ASCAP, BMI and MMA

We’ve noted a few times that there’s a limited benefit to ASCAP and BMI from being involved with the Music Modernization Act (although fans of the bill have been dining out on their support for quite a while).  All of those benefits involve relief from the oppressive government control over songwriters through the ancient consent decrees that now mostly protect the MIC Coalition.

We’ve also pointed out that the new head of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice announced his plan to terminate the some 1,500 consent decrees that the DOJ uses to regulate commerce–more properly the role of the Congress, not the Justice Department.  Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, the head of the Antitrust Division, has already said that he would review the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, so this isn’t idle speculation.

This week, the AAG Delrahim put that plan in motion.  According to a DOJ press release, the Antitrust Division is terminating 19 consent decrees that are like the PRO consent decrees, more regulatory in nature than enforcement oriented.  Here’s the press release:

The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division today filed a motion and supporting papers, seeking to terminate 19 “legacy” judgments in the District Court for the District of Columbia.  Today’s court filing is part of the Antitrust Division’s effort to terminate decades-old antitrust judgments that no longer serve their original purpose.

“Today we have taken an important next step toward eliminating antitrust judgments that no longer protect competition,” said Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, Makan Delrahim.  “Today’s filing is the first of many that we will make in courts around the country in our effort to terminate obsolete judgments.”

In its motion filed today, the Antitrust Division explained that perpetual judgments rarely continue to protect competition, and those that are more than ten years old should be terminated absent compelling circumstances.  Other reasons for terminating the judgments include that essential terms of the judgment have been satisfied, most defendants likely no longer exist, the judgment largely prohibits that which the antitrust laws already prohibit, and market conditions likely have changed.  Each of these reasons suggests the judgments no longer serve to protect competition.

The Antitrust Division announced in April its initiative to terminate legacy antitrust judgments, stating that it would review all such judgments to identify those that no longer serve to protect competition.  In its prior announcement, the Antitrust Division set forth the process by which it would seek the termination of outdated judgments.  It also established a new public website (https://www.justice.gov/atr/JudgmentTermination) to serve as the primary source of information for the public regarding the initiative.

At the time that the Antitrust Division announced the initiative, it posted on its public website the legacy judgments in federal district court in Washington, D.C. and in Alexandria, Virginia.  After a 30-day public comment period, the Antitrust Division concluded that termination of these 19 judgments is appropriate.

Since the announcement of its initiative, the Antitrust Division has posted for public comment judgments in 19 additional federal district courts.  It will continue to post judgments periodically as review of those judgments by Antitrust Division attorneys is completed.

Members of the public are encouraged regularly to check the Antitrust Division’s Judgment Termination page on its website, www.justice.gov/atr/JudgmentTermination, for updates.  Members of the public also may subscribe to the mailing list (https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDOJ/subscriber/new(link is external)) to receive notice of new postings to the website, including judgments that the Division has identified as appropriate for termination.

This is important because the latest version of the Music Modernization Act requires the DOJ to notify Congress if they intend to terminate the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees.  Just the ones that relate to songwriters, no others.

So once again, the Congress–which should be regulating songwriters in the first place if anyone is going to engage in that worthless task–isn’t requiring the DOJ to notify them of any of the hundreds and hundreds of other consent decrees that AAG Delrahim proposes to terminate.

The irony of this amendment should not be overlooked–if the DOJ stops improperly regulating songwriters beyond its enforcement powers, oh, no!  Congress must step in to defend the MIC Coalition’s multi trillion dollar market cap from those pesky anticompetitive songwriters.

Why should Congress butt in where it has been afraid to tread since before World War II?  The same body that “forgot” to raise the statutory mechanical royalty for 70 years?

What should happen is the DOJ should terminate the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees and continue in its oversight role for enforcement of the antitrust laws.  Surely this is not controversial.  We don’t need another amendment to the Music Modernization Act to slow down “modernization.”

 

Will DOJ Consent Decree Review Obviate Any Rationale for the Music Modernization Act?

Let’s be clear–one reason why there are problems with mechanical licensing in the US is the loophole created by the government consent decrees that block ASCAP and BMI from issuing a “unilicense” for both performances and streaming mechanicals.  I have argued for years that PROs should be allowed to administer existing statutory mechanical licenses for services that they already license on the performance side of the song.  Personally, I think it is the main reason for creating the situation (such as the mass address unknown NOIs) that gets abused by the services like other loopholes.

I’m not alone in making this argument for “bundling” rights to be administered by PROs: According to the Copyright Office Music Licensing Study (pp. 103-104):

“NSAI, for example, opined that ‘[t]he most efficient path to digital service providers obtaining necessary licenses would be to allow the PRO’s to license and collect mechanical royalties;’” “NMPA suggested that bundled rights could be sought directly from the music publishers that own and administer the song in question.   But the PROs suggested that their existing structures could be leveraged to facilitate bundled licensing on a blanket basis, if only the consent decrees were amended.”

My view is that bundling should occur at the pubisher level and also at the PRO level for all publishers who do not license directly.

Remember–streaming mechanicals track the exact same song, the exact same use, the exact same copyright owners, the exact same transactions and the exact same services as the PROs already license on the performances.  The PROs already have the most comprehensive ownership databases for songs and those databases are immediately accessible.  This is likely to remain true for a long time.

The ASCAP and BMI consent decrees have been in place for decades.  We accept them as a fact of life, something of an immovable object.  For example, the only part of the Music Modernization Act that affects ASCAP and BMI relates to changes that these PROs evidently would like to make to the consent decrees but cannot get the Justice Department to address.  (“Part” may be overstated–it’s about 1-1/2 pages out of the 151 page bill.)

But–what we were told at the outset of the MMA is that legislation to sunset the consent decrees would never pass due to the lobbying power of the digital media companies, the broadcasters, and the general business establishments.  The MIC Coalition, in other words.  And supposedly we can’t beat them, so we need to give up on that idea and take what we’re given and like it.  (Good thing that guy was not at the Alamo, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Thermopylae or the Battle of Britain.  Horatius he ain’t.)  This is, of course, entirely the wrong approach–if that thinking is not the ennui of learned helplessness, what is?  As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

No one considered what would happen if the consent decrees actually went away either entirely or substantially because the DOJ wanted them to.  If that happy event came to pass, I would suggest that there would be little to nothing in the Music Modernization Act of any value or relevance to ASCAP and BMI.  If anything, the collective established by the MMA is or could easily become a direct competitor of all the PROs which is likely why the broadcasters are “positively neutral” on the bill.  I seriously doubt that any of them anticipated the consent decrees might go away.

Makan Delrahim, the new head of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, may have just obviated any reason why the PROs should support the MMA or perhaps whether the MMA is even relevant.

During a speaking engagement on March 27 at Vanderbilt Law School, Mr. Delrahim gave us some insights into his plans for the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees in a discussion with Professor Rebecca Allensworth.  As reported in Broadcasting & Cable he said:

“As public agencies we need to take a look and see if those consent decrees are still relevant in the marketplace,” which he was clearly signaling was up for debate. “If they have solved the competitive problem,” he said, “they could become anticompetitive tools over time[.   I]f they were not necessarily the best ideas at the time, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for them to stay.”

Mr. Delrahim has put his finger right on the problem.  In my view, the consent decrees have become weaponized–for example, the last head of the Antitrust Division was closely linked to Google and after an ostensible review of the consent decrees, suddenly launched into the absurd “100% licensing” episode to the great–albeit short lived–satisfaction of the MIC Coalition.

Not only is there serious competition in the PRO marketplace unlike it was in 1941 when the ASCAP consent decree started, the 2015 SESAC acquisition of the Harry Fox Agency actually demonstrates that if left alone, the marketplace will close the mechanical license loophole that the MMA purports to solve.   There is no longer a need for the consent decrees, rate courts, none of it.

This isn’t to say that the PROs should get an exemption from the antitrust laws, far from it.  But it does mean that the broadcasters, the MIC Coalition and the Digital Media Association should not be allowed to play with the “anticompetitive tools” of the entire consent decree apparatus.

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So it appears that Mr. Delrahim thinks there’s actually a chance that the consent decrees could go away.  If that happens, the PROs will have a golden opportunity to close the mechanical licensing loophole without all of the apparatus of the MMA.  In that new world, the major publishers would possibly not have to continue to use pretzel logic to administer the rights in their catalogs and the PROs could provide coverage on everything else.

And unlike the MMA, that world would actually be getting the government further out of the lives of songwriters.  It would avoid songwriters being beholden to the DiMA fox that would at least financially control the collective’s chicken coop.

It would also put to rest the ridiculous premise that the biggest corporations in commercial history need the government to protect them from songwriters–corporations that are themselves subject to antitrust enforcement, at least in Europe.  And that may be the other shoe Mr. Delrahim could be dropping.

alice_par_john_tenniel_04

 

Original Sin and Obama’s Missed Opportunity: What’s Next for the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees?

Original sin–In Christian theology, the condition of sin that marks all humans as a result of Adam’s first act of disobedience to God.

It’s kind of an Old Testament thing.  The ASCAP and BMI consent decrees punish songwriters for a kind of original sin that most of them don’t know about and that happened some time before 1941–before most of them were born.  And yet all of them are held guilty in advance.

Sound familiar?

The Obama Justice Department just had a spectacular loss on its misguided and probably unconstitutional 100% licensing position in front of Judge Louis Stanton, the BMI rate court judge who has primary responsibility for interpreting the BMI consent decrees.  BMI asked for declaratory relief from Judge Stanton which was granted in a decisive opinion rejecting the government’s position.  So now what?

Not only did the Obama Justice Department go down the wrong rabbit hole with the consent decrees, they also managed to get themselves sued–by songwriters.  How in the world could that have happened?  Not just one, but two separate and distinct lawsuits.

The songwriters lawsuit is against the Justice Department, the Attorney General of the United States and the head of the Antitrust Division, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Renata B. Hesse.  (It appears that Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hesse is the prime mover in pushing the DOJ’s position on 100% licensing through the Justice Department, although it is hard to imagine that the Attorney General did not personally approve the position given the magnitude of the change in position.)

The songwriters’ lawsuit is not brought under the consent decrees.  The complaint alleges that the DOJ attorneys, starting with Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hesse, engaged in unconstitutional behavior by denying songwriters their due process rights as well as taking the economic value of private property without compensation (see Professor Richard Epstein).

The lawsuit also alleges that the process that Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hesse engaged in–secret phone calls, no public comment on proposed amendments to the consent decree, deceptive practices designed to encourage songwriters to leave their PROs–violated laws governing the behavior of federal administrative agencies.  The implication is that the DOJ intentionally engaged in deceptive practices lead by Hesse but also the recently departed Litigation III Section Chief David C. Kully.  (Mr. Kully was probably “just following orders”, but we all know where that can lead.)

What are the possible steps forward from here?

No Change for Music Users

Some of the less knowledgeable reporting on fractional licensing suggests that somehow music users are burdened by the decision.  Not true–most music users already have licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and increasingly from Global Music Rights.  SESAC and GMR are not subject to consent decrees because more PROs means more competition which means good things happen, right?  That was, after all, reason for the consent decrees in the first place–to encourage more competition, not less, in the public interest.

The choices afforded songwriters among competing licensing associations are no more burdensome for music users than having to deal with any other vendors in their business.  On the contrary, if the Justice Department had been successful in their stated goals of encouraging songwriters to leave ASCAP and BMI, the Justice Department would have mandated mind numbing complexity in the market place.

The Missed Opportunity

The real policy failure is that the Department of Justice failed to adopt any of the hundreds of policy proposals made by the public to amend the consent decrees–the longest running consent decrees in the history of the United States–after years of review, negotiation and discussion.

Not one.

Instead, the DOJ fixed on 100% licensing, which is something that nobody had asked for publicly as the Copyright Office noted (at p. 2, text accompanying note 8):

Despite the wide-ranging nature of the study and invitation to raise additional issues, none of the participants identified fractional licensing of musical works by the PROs as a practice that needed to be changed.

The Justice Department missed an historic opportunity to do something good for everyone.

This is tragic.

Possible Futures

DOJ Changes Position on 100% Licensing

The easiest thing would be for Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hesse to issue a statement acknowledging she got it wrong on 100% licensing and that the DOJ is abandoning the position.  I doubt this will happen.

DOJ Appeals Judge Stanton’s Ruling 

Given the general bull-headedness that produced the flawed 100% licensing statement in the first place, I think it is more likely than not that the DOJ appeals Judge Stanton’s ruling.  If you were able to suspend reality to the point that you would come up with the idea in the first place, then you are probably possessed of the kind of denial that would make you believe you will prevail on appeal.

As Judge Stanton is a U.S. District Judge sitting in the Southern District of New York, the appeal in this case would go to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  It seems unlikely that the Second Circuit is going to rule against the subject matter expertise of the BMI Rate Court judge–expertise is the point of having rate court judges in the first place.  This is particularly true in a case requiring an interpretation of the consent decree.

Nevertheless, I will not be surprised to see an appeal, particularly one filed before the ASCAP rate court judge (Judge Cote) follows Judge Stanton’s which is likely.  An appeal of the BMI case would allow the DOJ to drag out the uncertainty which seems to be the plan for reasons no one outside the Justice Department can understand.

ASCAP Asks for Declaratory Relief

Given the many rulings against songwriters handed down by Judge Cote, caution may be the watchword for any request for declaratory relief by ASCAP.  However much I appreciate Judge Stanton’s ruling, it must be said that the conclusion is rather obvious.  Even so, I thought that the ASCAP members’  partial withdrawal from collective licensing of the bundle of rights was so obviously the law that it was axiomatic, and Judge Cote ruled against that rather obvious policy.

It may be better for ASCAP to simply wait it out until the issue arises before Judge Cote in a future proceeding.  Since the MIC Coalition seems to have its hand in the Justice Department’s positioning anyway, it would not surprise if the MIC Coalition went to Judge Cote for their own declaratory relief.

MIC Coalition
MIC Coalition Members

SONA Pursues Its Lawsuit

The most interesting part of the puzzle is the lawsuit brought by Songwriters of North America, Michelle Lewis, Thomas Kelly and Pamela Sheyne.  As a threshold matter, it reinforces the idea that ASCAP and BMI are comprised of songwriters bargaining collectively.  While it may be convenient for the broadcasters, Google and their MIC Coalition to heap condemnation on the PROs, when doing so they are actually shaming the individual songwriters who are members of ASCAP and BMI.  Those songwriters don’t feel they’ve done anything wrong.

The SONA lawsuit confirms this for all to see.  While it takes considerable courage to sue a defendant who comes with badges and guns and prints money to pay their legal bills, the DOJ is now faced with a process that reeks to high heaven, looks at least potentially fraught with corruption and which SONA will now put under a microscope–if they survive summary judgement.

Of course, it should not be lost on anyone that the DOJ’s position will be some version of “We lost, so no harm, no foul” as absurd as that may seem.  I’m not sure that “just kidding” is a good look for them.

Until the ASCAP judge rules on the issue and follows Judge Stanton’s reasoning and the DOJ agrees not to file an appeal, there’s no reason for SONA to change course.  If SONA survives summary judgement on one or both of its claims, then things may get interesting.

Governors Take Action

Texas Governor Greg Abbott was the first state governor to call on the Attorney General to back off of the 100% licensing rule, acting in defense of Texas songwriters.  It would not be surprising to see other governors write their own letters to the AG, particularly now that Judge Stanton has ruled.

Terminating the Consent Decrees

What this episode should teach everyone is that the consent decrees have run their course.  They are now being manipulated by crony capitalists for private commercial advantage.  Hesse’s connections to Google and the MIC Coalition are well known and only further undermine the public’s trust in government’s ability to operate fairly.

Abandoning the consent decrees does not mean that songwriters would get a free pass on antitrust prosecution, it just means that the true free market would operate outside of a little intellectual elite in a far away Eastern city that thinks it can plan the lives of songwriters better than songwriters can themselves.  Music users and the government would still be free to bring antitrust actions if the facts warranted it as has already happened to SESAC (which is not subject to a consent decree).

So for the moment, songwriters are in a holding pattern but with the wind at their backs.

I’m still looking forward to an explanation of why Google, Pandora, Clear Channel and a host of other giant multinational corporations with hundreds if not thousands of lobbyists need the awesome power of the U.S. Government to protect them from…songwriters.

Getting closure on this regrettable episode will be better for songwriters and for music users.  It’s hard enough without the Nanny State intervening.  Collective licensing is one of the few areas of the business that is working pretty well in the digital age.

Songwriters deserve the chance to live their commercial lives without paying for long-forgotten sins committed before most of them were born.

 

 

 

 

 

Watch this Space: MTP Podcast on 100% Licensing with David Lowery, Steve Winogradsky, Chris Castle coming soon

The MusicTechPolicy podcast is back! Next week we will kick things off with a discussion of the Department of Justice [sic] ruling on 100% licensing and partial withdrawals. Participants will be David Lowery, Steve Winogradsky of Winogradsky/Sobel and author of Music Publishing: The Complete Guide and me. Watch this space for links to the podcast when […]

via Watch this Space: MTP Podcast on 100% Licensing with David Lowery, Steve Winogradsky, Chris Castle coming soon — MUSIC • TECHNOLOGY • POLICY