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.

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