Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 7, 2016

T Bone Burnett on Pre-’72 Royalties, Digital Music Services, and the Question of Fairness

Red Carpet For AFI Premiere Screening Of "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Burnett at a premiere of “Inside Llewyn Davis” in Hollywood in November. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for CBS Films)

In the fight over royalty payments by digital music services for pre-1972 recordings, are digital music services doing harm or are they the ones being treated unfairly? In a Roll Call Guest Observers piece, musician, songwriter and producer T Bone Burnett argues that it’s the musicians who are the little guy and that digital music services are biting the hand that feeds them.

Backing legislation by Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., that would require digital music services like  Internet and  satellite radio to pay royalties for music dated before 1972 if they use a federal compulsory license, Burnett writes that digital music services like Pandora and Sirius XM use a “legal idiosyncrasy” that treats pre-1972 recordings under state law and newer recordings under federal law to withhold royalties for artists and copyright holders of these songs.

“It is quite obvious that without the music, there are no music services,” he writes. “And it shouldn’t take a lawsuit, or a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last week, to make it clear that businesses that include pre-1972 recordings in the playlists they deliver to their customers should pay the creators who brought those recordings to life.”

In contrast, Gigaom’s Jeff John Roberts argued in a piece last month that the “industry claims the issue is one of fairness, arguing that the earlier recordings deserve the same protection as the later ones,” but that it’s a different story when you look at royalty payments across radio platforms.

The bill would simply “exacerbate these irrational distinctions between traditional and digital radio services (and possibly put Pandora and Sirius XM out of business altogether), while failing to solve the music industry’s deeper problem, which is the permanent decline of CD sales,” he wrote.

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