WASHINGTON — A new battle, pitting Hollywood interests squarely against the nation's broadcasters, emerged Wednesday on Capitol Hill over the licensing of music sound tracks for syndicated television shows.
At stake is $80 million to $85 million collected annually from local television stations under a long-established licensing law that requires broadcasters to pay separately for performing rights to copyrighted music, apart from the fee paid for programs in which the music is played.
Local TV stations now pay between 1% and 2% of their annual revenues for a "blanket" license. Under this system, the money goes into a pool that is distributed to composers and songwriters based on how much their music is used.
Proponents of legislation pending in the House and Senate to eliminate the blanket license say that the current system operates under antiquated copyright law. They charge that its distribution formula forces composers to give unfair amounts of royalties to Hollywood producers.
Do Away With Fee
The system "clearly prices the music at a value disproportionate to its contribution to the total work," said Rep. Frederick C. Boucher (D-Va.), who has 120 co-sponsors for his bill to eliminate the blanket license. The bill would do away with the annual fee that local broadcasters pay and would require composers to negotiate directly for their royalties with the producers of each show.
However, composers and other opponents of the legislation say it would be an administrative nightmare to keep track of how much their music is played. They say that the bill would place unfair financial burdens on producers of new shows and drastically reduce the royalties that many songwriters now receive.
The opponents charge that the legislation is part of an effort by some TV stations to increase profits at the expense of America's songwriters. "What do the broadcasters really want?" American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers President Hal David asked. "They want to use our music without paying for it."
Representatives of both sides appeared Wednesday on Capitol Hill as the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, civil liberties and the administration of justice opened hearings on the copyright issue.
Boucher said the blanket license is outdated because of changes in the broadcast industry and the use of syndicated TV shows whose sound tracks have "a relatively small number of music titles."
But it was the composers who appeared to have the support of Ralph Oman, registrar of copyrights, who testified that elimination of the blanket license would "undoubtedly mean that they (broadcasters) pay less for music performance rights."
"Composers may not get all they deserve under the blanket licensing system, but they do continue to receive at least 50% of the royalties even when the copyright is assigned to the publisher or the producer," Oman said.
"The copyright office believes that the present licensing system should not be changed unless the legislation also protects the composers of television music by mandating some kind of continued payment for the continued use of their work," he said.