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Copyright Office resumes push to repeal law that Hollywood opposes

Under the compulsory license rule, cable and satellite operators pay a blanket fee to distribute broadcast TV signals. If it is eliminated, they would have to negotiate fees with each copyright holder. Previous efforts to change the law have failed.

August 31, 2011|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times

An arcane but crucial copyright law that Hollywood wants repealed is again under attack by a key government agency.

The U.S. Copyright Office, which advises Congress on copyright issues, is proposing that lawmakers phase out the cable and satellite statutory licenses in the Copyright Act, calling it "an artifact of an earlier era."

Established in 1976, the so-called compulsory license allows cable and satellite operators to distribute broadcast television signals in return for paying a one-size-fits-all copyright fee to the Copyright Royalty Board for the programming carried by those channels.

The Copyright Royalty Board then distributes the fees to copyright holders such as Hollywood studios, sports leagues and local television stations. Each year, the board collects tens of millions of dollars in fees that it distributes to rights holders.

The Copyright Office wants Congress to change the law and require distributors to negotiate with content rights holders on an individual basis. The Motion Picture Assn. of America said Tuesday that it was pleased that the Copyright Office has "vindicated our position" in wanting to remove these "anachronisms."

Although programmers and sports leagues may cheer such a move, it would probably be met with tremendous resistance from the cable and satellite industries. The Copyright Office has been pushing for a removal of the compulsory license for years with no success.

First to go, if the Copyright Office finally gets its wish, would be the distant-signal portion of the act.

For example, if a Los Angeles TV station is carried by a multichannel video programming distributor outside the Southern California area, that distributor pays a fee to the Copyright Royalty Board. If the distant-signal portion of the act were eliminated, the distributor would have to go to each programming supplier to negotiate an agreement, a potentially more costly and tedious process.

One company watching this closely will be Tribune Co., the parent of the Los Angeles Times and owner of WGN, a Chicago TV station that is carried nationally by multichannel video programming distributors and hence would be most affected by any change to the distant-signal part of the act.

The Copyright Office suggested that after the distant-signal rules were gutted, Congress could consider how to gradually eliminate the local rules.

Some broadcasters are also against a change to rules because they already pay for the rights to sub-license content they get from Hollywood and sports leagues, and they won't want to give that up. The cable industry will resist because it is easier and potentially cheaper to pay one fee to the Copyright Royalty Board than to negotiate with each rights holder.

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