A settlement under the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2009 was signed today by SoundExchange and a group of webcasters that I represented in the Copyright Royalty Board proceeding to determine the royalty rates for the use of sound recordings by Internet Radio stations for the period from 2006-2010. This agreement is for “pureplay” webcasters, i.e. those that are willing to include their entire gross revenue in a percentage of revenue calculation to determine their royalties. As permitted under the terms of the WSA, this agreement not only reaches back to set rates different, and substantially lower, than those that were arrived at by the CRB for the period from 2006-2010, but also resolves the rates for 2011-2015, relieving webcasters who join the deal from having to litigate another CRB proceeding to set the rates for those years.
While no deal arrived at under the circumstances in which these webcasters found themselves (a CRB decision that did not set any percentage of revenue royalty rate and would seemingly put these webcasters out of business, the prospect of a new CRB proceeding that would costs significant sums to litigate with no guarantee of success, and with the only other current option being the “microcasters” deal unilaterally advanced by SoundExchange that severely limited the amount of streaming that a webcaster could do and imposed significant “recapture provisions” in the event of a sale of the webcaster's business) may not be ideal, the settlement does provide significant benefits over any other existing option for any webcaster who qualifies under its provisions. These deal points are set out below.
First, the deal provides for different treatment for large and small pureplay webcasters. For the small pureplay webcasters, the ones with less than $1.25 million in revenue (the number that has seemingly become a magic number included in the microcasters deal as well as the proposed broadcast performance royalty to distinguish between large and small users of sound recordings), a webcaster who agrees to pay slightly higher royalties in 2009-2014 than required under the microcaster deal (12% on the first $250,000 of revenue and 14%, as opposed to 10-12%), gets the following benefits:
- An aggregate tuning hour limit of 8 million monthly ATH for 2009, 8.5 million for 2010, 9 million for 2011, and 10 million for 2012-2014, instead of the 5 million monthly ATH under the microcaster deal
- A recapture provision that requires that the webcaster, upon sale of the webcasting business to an entity that would not qualify as a small pureplay webcaster, repay the difference between what he would have owed under this deal had he not elected to be a “small entity”, but the recapture is limited to 4 years, not a potential 10 years as required by the microcaster deal. In addition, under the terms of this deal, the webcaster has the option of paying 30% of the consideration from the sale to SoundExchange in lieu of the per performance recapture, a percentage which very well may be smaller than the per performance calculation. Under this deal, if the webcaster pays under the "per performance" option outlined below for one full year, no recapture requirement exists. This recapture provision is to avoid the LastFM issue that SoundExchange has expressed concern about in public statements (see our post here).
- A transition period, for a small pureplay webcaster who grows its revenues beyond $1.25 million, that allows it to continue to pay at a percentage of revenue royalty for the remainder of the year in which it exceeds $1.25 million, and the entire following year. The webcaster would have to pay 25% of its revenues to SoundExchange, but would not have to make per performance payments for as much as two years, if it times its transition beyond the $1.25 million threshold properly. This is in contrast to the 6 month transition under the microcaster deal.
- This deal gives the webcaster the ability to delay the transition to the per performance royalty, if its revenues go over $1.25 million, then drop back below that number. Only after a webcaster has revenues in excess of $1.25 million for 2 calendar years will it be required to pay at the per performance rates.
Webcasters who elect this deal must do so on a yearly basis. As the deal offers no small pureplay webcaster percentage of revenue option for 2015, this ability to opt out is important for the smaller webcaster who has not reached the $1.25 million cap by that time, as they can opt for the microcaster deal for 2015 if they cannot afford the pureplay per performance royalties set forth below in 2015. Or, if another settlement should be reached, or the CRB should set lower rates for 2011-2015, a webcaster could opt out of this deal and choose any better arrangement that comes along at the end of the calendar year in which it is operating.
The small pureplay deal also has minimum fees. Webcasters have a minimum fee of the greater of $25,000 or 7% of expenses. The 7% of expenses is also required under the microcaster deal. As it will be mostly larger “small” webcasters, ones with concerns about the $1.25 million dollar cap or the 5 million aggregate tuning hour limit under the microcaster deal, who elect this deal, most will have revenues in excess of $250,000, and thus would owe the $25,000 minimum fee in any event. That minimum can be paid in quarterly installments.
For larger pureplay webcasters, the deal offers a substantial advantage over the CRB rates. The rates for large pureplay webcasters are the greater of 25% of revenue or a per performance royalty that is far lower than that required by the CRB – even through 2015. As set forth below, the per performance royalty for 2015 will be the same rate that webcasters were charged for 2008 under the CRB decision – and far less than that agreed to by the broadcasters in their settlement with SoundExchange. As most large webcasters claimed that the CRB-determined royalties would total 75% or more of their revenues, this new rate represents a substantial savings. The pureplay per performance royalties (with a per ATH royalty rate for 2006-2008) are as shown in the table here.
Either large or small pureplay webcasters, who offer a white label or syndicated service to some third party, where the service is offered to the public under the name of the third party and not the webcaster, or for those who offer a subscription service, will have to pay at higher rates. Presumably, the theory is that such services do not make their revenues from advertising, but instead from payments by third parties or from the subscriptions by the public, and can factor in these higher costs in the amounts that they charge for such services. Essentially, royalties for those services would be paid at the same per performance rate as the broadcasters are currently paying under their settlement with SoundExchange (see our post here on those rates).
In sum, while far from a perfect deal that webcasters would have selected on their own, this deal does provide another option for webcasters with substantial advantages in many area to those that qualify for treatment under this deal. While no doubt the fight will continue over the standards that should be used to determine royalties in future proceedings, so that parties don’t need to enter into these after-the-fact settlements when one party has a substantial bargaining advantage with a favorable decision already in hand, SoundExchange should be credited for agreeing to reach this deal when there was no compulsion that they do so. This deal presents certainty for many webcasters – eliminating further litigation and negotiation costs while setting rates at which a class of webcasters can go on with their operations.