Copyright act threatens Web radio


Broadcasters complain fees and requirements would cripple webcasts





WASHINGTON, D.C. — Most college radio stations have viewed the advent of Web-based transmission as a godsend; the low cost and ease of use allows even the most fiscally constrained stations to reach a wide audience. Soon, however, that thinking may change, as new action by Congress is set to make webcasting prohibitively expensive for many college stations.

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The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, imposes a series of burdensome reporting requirements on webcasters and makes them liable to record companies for performance fees related to the number of listeners and songs played. These royalties are in addition to fees the stations already pay in order to broadcast over the air.

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Although the legislation was enacted more than three years ago, the reporting requirements and the central fee schedule had been the subject of debate until recently. On Feb. 21, the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel, which had been overseeing the debate, released its proposal to the disappointment of college and Internet radio advocates who say it imposes unmanageable requirements on low-budget broadcasters.

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The U.S. Copyright Office, which set up the panel, is reviewing the proposal and will make a recommendation to Librarian of Congress James Billington, who then has until May 21 to accept or reject the suggestions. The House Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property meanwhile is considering amendments to the copyright act.

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In its report, the arbitration panel suggests that noncommercial broadcasters pay two-hundredths of a cent per song per listener for the simultaneous online transmission of a normal AM or FM broadcast and five-hundredths of a cent for an Internet-only broadcast. A webcasting college radio station that plays 15 songs for 25 listeners in one hour, for example, would owe 7.5 cents for that hour and $657 at the end of the year. (Regardless of all other factors, there is a $500 minimum annual fee.) Once established, the fees will be retroactive to 1998.

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"Most [college] stations that I interact with say that they will have to stop streaming [if the proposed requirements become law]," said Will Robedee, general manager of KTRU at Rice University and creator of a Web site that tracks legal issues related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Web site (www.rice.edu/cb/sos) lists 11 college stations that are no longer webcasting due to the proposed legislation.

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"WUVT used to stream via Real Audio," said Joshua Aritt, general manager of Virginia Tech University's FM station, "and the people in our company decided after going over the potential licensing repercussions, especially retroactive [fees], that we really needed to shut that down because we couldn't afford it." The station, which had begun webcasting in 1997, shut down its online transmissions last fall.

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Of equal or greater concern to radio advocates than the rates are the proposed reporting requirements. According to the arbitration panel proposal, for every track played a webcaster would have to report to record companies the song title, artist's name, album title, record label, catalogue number, International Standard Recording Code embedded in the sound recording, and date and time of transmission.

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Unlike commercial radio stations, which select tracks from a limited playlist, many college radio stations are multi-formatted and therefore broadcast an immense number of different songs. This means the cost of complying with the reporting requirements – in terms of hours spent entering a station's database of songs and the price of necessary computer software – will be prohibitively expensive, advocates have argued.

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"Today, the biggest reason that we're not even looking at streaming again all that seriously is because of the tremendous [reporting] requirements," Aritt said. "There's no way we could catalog all that stuff. We have about 15,000 CDs in our stacks, some of which aren't even labeled, and about that many more pieces of vinyl, most of which aren't even labeled with all those pieces of information."

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"There's absolutely no way to abide by the reporting requirements," Robedee agreed. "It can't be done."

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Also of concern to radio advocates are clauses in the legislation that restrict content. In order to be eligible for a copyright license, webcasters cannot announce upcoming songs or archive shows that are less than five hours long, according to the legislation. The requirements also stipulate that an online broadcaster can play no more than two consecutive songs from a single album, no more than three consecutive songs from one artist's box set, no more than three songs from one album per hour, and no more than four songs from any single artist in any three-hour period. These rules would likely have precluded a college station from airing a George Harrison tribute after the former Beatle's death last year, Robedee said.

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Last fall, U.S. Reps. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and Rick Boucher, D-Va., introduced legislation aimed at curbing existing digital copyright law (including the Digital Millennium Copyright Act). The bill, dubbed the Music Online Competition Act (HR 2724), is in committee.


reports, Spring 2002