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The reasons in USA DOJ closing statement on collective management rules review for ASCAP and BMI

Many musical works have multiple authors. Under the copyright law, joint authors of a single work are treated as tenants-in-common, so “[e]ach co-owner may thus grant a nonexclusive license to use the entire work without the consent of other co-owners, provided that the licensor accounts for and pays over to his or her co-owners their pro-rata shares of the proceeds.” Copyright holders may, however, depart from the default rules under the Copyright Act.

There are therefore at least two possible frameworks under which PROs may license works with multiple owners belonging to multiple PROs. Under a “full-work” license, each PRO would offer non-exclusive licenses to the work entitling the user to perform the work without risk of infringement liability. Under a “fractional” license, each PRO would offer a license only to the interests it holds in a work, and require that the licensee obtain additional licenses from the PROs representing other co-owners before performing the work.

The PROs proposed three significant modifications: first, to allow publishers to partially withdraw works from the PROs, thereby preventing the PROs from licensing such works to digital music users; second, to streamline the process by which fee disputes are resolved; and, third, to permit the PROs to offer licenses to rights other than the public performance right, particularly for users who also need a performance license. Music users proposed additional changes, in particular to promote increased transparency and clarify rules surrounding “licenses-in-effect,” i.e., how withdrawals from a repertory affect the scope of licenses granted by the PROs.

As the Division considered the implications of these proposed changes, particularly partial withdrawal, stakeholders on all sides raised questions about the treatment of multi-owner works. Music users claimed that the PROs had always offered licenses to perform all works in their repertories, whether partially or fully owned. Rightsholders, by contrast, claimed that the PROs had never offered full licenses to perform fractionally owned works.

Historically, the industry has largely avoided a definitive determination of whether ASCAP and BMI offered full-work or fractional licenses because the vast majority of music users obtain a license from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC and pay those PROs based on fractional market shares. These practices made it unnecessary, from both the user and rightsholders perspective, to sort out whether the ASCAP and BMI licenses are full-work or fractional; users have held licenses that collectively cover all works and rightsholders have been paid for their works by their own PROs without having to worry about accounting.