Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Public Performance and Ringtones

As if to demonstrate why the general public continues to question the validity of all copyright claims in music, ASCAP recently provided us with one of the stupidest and greediest copyright cases in the recent past. (opinion at www.eff.org). After being sued in relationship to the reasonableness of its blanket licenses (related to its antitrust exemption), ASCAP argued that when someone's cell phone rings with a musical ringtone, the ring is a public performance of the composition and therefore the phone companies owe licensing fees for each call. The Electronic Freedom Foundation, who filed an amicus brief in the case, noted that: “Under this reasoning from ASCAP, it would be a copyright violation for you to play your car radio with the window down!" While I am not sure it is quite this bad, the arguments advanced by ASCAP do require a great deal of legal gymanstics in order to work.

While the law of copyright is intended to be largely technology neutral, with any newer technologies, the courts are often called upon to interpret how copyright applies in new circumstances. - ringtones are no exception. For example, a few years back the recording industry obtained clarification from the Copyright Office over whether a mechanical royalty was necessary for creating the digital files that make up ringtones - the outcome was a decision that ringtones were in fact subject to a statutory/mechanical license payable by the makers of the ringtones. The arguments made by ASCAP for performance licenses, however, are much less persuasive than those made for mechanicals. ASCAP made several legal arguments to support its position, some more technical than others, but all them largely coming down to a discussion of whether the activation of the ringtone by an incoming call constitutes a public performance that is not exempt for claims of copyright infringement. ASCAP basis its arguments on two separate theories: 1) that the downloading of the ringtone is the same as a public performance, and 2) that sending the signal activating the ringtone is part of a performance authorized by cell phone companies.

Downloading Ringtones is Not a Performance
ASCAP argues that under the “Transmission” clause of Section 101, which provides that the transmission of a protected work that is made available to the public is an act of infringement. ASCAP first argues that the Verizon allows its customers to download songs, and that these downloads are public transmissions. Wisely, the court points out that the download is being made to one party and is not to the public at large. ASCAP, however, goes an additional step and argues that the download is also the first step in a two step process whereby the performance is shifted to such times as when a phone company customer receives a telephone call which others may overhear. In an odd bit of irony, this argument strikes me as ASCAP attempting to use a time-shift argument FOR infringement.

Playing of compositions: Direct and Secondary Liability
ASCAP also argues that even if the transmission by the cell companies is not infringement, the playing of the music by the owner of the phone is, and that the phone company is either directly or indirectly liable for the infringement due to its participation in the process of the music being played. Perhaps the strangest argument made by ASCAP is the one that the court notes is their primary argument - ASCAP argued that the playing of any ringtone was in effect a direct performance by Verizon on the basis that Verizon sends a signal that triggers the playing of the music and therefore they are the instigators and the source of the performance in some Rube Goldberg like manner. ASCAP’s second argument is based on secondary liability, which requires a finding that there has been a direct or primary infringement by one party (the cell phone owner), and is aided in some way by the second (Verizon).

While the court addressed many sub-issues related to their claims and every theoretical possibility, the majority of its analysis were based on a finding that playing of ringtones are generally just intended for use by person who's phone it is on, and is therefore not a public performance as defined by Section 101. The court backed this argument up by noting that even if the playing of the ringtone was loud enough to be heard by a general audience and constitute a public performance; Section 110(4) exempts the public performance from liability if there is no commercial intent in making it public.

Conclusion
ASCAP cited many cases to support its position in this case – the majority of which were cases involving mechanical rights to reproduce a copyrighted work rather than ones dealing in issues of performance, which the court points out are not in dispute and in fact have already been paid. While in many cases the payment of performance royalties in addition to mechanical is entirely proper and appropriate, the attempt of ASCAP to apply a secondary license in this context is clearly overreaching, and it is this type of overreach that causes the general public to begin to question all copyright protections, which in turn only serves to hurt the very people that ASCAP is suppose to be working for – the artists.

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