Bailing Out The RIAA: New Legislation Would Force Radio Stations To Pay Reverse Payola

Hey, it's the weekend. Let's look at public policy on something that doesn't involve torture:

At the Tech Policy Summit yesterday, David Carson, the General Counsel of the US Copyright Office spent a bit of time at the beginning of his talk explaining why the Performance Rights Act made sense. This is the bill that would make radio stations pay musicians (rather than just songwriters as it is now) for every song they play on the radio. The recording industry insists that it's somehow unfair that radio stations have been promoting their music for free, and Carson seems to believe their explanation 100% (which is, unfortunately, quite typical of the Copyright Office). He argued, unconvincingly, that while radio used to promote artists (the reason that stations don't need to pay musicians), it no longer does so. That makes no sense. While there are alternatives out there for promoting artists, and radio may not have the impact it once had, that hardly means that the stations aren't promoting the music.

And, of course, the most damning argument against the recording industry's demand for money here is the fact that, for decades, the industry has (illegally) had the money go in the other direction. The system of payola has shown, quite clearly, how much the recording industry values airtime, in that it's willing to pay radio stations to play its music.

So, can anyone explain why it's illegal for record labels to pay radio stations to play music, but it's okay for Congress to force radio stations to pay the record labels for playing their music? It defies common sense.

Yet, with a nice push from the Copyright Office, the bill is moving forward, and will face a full House vote. During the Committee debate over the bill, Rep. Daniel Lungren made a perfectly reasonable suggestion: why not wait until the GAO had a chance to do an economic analysis of how the bill would impact radio stations. Considering that the bill is effectively a tax on those radio stations, this seems like a perfectly reasonable idea... but it resulted in Rep. Howard Berman (who represents Hollywood, always) accusing Lungren of trying to kill the bill. Isn't it great when simply waiting to find out what kind of impact the bill might have gets you accused of trying to kill it. Apparently in Congress, it's all about shooting first and asking questions later.

That said, Peter Kafka, over at AllThingsD, has made the best point: most people don't care about this bill because they don't realize that it's really a bill to bail out the RIAA by creating a radio station tax that goes straight into the recording industry's bank accounts. So, rather than call it the Performance Rights Act, it should more accurately be called the Britney Bailout Bill.

If the RIAA wants it, I'm against it. (But then, I do tend to lose patience when the federal government is deputized as an exclusive security force for multinational corporations!)

And don't believe the hype that this is all about "the poor artists and songwriters." The record companies steal every damned penny they can siphon away from the artists (one of my best friends used to be engaged to the bass player in a very well-known '80s rock band, and oy, the stories she told about how little they got from their best-selling debut album). Read the seminal Salon piece "Courtney Love Does the Math" - or look at the lawsuit the Dixie Chicks filed against Sony Records.

Next up: magazine and book publishers push for legislation to require makers of photocopy machines to include technology that determines whether teachers are making illegal copies of copyrighted materials for their classrooms!

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