Online music going for a song, says U.S. bill seeking more cash for composers

Customers browse Beatles collections during their launch in New York, September 9, 2009. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Songwriters need to make more money when their music is played on online services like Pandora and elsewhere, according to a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday by a Republican congressman. The measure, introduced by Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, would give songwriters more leeway in arguing for higher royalties before a special court that mediates disputes over payments. The proposal is supported by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Incorporated (BMI), which license about 90 percent of music heard online on services, in restaurants and on television. "There are a lot of powerful interests that use music but don't like the idea of paying songwriters a fair market value," said David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers' Association, which also backs the bill. If the measure passed in the House it would need also to pass the U.S. Senate to become law. Israelite said the songwriter was the "least compensated" of those involved in the process of getting music written, produced and performed. Currently, a "rate court" based in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York mediates conflicts between ASCAP and BMI and companies who want to play songs. Songwriting and recordings are licensed separately. Collins' legislation would allow BMI and ASCAP to point to the amount of money paid to performers in order to argue for more money for songwriters. This comparison is now banned. "A service like Pandora will pay the owners of the sound recording a certain rate, and that rate is much higher than what the publishers (who represent the songwriters) get," said Stefan Mentzer, a copyright expert with the law firm White and Case LLP. "This legislation is part of a larger debate between copyright owners, music services and policy makers about what is the appropriate price of music online and how this gets determined," he said. The bill, which would also have to have Senate backing to become law, is supported by the major music publishing organizations. "We are locked arm-on-arm on this," said Paul Williams, president of ASCAP and composer of hits like "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays." ASCAP distributed $828.7 million to its 460,000 members in 2012, according to its annual report. BMI has 600,000 members and distributed $814 million in the 2013 fiscal year. (Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by David Storey and Andrew Hay)