"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Monday, April 30, 2007

My good buds in the Senate

I took my own advice a while back, and wrote to my representatives in the House and Senate about the recent disastrous ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board which will most likely result in the extinction of internet radio. Somewhat to my surprise, last week I received the following reply from Republican Senator John Cornyn:
Thank you for contacting me about the important issue of music performance rights. I appreciate having the benefit of your comments on this important matter.As you are aware, rapid advances in communications technology have led to the development of digital television and radio, as well as subscription satellite television and radio services. These new capabilities expand the range of choices available to consumers; subscription satellite radio is one of the most successful examples of quickly advancing technology. I welcome such consumer-driven innovation and enjoy a personal satellite radio subscription.

As expected, technological innovation also brings with it the threat of copyright infringement. While recent technology advances represent important achievements, we must, on principle, protect the intellectual property rights of those responsible for such innovation. You may be certain that I will continue working with my Senate colleagues to strike a balance between copyright protection and technological advance and that I will keep your concerns in mind should the Senate consider relevant legislation during the 110th Congress.

I appreciate having the opportunity to represent the interests of Texans in the United States Senate. Thank you for taking the time to contact me.

Sincerely,

JOHN CORNYN
United States Senator
517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
OK. And then, just today I got this message from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison:
Thank you for contacting me regarding copyright protection. I welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue.

Copyright protection has been central to America's prosperity and job creation. Movies, books, computer software, television, photography and music are among our unique American products and some of our most successful exports. United States industries depending on copyright protection employ nearly 4 million workers and produce over $65 billion of our exports ( more than agriculture and automobile manufacturing.

Protecting content in a high-technology age is a new and daunting problem, and copyright protection is an important challenge as the broadband revolution offers even more far-reaching possibilities and opportunities. With new speed and interactivity, the entire store of movies, music, books, television and raw knowledge can be made widely available. I believe copyright protection is a foundation of innovation, and copyright law should work to ultimately protect the best interests of consumers. Intellectual property is the creative core of the information age, and I agree this is a pivotal issue for Congress to address.

I appreciate hearing from you and hope you will not hesitate to keep in touch on any issue of concern to you.

Sincerely,
Kay Bailey Hutchison
There are two ways to interpret these replies. The first is that they're the typical Washington Waffle; you'll note that neither response is especially committal one way or the other, nor do they exactly address the subject. In all probability, some lowly staff member reads all incoming mail and tries to determine its general topic and whether the writer is "fer" it or "agin" it (whatever "it" is). You can almost hear them thinking, "Hmmmm. Internet radio? Well lemme see, it's not exactly commerce, but it's sort of telecommunications. Maybe science and technology? No, it doesn't really fit any of those. Wait, how about Music Performance Rights? Yeah, that's it. Close enough." Senator Hutchison's office tagged the issue as "copyright protection". In either case, the staffer fired off a boiler-plate form reply and the Senator never actually read the message.

On the other hand, perhaps lawmakers do indeed personally and carefully read every word of letters they receive from their constituents, giving thoughtful consideration to their concerns. Hey, it could happen. So just in case I actually do have an ear in Washington, I sent them the following message to reinforce my points. Note my persuasive yet diplomatic style:

Dear Senator:

Thank you very much for your reply to my recent contact to your office concerning music performance rights (copyright protection). I appreciate that you are cognizant of this issue and working to strike a balance between the interested parties.

I am a lifelong broadcaster, and a fan of Internet radio. Since my initial message to you, the Copyright Royalty Board met on April 16th and refused to reconsider their initial action to raise royalty fees paid by Internet broadcasters to stratospheric levels which would force many of them to shut down. As I am sure you are aware, National Public Radio led this drive for a rehearing, arguing that the CRB's decision was an "abuse of discretion".

Unfortunately, the Judges did not appear to fully consider the ramifications of the new royalty structure, and that avenue of appeal has now been closed. I am therefore urgently asking for your help.

In addition to being a former broadcaster, I am also a musician and understand that those who create the music we all enjoy deserve to be fairly compensated for their efforts. I am not opposed to reasonable royalty payments for musicians and songwriters. But the key word here is "fairly", and the CRB's new rates are simply unrealistic and unreasonable, with markups of 300 to 1200 percent from the previous payment structure. Even though the director of Sound Exchange, Mr. John Stimson, said he "look(s) forward to working with the Internet radio industry", there will be no "industry" left to work with if these disastrous fees go into effect. Few Internet broadcasters will have the financial capacity to pay these exorbitant rates which in many cases exceed their incoming revenue, and will simply be forced out of existence.

In the last week since the CRB refused to consider a rehearing, the news media has been full of dire stories from Internet broadcasters facing imminent extinction. Here is but one example: AccuRadio founder and CEO Kurt Hanson says he makes money by selling advertising time, but the new royalty rate increase would far exceed the revenue that ads bring in. "This rate hike would absolutely shut us down if it's put into effect," he said. "Our revenues last year were about $400,000. We thought our royalty obligation under the previous deal would have been about $48,000. Our royalty obligation under this new deal would be $600,000."

Mr. Hanson's story is typical of many, many Internet broadcasters who now face the prospect of crippling royalty payments. Even more appalling, noncommercial webcasters who do not sell advertising and have no income whatsoever would still be forced to pay huge fees under the CRB-mandated royalty structure. This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I am very concerned that this action is the death knell for Internet radio, a medium that has brought unprecedented choice and diversity of entertainment to myself and countless other Americans. Webcasting also serves as a valuable conduit for many independent artists who have a difficult time breaking through on other forms of radio.

There is one last chance to save Internet radio, and that is intervention by the House and Senate to demand that the CRB determine fair and reasonable royalty rates that will not bankrupt web broadcasters. However, time is of the essence as these fees go into effect on May 15th.

I implore you and your colleagues to take whatever steps are necessary to keep this date from being forever known in the future as "the day the music died".

Thank you very much for your time and interest in this matter.

Sincerely,
"Mr. Toast"

In case you were wondering, yes I did use my real name. It will be interesting to see if I get anything but another form letter in reply, but at least I've done what I can do. As I mentioned to the good Senators, time is growing short and a groundswell of public outcry over this travesty of justice might actually prevent these rates from going into effect on May 15th. Want to help? If you're interested, find out more about the issue here, then write your representative and let your voice be heard. Feel free to copy and paste any part of the above if you like, or visit this Live365 page for more specific suggestions.

Stay tuned for more news on this topic.

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