An important aspect of Wisconsin’s history and culture centers on its bars, restaurants, and breweries. These are places where Wisconsinites of all kinds can put aside their differences and come together over a great schnitzel, a strong Old Fashioned and festive live music.
But over the past several years, I’ve heard from many local business owners in my district that they’ve had to decrease their use of live music as a result of a complicated and convoluted music licensing process. This problem certainly isn’t localized to Wisconsin. It’s happening throughout the entire country, and it’s up to Congress to take the necessary steps to fix it.
The problem, simply stated, is that when a venue wants to play music, they turn to the performing rights organizations that offer blanket licenses covering millions of songs within their respective catalogs. However, this process is inefficient, confusing and costly to bar and restaurant owners. Without a clear database of options and licensing requirements, business owners are often left to guess what licenses they need and what products they’re actually purchasing. This confusion is not only frustrating, but opens up unsuspecting business owners to copyright infringement lawsuits, despite the fact they were trying to follow the letter of the law.
I have heard numerous times about the ways in which PROs like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Broadcast Music Inc. have used their power over information and near duopoly control of music — together they control almost 90 percent of all music — to harass business owners. As a result, many venues are choosing to stop playing music or booking live performances. When venues stop playing music, it not only impacts the atmosphere at bars and restaurants, but it also affects the entire music ecosystem. This loss means less revenue is generated for songwriters and that there are fewer opportunities for artists to perform and discover new audiences.
One simple solution to help alleviate the problem is to house all music copyright ownership and licensing information in one database. Such a database doesn’t currently exist. PROs claim that their proprietary databases are available for small-business owners to access, but these databases are not interoperable or comprehensive. In fact, each PRO explicitly states that their database can’t be relied on to make licensing decisions.
In response to this problem, I’ve introduced the Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act, which would establish a comprehensive and actionable database that would be maintained by the U.S. Copyright Office. Ever since the issue was first brought to my attention in the 1990s, I’ve been actively involved in enacting meaningful reforms in the music licensing space. Over the years, it has become clear to me that a public database is necessary to offer all stakeholders a real-time and fully searchable record of music ownership and licensing information that they can rely on.
My colleagues in the House Judiciary Committee and I have spent several years examining the Copyright Act and its need for reform. After more than 20 hearings and an extensive open comment period, there is overwhelming support to modernize our copyright laws and make them easier to follow. This includes the adoption of new user-friendly technologies and instituting procedures to ensure transparency in music licensing.
Business owners make hundreds of decisions daily — each one made in order to achieve the best results for their bottom lines. Without a clear and actionable music licensing database, they are left without a choice when it comes to which licenses are best for their needs. It doesn’t need to be this way.
The Transparency in Music Licensing Ownership Act is a commonsense solution to a growing problem that impacts the lives and businesses of Americans nationwide. It is a positive step forward in helping our country’s business owners make the best possible decisions while ensuring that copyright owners are fairly compensated for their work.
In Wisconsin, and throughout the country, music is essential for bringing people together. Making it easier to share and enjoy music is good for our businesses, our communities, and our well-being. I hope my colleagues will join me in support for this legislation.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Oversight Subcommittee. He is also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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