Many love streaming their favorite artist’s songs over Pandora, Inc. (“Pandora”). Imagine a world where your favorite song, say “All Along the Watch Tower” by Bob Dylan, wasn’t listed on Pandora because the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (“ASCAP”) made his compositions unavailable to “New Media” outlets, even though his songs are available for license to traditional methods of distribution, like the radio. Keep calm. Thanks to a recent ruling by the Southern District of New York, a federal court in New York, that won’t happen. And that’s primarily because of plain English.
In In Re Petition of Pandora, Media, Inc., ASCAP argued that it could not make all compositions available in its repertory to licensees like Pandora where the publisher of the song withdrew ASCAP’s right to license the compositions to “New Media.” In short, ASCAP argued to the Southern District of New York, that it cannot license what it does not have the right to license.
Since 1941, ASCAP has needed to comply with an antitrust consent decree. Luckily, it states in plain English that music users have the right to “perform any, some or all of the works in the ASCAP repertory.” If Mr. Dylan uses ASCAP to collect royalties for the public performances of “All Along the Watchtower,” that song is part of the ASCAP repertory. Under the decree, ASCAP must make the song available to all requesting music users, regardless of the type of medium they use to distribute the music.
The court correctly ruled that while Mr. Dylan may freely pull his song out of the ASCAP repertory and go to another performing rights society, ASCAP is restricted by the decree from offering Mr. Dylan the option of licensing his songs to some distributors but not to others in “New Media” — such as Pandora. But Pandora has only won half the battle with ASCAP. The decree still requires the court to determine the rate that Pandora will pay for using ASCAP’s stable of songs. If the court makes these rates cost prohibitively high, Pandora’s first half victory will be a moot one.