When Sirius XM plays Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," Stephen Stills and his fellow band members see not a single cent in royalties.
That's because the protest classic was recorded in 1966, but federal copyright law only protects songs recorded after Feb. 15, 1972. Songs recorded before that date are subject to mukry state laws. And so Sirius, Pandora, and other digital radio services pay no royalties on "For What It's Worth"—or on any other song recorded before that date.
Reps. John Conyers and George Holding don't agree on much, but they agree that's unfair. The Michigan Democrat and North Carolina Republican, both members of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation Thursday that would would require digital music services to pay royalties to artists for songs recorded before 1972.
Pre-1972 songs account for up to 15 percent of all spins on digital radio and would have been worth $60 million in royalties for older artists in 2013, according to SoundExchange, the organization in charge of collecting and distributing royalties to recording artists and one of the bill's primary backers.
The 1972 cutoff has long evaded public notice because until recently, recording artists did not rely on the radio for income, since traditional AM/FM radio does not pay royalties on any sound recordings. But with the decline of record sales, royalties from digital music services like Internet and satellite radio are becoming an important source of income for artists, and older ones are feeling the pain of lost revenue as they hit retirement age. The legislative push follows a string of lawsuits filed by record labels and artists such as the Turtles against Sirius and Pandora in the hope of recovering royalties.
Conyers and Holding unveiled their bill Thursday joined by classic artists, including Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield, Martha Reeves of Martha & the Vandelles, and the "Soul Man," Sam Moore, who made their case to get paid.
But the digital music service companies say the so-called Respect Act is just another ploy by the major record labels to pad their pocketbooks, as well as a distraction from the need for broader copyright reform, since the bill would require the music services to pay royalties on pre-1972 songs without granting the songs full federal copyright protection.
"It is a one-sided attempt to establish select protections that only help certain parties—most of all, big record companies," said Greg Barnes, general counsel to the Digital Media Association. "If Congress is going to legislate in this area of copyright law, it should do so in a comprehensive manner. That would be the surest way of showing true respect."
To understand why these services pay the Temptations for "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" but not "My Girl," it's helpful to rewind 40 years to the 1970s, when the Copyright Act got its first major update since 1909.
Copyright protection for sound recordings is a relatively recent event. Until the Copyright Act update in the '70s, only music compositions—the written music owned by songwriters and publishers—were protected under federal copyright laws.
When Congress decided to incorporate sound recordings into copyright, lawmakers decided that protection would begin for songs recorded after Feb. 15, 1972, and not apply retroactively, leaving older songs under the protection of a patchwork of state laws.
When the Internet came along in the 1990s, Congress updated the Copyright Act again so that new digital music services would have to pay recording artists in addition to songwriters, but did not change the 1972 copyright cutoff.
The feud over pre-1972 payments is one of several bids to adapt federal copyright laws to the digital era. The Judiciary Committee is currently undergoing a review of U.S. copyright laws, and the U.S. Copyright Office is undergoing a separate study on music licensing.