What Every Radio Station Operator Needs To Know About Copyright
Different radio personalities specialize in different things: the fictional Frasier Crane provides talk therapy over the airways, millions of people trust the news as they hear it from Glenn Beck’s lips, and Howard Stern is presumably up to his own thing.
However, there are some commonalities that have to be taken into account whatever the program’s format, including internet broadcasts and podcast. One of these principles is that creative artists of all kinds are entitled to compensation whenever any of their work is used – unless you’re in a country such as Turkmenistan, which has no copyright law whatsoever. At least, in theory, copyrights both allow the actual creators of the work to make a living wage, while the corporations they’re tied to continue to have an economic reason to invest in new works. This principle is even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.
As a freelancer, the copyright on articles and recordings literally make up a large portion of my livelihood. As an author, torrent sites offering copies of my books make a real though unquantifiable dent in my earnings. As a broadcaster, ignoring the basics of copyright law can have serious legal and financial consequences, and small independent broadcasters are in no way exempt from understanding and enforcing these regulations.
What Is Protected?
The Copyright law or practice is ridiculously complex. As a general guideline, any work that isn’t specifically stated to be licensed under a Creative Commons license or older than 100 years should be considered as being the property of its owner, whether it’s an actual sound recording or something more abstract, such as a musical composition or written text. Some countries require works to be registered for copyright to apply, but merely the act of creating something is usually sufficient, even without including a phrase such as “all rights reserved”. This is the case in all countries that subscribe to the Berne Convention.
The good news is that non-profit or student radio is often given a long leash as long as it acts in good faith. In addition, it’s understood that only a particular way ideas are interpreted can be copyrighted, not the ideas themselves. There are also various different types of rights that can be assigned from the owner or creator to a broadcaster, including reproduction, public performance, and control over derivative works.
While a few countries have laws that make copyright infringement illegal, government resources are usually devoted primarily to actual forgery. This means that the copyright holder has to bear the costs of protecting his intellectual property itself in a civil suit rather than involving the police. In practice, this means that large, financially muscular organizations such as the “big three” record labels receive more advantage from copyright law as it stands. Due to the costs of initiating a trial, violators are usually first asked to stop using copyrighted work through a letter or phone call.
The actual scale of intellectual property theft is unknown. Should it be determined on the basis of the nominal value of all pirated works, or as a number representing the actual lost sales an industry suffers? In fact, it has not been proven that technologies such as file sharing actually harm music vendors, many of which have embraced Youtube with open arms.
Copyright in Radio
As mentioned, copyright law is a minefield at times, and anyone who needs to pay royalties might well need legal advice before letters of demand start arriving.
Fortunately, rationality has prevailed in the broadcast industry. You might think that a radio station needs to keep a record of every song they play, find out who holds the copyright and how much they charge, and finally send out hundreds of little checks each month. This would clearly lay a heavy administrative burden on everyone involved, so companies such as SoundExchange and Live365 were founded to take a lot of the pain out of paying royalties.
The two examples mentioned are focused on digital broadcasts, but national or regional equivalents exist in nearly every jurisdiction. These are typically industry associations rather than organs of government. Essentially, each radio station pays a monthly fee based on size (typically determined by output power), with discounts applying to community-based stations or those tied to educational organizations. The proportion of funds that should go to each performer and record label is then calculated through a complicated algorithm, and in principle, everybody gets paid according to the contribution they make to broadcasting.