Van Scoy: Copyright killed the Internet radio star

Copyright protection is becoming a huge barrier to music lovers everywhere. With the RIAA watching your Limewire account and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers kicking cover bands out of local dives because of high royalties and scams, there’s a glimmer of hope in Internet radio. Or, at least, there was. Last Sunday, new royalty rates took effect for net radio, putting the owners of the stations between a rock and a hard place.

Since pirating started the frenzy of copyright charges, opinion seems to have changed about the nature of copyright law itself. The general consensus was that if you were making money off something you copied, that was illegal. Now, in many cases, it doesn’t matter if anyone makes money, only that someone is listening to something they haven’t paid for. And they have to pay, every time.

The Copyright Royalty Board, consisting of three U.S. judges, set new rates for webcasting radio stations on March 6, 2007, and they were set to go into effect on Sunday. This decision was appealed, and the appeal gained a strong following over the last few months. Sadly, it was denied last week.

The reason for the appeal was quite simple: This decision is going to put Internet radio out of business. The cost determined by the judges is simply too high for a lot of stations to pay: a charge per listener, per song. At current, the fee is 0.11 cents. By 2010, it will have risen to 0.19 cents. This may not seem like an incredible amount of money, until you factor in the vast number of people tuning in.

Although regular radio stations pay a flat fee per song, there’s no way for them to effectively estimate the number of people who are listening at any given time. This is where the webcasters have fallen into a pit. Because the Internet can track users, the Copyright Royalty Board maintains the rights of the copyright holders. This implies every trackable person must be accounted for in order for it to be a fair market.

So, while three people can listen to a ground-based radio station and it will pay once, the same people can listen in on an Internet station, which will have to pay three times. The World Wide Web is certainly showing a predilection toward unfavorable judgments from the government – mostly because it’s a resource base that has consistently battled censorship and crosses many jurisdictions, making penalties, where they can be made, incredibly harsh.

A lot of stations have shut themselves down already, anticipating a large payout if they were to stay on the air. Some are boycotting the change, refusing to enact the new royalties so listeners don’t have to pay bigger fees for listening. The Internet Radio Equality Act was introduced to try and counter the Copyright Royalty Board’s March decision, suggesting either a flat-rate fee per hour, per listener, or a percentage of profits at the end of the year.

The IREA was introduced to the Senate on May 10, and a decision has not been reached, although support shows to be overwhelming.

First, downloading was prosecuted, which is understandable, as it’s a copy of an original performance. Then came the crackdown on secondary performances, with claims artists are still getting cheated out of the money they’re entitled to. Now, with Internet radio getting slammed by government fees, options are becoming limited to listen to music anywhere at all.

Thankfully, terrestrial radio is still in the works, and this may boost its popularity. Maybe local and original music will thrive in coffee shops around the nation, and artists really will profit from the right places. We can only hope record companies don’t rethink these opportunities in the future and lobby for even more legislation because of “copyrights” that really are overstepping their boundaries. Based on their reasoning, everyone reading this should now send me a check, and maybe I can live off this column forever.

– Luci VanScoy is a junior in anthropology from Newton.