A bitter fight between radio and the record industry that has lasted decades is flaring up again.
The dispute is over the royalties that broadcasters pay to play music on the air. By a quirk in United States copyright law, radio stations pay songwriters and publishers but not record companies or a song’s performers.
In other words, if your band has a hit with a Beatles cover, the Beatles and their publishing company get paid when the song is played on the radio, but you don’t. (This royalty, known as a performance right, is paid in most countries around the world, and in the United States for satellite radio and digital streams, but not terrestrial radio.)
Record companies and performers have been trying for years to change the law to accommodate the performance right — Frank Sinatra was an outspoken voice on the issue — but always without success. A renewed push nearly succeeded in summer 2010, but the deal fell apart in negotiations.
The issue has sat mostly dormant since then, but after lobbying last week by the organization behind the Grammy Awards, it appears to be catching fire again. Two congressmen, Darrell Issa, a Republican of California, and Mike Quigley, a Democrat of Illinois, wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking for an investigation into whether broadcasters violated lobbying rules by running on-air statements intended to influence legislation, like their characterization of the proposed royalty as a “performance tax.”
Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, gave the keynote speech for the Grammy event, put on by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. “This issue of performance rights is not over,” he said. “This issue isn’t over, and it won’t be over until we have a performance right enshrined in law. If the parties can’t solve the problem, Congress will.”
Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents radio stations, said in a statement: “N.A.B. believes appropriate disclosures were made on these messages. When free and local broadcasting is threatened by bad public policy proposals, we have a First Amendment right and responsibility to educate our millions of listeners and viewers.”
Mr. Wharton also referred to an affidavit by a radio station employee in Washington stating that the National Association of Broadcasters paid for its spots and that the MusicFirst Coalition, the label and musicians’ group, declined an offer to advertise on the air.