No More Free Music For U.S. Movie Theatres

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The latest discussion by record industry about seeking performer’s royalties (royalties paid to labels and artists) from radio stations brings to mind a similar situation that composers in this country have to deal with – the blatant public for-profit use of film music while a legal “exception” prevents our collectives – ASCAP and BMI, specifically, from pursuing performing rights royalties for these public performances of music… I’m referring of course to music in films that are shown in U.S. movie theatres.

While almost everywhere else in the world theatres pay a public performance fee to the royalty societies, a disastrous legal precedent stemming from, according to historian Russell Sanjek, an attempt by ASCAP in the 1940s to triple the “seat tax” charged to movie theatres, prevents it here. That’s right… composers and songwriters used to receive performance royalties from US movie theater performances of films from the royalty collectives until this legal decision. The movie theaters fought back and won, and the big losers of course were composers. The decision was “Alden Rochelle v. ASCAP” and it has cost composers millions of dollars.

It’s time for composers as an industry to decide if we’re going to attempt to overturn this awful “free pass” for the movie theater companies. If we don’t do something, how long will it be before some enterprising corporate attorney decides to try and widen this exemption to include television networks, cable stations, and more? As much as we seem so reluctant to get together and acting as an industry, maybe it’s time we do.