Every radio station in the United States that broadcasts over the Internet is presently confronted with a tough situation. The U.S. Copyright Office is conducting arbitration hearings concerning the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its final decision could have grievous repercussions for college and other non-profit radio stations. While the DMCA is filled with controversial provisions that have been challenged throughout the court system, a particularly damaging one deals with royalties for Internet broadcasts. The effects of the legislation are visible at University student-run radio station WCBN, where the DMCA is threatening the organization”s financial solvency and ability to freely program its content.
Congress hastily passed the DMCA in Oct. 1998. Both the House and Senate unanimously voted for the bill. The DMCA was authored with tremendous input from the Recording Industry Association of America and other powerful lobbyist organizations. Unfortunately, the act is marred with critical problems. Intellectual property advocates have criticized the bill for violating the “fair use” principle which allows people to reproduce copyrighted materials provided they cite the sources properly and placing unnecessary restraints on freedom of speech and encryption research. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the bill is its denial of the unique position of independent radio stations.
The powerful music lobby is unconcerned with many smaller stations that are not solely devoted to mainstream music. Independent radio stations with educational and community-oriented goals that broadcast over the Internet would be subject to the same types of fees as for-profit radio stations. WCBN now pays approximately $1,000 annually to the recording industry for the rights to broadcast music. If the RIAA”s suggested fees are considered acceptable, WCBN might have to pay upwards of $3,000 in additional fees to the recording industry. Another frightening outcome for the future of WCBN is the possibility that it will be forced to pay retroactive fees to the recording industry. With an operating budget of approximately $64,000 this fee could cripple WCBN.
These excessive fees will not be the extent of WCBN”s troubles. The DMCA would require WCBN to track its playlists with a level of sophistication that its current equipment cannot achieve. In addition, the legislation contains regulations that harm the spirit of independent radio. The DMCA stipulates that no more than three songs from an artist can be broadcast online within an hour. This foolishly prevents the creation of programs devoted to the music of specific artists and other innovative content.
Despite ominous signs, there is hope that the Copyright Office will not agree to the RIAA”s suggested rates. However, if the RIAA”s rates are enforced, the University must be willing to increase the funding for WCBN. WCBN”s University funding has not increased in the past 15 years and the station has been forced to depend on donations and sponsorships to survive. The University should commit itself to aiding this vibrant campus media outlet in its continuing struggle to entertain, inform and enrich the community.