Federal law could require WCBN, the University”s student-run radio station, to pay thousands of dollars each year in fees for the live audio stream available on its website as well as meet other requirements.
WCBN will celebrate their 30th anniversary on FM radio this year, but its future is uncertain. A 1998 federal law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act may force college radio stations like WCBN to pay fees for the rights to stream their radio broadcast on the web.
“It has all sorts of requirements that we just can”t follow,” said WCBN”s General Manager Josh Landau, an Engineering senior. Landau estimated that the law could cost WCBN $2,000 each year. WCBN”s total budget, including paid staff, is only about $64,000 each year.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act became law in 1998. It was heralded by the music industry as a long-overdue extension of copyright law to digital media like DVDs, mp3 files and streaming audio. But unlike the laws regulating traditional radio stations, the law does not exempt community or college stations from additional fees, reporting requirements and content restrictions.
Landau cited a regulation restricting stations from streaming more than three songs by the same artist in one hour as an example of the act”s unreasonable requirements.
“We have a show dedicated to Duke Ellington,” said Landau. “A lot of the requirements are just impossible for us to follow.”
Most importantly, the law would require the station to pay additional fees in order to provide a live web stream. Radio broadcasters have traditionally paid set royalty fees to three organizations representing music composers for music broadcast on FM radio.
“We pay a special nonprofit fee that takes into consideration our size, revenue and content,” said Landau. “It works out to about $1,000 per year.”
But a federal judge ruled last August that under the DMCA, all radio stations that stream their audio over the web are required to pay both music composers and the record labels, in addition to the standard FM broadcast fees. Non-profit radio stations pay the same fees as commercial stations for web streaming under the new law. In traditional broadcast radio, non-profits enjoy discounted rates.
“It”s one thing to ask a commercial station to pay to webcast their stream,” said Landau. “To ask us to pay the same amount as them is ridiculous.”
Although a group of webcasting companies are challenging the law, when the fee rates are settled, the DMCA would require stations to pay the fees retroactive to the passage of the law in 1998.
“The DMCA would obviously be detrimental to college and community radio stations which broadcast over the web,” said WCBN Music Director Ben Tausig, an LSA senior. “It could potentially force them to stop webcasting because there is a clause in the act which states that retroactive fees may be charged for past online streaming.”
Landau said because WCNB began streaming over the web in 1997, “we”d have fairly significant back fees to pay.”
Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah) introduced the Music Online Competition Act to amend the DMCA. Activists at Rice University”s KTRU led a campaign to urge members of the House to pass an amended version of Boucher”s act that would also alleviate restrictions placed on non-profit radio stations.
Six House lawmakers wrote a letter in September to fellow members to discourage the passage of the MOCA law. Signers of the letter included Michigan”s Democratic Rep. John Conyers.
“I think we”ll end up paying something,” said Tausig. “It”s hard to imagine that any law would be able to enforce the end of college radio.”
He speculated a compromise would be found between radio stations and the recording industry.
In addition to the uncertainty surrounding DMCA, WCBN faces other economic challenges in the coming years. They plan to renovate their studio in the Student Activities Building but are uncertain how much more support to expect from the University.
The Housing Department currently provides WCBN with roughly $40,000 each year, which they use to pay an FCC-required engineer. Landau said they do not expect much support from the University.
“Before this year we hadn”t had an increase in funding for 15 years,” Landau said. “There”s nothing we can really depend on from the University.”