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Cable, Satellite TV Executives Battle in Congress over Copyright Laws

By | March 4, 2009
      [Satellite News 03-04-09] U.S. Congress has scheduled to review and reauthorize cable and satellite copyright license laws associated with pay-TV in 2009 after the U.S. Copyright Office recommended the elimination of two compulsory licenses that give satellite and cable the right to broadcast copyrighted works, Dow Jones Newswires reported Feb. 26.
          Register of Copyright Marybeth Peters told the House panel that the licenses for those programs should be negotiated individually.
          “We agree with the Copyright Office’s suggestion that disparities in treatment of cable systems and satellite services are a result of historical and technical factors that are no longer relevant,” said Gigi Sohn, president of the Washington D.C.-based digital interest group Public Knowledge Further, said in a written statement to congress. “Upgrades in cable and satellite technologies mean that now both services are “able to offer essentially the same programming mix of broadcast stations and non-broadcast networks,” she said.
          National Cable and Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow, warned members of the U.S. congress not to make changes to the current cable and satellite copyright license laws associated with pay-TV at a Feb. 25 House Judiciary Committee hearing. "Be very careful,” McSlarrow said at the hearing. “Even though it may look arcane, if you step back and ask the question, ‘Is the consumer being served?’ Yes. ‘Are distributors being helped?’ Yes. ‘Are copyright holders being compensated fairly?’ Our answer would be yes.”
          Motion Picture Association of America Executive Vice President Fritz Attaway, said that reauthorizing the laws are necessary, calling the current laws outdated. “Today, cable and satellite are well entrenched. …They can and do acquire programming without a license,” Attaway said at the House hearing.
          Consumers Union Internet and Telecommunications Counsel Christopher Murray recommended to Congress that the separate cable and satellite licensing regimes be combined, but say the system shouldn’t be eliminated. “You have a market destined for gridlock. The compulsory license here has served for a very positive model. …It’s the only thing that’s kept cable prices in check,” said Murray.
          DirecTV is against combining the separate cable and satellite license and in a statement to U.S. Congress, warned that a giant “omnibus” license would result in consumer disruption. National Association of Broadcasters President David Rehr also voiced his stance against combining cable and satellite licenses.
          Dish Network President Charles Ergen told a separate U.S. Senate panel to get rid of separate copyright laws for satellite and cable television altogether, saying firms that compete for the same customers should have the same rules. Ergen responded to suggestions from cable operators that revisiting copyright laws would be too complicated, by accusing them of wanting to eliminate competition.
          Ergen also suggested lawmakers expand the definition of "local" content to include adjacent markets, a source of concern for residents in border areas where local news and sports may be from a neighboring state, according to the report.
          CBS Corp. Executive Vice President Martin Franks disagreed with Ergen, and said that cable and satellite companies already are free to provide adjacent "out-of-market" news if they obtain permission from the local station.
          Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce panel, indicated at the Feb. 25 House meeting that he wouldn’t favor eliminating the satellite compulsory license, as recommended by the U.S. Copyright Office. “Distant channels may be important for some rural markets that don’t have access to all the major networks from local stations,” he said.
          Sohn outlined five suggestions to Congress on how to proceed with the copyright reauthorization. “[Congress should] create regulatory and licensing parity between all types of MVPDs, including Internet-based providers and eliminate the 5-year reauthorization cycle for satellite-based providers. As a step towards eliminating distant signal restrictions, Congress should relax DMA-based and distance-based restrictions on retransmission of broadcast signals and reform retransmission consent by increasing transparency and reporting requirements, streamlining complaint processes, and considering compulsory retransmission consent licenses, while ensuring that changes to unrelated copyright and communications laws are not attached to any bill reauthorizing [the law].”
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