A House Bill for Higher Songwriter Pay

Better royalties for songwriters

H.R. 4079 Songwriter Equity Act of 2014

The Essentials
1. Songwriters are paid a royalty when someone buys a recording of the songs they write, a band performs them, or they’re played on a radio station or through an online streaming service. Under U.S. copyright law, the government relies on a complicated, decades-old system to figure out how much writers are entitled to. Songwriters complain the current fee of 9.1¢ for the sale of a recorded song, for instance—up from 2¢ in 1909—is pitifully low and makes it hard to earn a living.

2. The Songwriter Equity Act, introduced in the House in February and the Senate on May 12, aims to fix this by changing how the government calculates songwriter pay. Currently the Copyright Royalty Board sets the amount writers get for recorded song sales. The bill directs it instead to base the royalty on “fair market value.” A federal rate court sets royalties for songs played live, on radio or Pandora, or as background music in a store. The bill removes restrictions on evidence the court can consider in determining that amount.

3. The bill leaves out important details, such as how the government is supposed to figure out fair market value for songs, not easy given all the entities involved in selling music across so many platforms. Songwriters—and organizations such as ASCAP and BMI, which track music use and take a cut of the royalties—praise the bill. Groups representing royalty payers, such as the National Association of Broadcasters, are fighting it.

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