Making the call on cell phone radio

Musicians have long sought to collect royalties from radio stations that broadcast their recordings, but the courts and Congress have refused to extend copyrights to recorded musical performances. Instead, copyrights cover just the compositions. Now, under pressure from top lawmakers, negotiators for broadcasters and record companies are closing in on a royalties deal that would require local stations to pay a fraction of their revenue — as little as $100 for small and noncommercial stations or as much as 1 percent for large commercial broadcasters — to labels and artists annually.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the tentative deal outlined by negotiators would require device makers to include FM radio receivers in all mobile phones. Although some consumers may welcome the feature, the market, not government, should decide whether phones include it.

The rationale for exempting radio from performance royalties — because airplay promotes music sales — is becoming increasingly anachronistic as the amount of money spent on recorded music plummets. It's also unfair to exempt terrestrial radio stations when their satellite- and Web-based competitors have to pay hefty royalties. So it's heartening that negotiators are nearing a deal despite broadcasters' scorched-earth rhetoric about a "performance tax" that would "kill local radio as we know it." But including an FM-tuner mandate for cellphones would go too far.

Supporters of the mandate say many phones come with tuners that network operators have disabled. The National Association of Broadcasters also argues that radio is a vital source of information during emergencies, and enabling cell phones to receive local broadcasts would bring that information to more people in more places. But mobile phones are already equipped to receive text messages, and systems to broadcast emergency texts have been set up by the Federal Communications Commission and some local governments.

Mobile-phone makers and network operators are in a much better position than the government to decide which technologies to include in the devices they sell. The proposed tuner mandate is on the table not because it would be good for the public, but because it could generate bigger audiences for radio stations, softening the blow of the new royalty requirement. If safety really is a concern, lawmakers should focus on emergency notification systems that work with the phones already on the market. As for broadcasters, labels and artists, they should find a compromise that doesn't drag other industries in against their will.

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