WASHINGTON -- In a court decision hailed by cable television officials, a federal judge here has ruled that one of the two principal music-licensing associations cannot demand separate royalties from both cable television networks and individual cable systems.
The decision affects tens of millions of dollars in copyright payments for background music for everything from serial comedies to old movies.
The decision, issued late last week by U.S. District Court Judge Joyce Hens Green, came after a long-running dispute between the cable industry and Broadcast Music Inc., one of the two main associations that negotiate royalty agreements for the music used on radio and television and in the movies.
In recent years, BMI had wanted to negotiate separate licenses for cable networks that produce programming, such as Home Box Office and the Disney Channel, and for cable-system operators that carry their material.
The National Cable Television Association, a trade association here, had joined with the Disney Channel and Black Entertainment Television to sue BMI for violating antitrust law in seeking separate licenses.
The cable industry contended that such "split blanket" agreements would force it to pay twice for the same rights and that such agreements would be in contrast to single "through to the viewer" licenses that routinely cover broadcast networks and their affiliated stations.
Judge Green dismissed charges that BMI's overall licensing structure violated antitrust law, but she also ruled that the split-blanket copyright terms would violate an antitrust consent decree imposed on BMI in 1950.
The judge also fined the Disney Channel and Black Entertainment Television, because she ruled that each had continued to carry programming without having licenses from BMI.
Disney was ordered to pay $1.98 million in back royalties and Black Entertainment Television was ordered to pay $225,000.
Noting that "direct licensing is clearly unrealistic" for individual affiliates, Green wrote that cable television affiliates had virtually no ability to affect the market value of music included in shows produced by cable networks.