Podcasters Hit the Copyright Wall

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In April, Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl started podcasting his afternoon show from WCKG-FM. But within weeks, his station's parent company, Infinity Broadcasting, pulled the plug. A division of Viacom (VIA), Infinity says it wants to wait until it launches companywide podcast plans by yearend before going ahead with Dahl's project.

That immediately set off the conspiracy theorists. Bloggers across the Web speculated that Infinity closed down Dahl's podcast of talk and music in part because of potential copyright violations. "It shouldn't shock anyone that the music industry is waiting for the right defendant," says Jonathan Potter, executive director of the Digital Media Assn., which represents many Webcasters. "Infinity didn't want to be that defendant." The Recording Industry Association of America says that while it supports new technologies, podcasters need to obtain appropriate copyright permissions.

"EXTREMELY FRUSTRATING." Beware, podcasters. If a media giant such as Infinity could stumble into a potential copyright transgression, mom-and-pop podcasters certainly need to take note of possible minefields. Luckily, most podcasters today dish out nothing more than their own chatter, and those who play music focus on garage bands, skirting big-time copyright issues.

But as the medium develops and radio chains such as Infinity and ClearChannel Communications enter the field, podcasters who want to play brand-name content will face a copyright stumbling block. "It's going to be extremely frustrating," says Chris MacDonald, director of legal affairs for the Association of Music Podcasting, a group of Webcasters.

Why the conundrum? Simply put, copyright law hasn't caught up to technology. While the music industry has created an efficient licensing system for music-streaming on the Web, which doesn't entail making copies, it hasn't cobbled together one for podcast-style music downloads.

PLAYING IT SAFE. And since podcasts enable listeners to download Web radio shows onto their iPods or other music players, the podcasters are violating copyrights if they don't get permission from each recording label whose music they play. The one-off approvals add up to a big headache for small-time podcasters.

For now, those hurdles have shaped early podcasting fare. Former MTV veejay-turned-podcaster Adam Curry plays "podsafe," or indie, music from artists happy to get the exposure. Mainstream media is cautious, too. ClearChannel's first podcast, launching at the end of May, will air its own content -- "Phone Tap," a comedy sketch of three to five minutes now airing on radio station Z100 in New York.

On May 16, Infinity debuted a podcast programming format at KYCY-AM in San Francisco. The company claims it's the first radio station to transmit podcasts over the airwaves. The station is getting its podcast material from local listeners. But it only streams and doesn't enable downloads of the podcasts.

NO MONEY INCENTIVE. Meanwhile, WNYC-FM, New York Public Radio, is sticking to podcasts of talk shows, including NPR's On the Media. "Until the copyright stuff sorts itself out, the spoken word is the clearest and safest path," says Phil Redo, WNYC's vice-president for station operations.

Since podcasting isn't yet a profit-making business, the music industry has little incentive to draw up a blanket licensing arrangement to give podcasters distribution rights. "People are not willing to put a lot of time in drafting an agreement if there's no immediate payoff," says Richard Conlon, vice-president for business development at Broadcast Music Inc., which issues less-controversial public-performance rights to podcasters on behalf of songwriters, composers, and music publishers. Adds Ken Parks, EMI Music's senior vice-president for strategy and development: "It's not something I'd rule in or out. It's too early."

But if podcasts take off as a medium, the stakes grow for everyone -- and musicmakers are unlikely then to give the new technology a free ride. By Cathy Yang in Washington, D.C., with Burt Helm in New York

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