Readers will recall that the Mechanical Licensing Collective, Inc. aka the MLC, is sitting on a pile of other peoples money (remember that the Mechanical Licensing Collective is the digital music services’ one-of-a-kind joint venture quango mandated by the good folks from Washington who are here to help). We estimate that the MLC has got at least $500 million socked away at City National Bank in Nashville collecting dust–or interest. More on that later. This would include current black box accruing since January 1, 2021 plus $424 million or so in historical black box that was voluntarily paid to the MLC by the DSPs in February 2021–an inexplicably large sum given all the DSP audits over the years.
And the clock is ticking, tick tock, tick tock.
Readers will also recall that the U.S. Copyright Office is responsible for the operations of the MLC, or as they say in Washington where all the children are above average and no one is responsible for anything, “has oversight” which usually means “gets to blame somebody else” when the fan takes over. And of course the Congress has oversight of the Copyright Office. Every so often, the head of the Copyright Office gets the rare joy of attending an oversight hearing at the Congress which happened recently and resulted in certain follow up “questions for the record” that get answered in writing.
The MLC and its employees should get one thing straight–they are about to be blamed for some grubby practices when Congress wants you to show them the money. And you will be thrown under the bus, count on it. Just think–you could have stolen the money the old fashioned way. In the dark. But no, you wanted the government to force songwriters to deal with you and you could not stop congratulating yourselves about how smart you were. Well, you wanted it, and now you’ve gotten it.
Senator Patrick Leahy, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, submitted some rather pointed questions about the MLC black box which drew a rather pointed response:
Question: The Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC), the organization created under the Music Modernization Act to collect mechanical royalties for songwriters and publishers, also has an obligation to identify the owners of musical works that have accrued royalties when the owners are not known. The major publishers who largely control the MLC keep the royalties from unidentified works if the owners cannot be found. Over the past year, the MLC has identified only a tiny fraction of the rightful owners. [You were warned.] The major publishers stand to gain hundreds of millions of dollars from that failure to find rightful owners. We did not intend to create a disincentive for the MLC and major publishers to find the rightful owners of music works.
What can the Copyright Office do to help ensure that the MLC is working to make sure that rightful owners of music works are identified and paid?
Response: The Mechanical Licensing Collective (“MLC”) should make every reasonable effort to ensure that royalties are paid to the rightful owners of musical works. According to the MLC’s first annual report, it has distributed over $420 million under the new blanket license for uses reported in 2021, with a steadily improving match rate reported to be approximately 88% of all royalties. With respect to the historical, pre-2021, unmatched royalties, which were reported to be about $426 million, the annual report says that the MLC recently started distributing those that it has been able to match. It also says that the MLC has begun making associated usage data for historical unmatched royalties available to copyright owners, which will facilitate further claiming and matching. Notably, the MLC plans to wait to process historical unmatched royalties from the Phonorecords III rate period until the Copyright Royalty Judges finalize those rates in the ongoing remand proceeding and digital music providers provide adjusted reports of usage and royalty payments. It is the Office’s understanding that the bulk of historical unmatched royalties come from that period. [More on this PR III issue below]
The Copyright Office has been active on the issue of matching musical works to accurately pay copyright owners. Last year, we issued a report recommending best practices for the MLC to consider to reduce the incidence of unclaimed royalties. The report’s comprehensive recommendations ranged from high-level concepts to detailed suggestions across seven areas: (1) education and outreach; (2) usability of the MLC’s systems, including the public musical works database and claiming portal; (3) data quality; (4) matching practices; (5) holding and distributing unclaimed accrued royalties; (6) measuring success; and (7) transparency. One of the report’s most significant recommendations was that the MLC should hold unclaimed royalties for longer than the statutory minimum period, to maximize its matching efforts and the ability of copyright owners to make claims before any market-share-based distributions are made. We recommended that the MLC should wait to make such distributions of unclaimed royalties based on the evaluation of various objective criteria, like match rates and engagement metrics.
Additionally, the Office and the MLC are each involved in substantial education and outreach efforts to help ensure that publishers and songwriters, especially self-published songwriters, are aware of the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”), understand their rights under the new system, know that they can register their works with the MLC and claim royalties, and know that royalties for unclaimed works will be equitably distributed to known copyright owners.
[Here comes the bus.]. The Office is continuing to engage with the MLC and other industry stakeholders, including digital services and songwriters, to monitor the MLC’s progress as it continues to ramp up operations. While the MLC has not indicated that it plans to make a distribution of unclaimed royalties anytime soon, the Office possesses broad regulatory authority to act if necessary to prevent a premature distribution. The statute requires the MLC to give ninety days’ notice before any distribution. We have previously cautioned that making a premature distribution of unclaimed royalties could jeopardize the continuation of the MLC’s designation. 84 Fed. Reg. 32,274, 32,283 (July 8, 2019) (“[I]f the designated entity were to make unreasonable distributions of unclaimed royalties, that could be grounds for concern and may call into question whether the entity has the ‘administrative and technological capabilities to perform the required functions of the [MLC].’”) (quoting 17 U.S.C. § 115(d)(3)(A)(iii)).
One issue that is not discussed in the QFR or anywhere else for that matter is what is happening to the hundreds of millions that the MLC is sitting on. Remember that the MLC is required to pay a government interest rate on black box, and that interest rate has been steadily increasing this year thanks to the Federal Reserve. That interest payment is presumably covered under the MLC’s administrative assessment and government fees charged to music users for the privilege of using the compulsory blanket license.
But wait–there’s more. According to the MLC’s annual report (at p. 4), the MLC invests the black box according to its internal “Investment Policy” established by its board of directors.
Investment Policy: This policy covers the investment of royalty and assessmentfunds, respectively, and sets forth The MLC’s goals and objectives in establishing policies to implement The MLC’s investment strategy. The anti-comingling policy required by 17 U.S.C. § 115(d)(3)(D)(ix)(I)(cc) is contained in The MLC’s Investment Policy. The Investment Policy was approved by the Board in January 2021.
This raises some interesting points. First and foremost, it is unclear where any trading profits reside. Realize that every CMO is confronted with the decision about what to do with the royalty float and black box, but not every CMO decides to invest these funds in the market. If they do invest the funds, it is generally the case that any trading profits, dividends or interest goes to offset the CMO’s administrative costs that otherwise would be deducted from collected royalties.
However, the MLC’s administrative costs are paid by the users of the blanket license (making the United States, I believe, the only country in history or the world that charges for the use of a statutory license). Therefore, the return on the MLC’s investment of the songwriters’ money would not be used for the same purpose as all the world’s CMOs that follow a similar practice.
Whether the ROI is returned to songwriters or to the users or retained by the MLC is unclear to me from the MLC’s annual report. It is also unclear as to the authority that the MLC’s board (or the Copyright Office for that matter) would have to put the songwriters’ money at risk in the market, what record keeping is made or required of the investments and ROI, or really much of anything at all, aside from the quoted statement above.
It is also unclear how, if at all, the MLC distinguishes between ROI on royalty or the administrative assessment. It would make sense for trading profits on received but unspent administrative assessment funds to offset current or future assessments, but it’s not clear if that is done.
Assuming there are any. Profits, that is.
I was hoping that this topic would be addressed in the oversight hearing, but maybe next time.