By Chris Castle
[This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]
The wisest of those among you learn to read your portents well
There’s no need to hurry, it’s all downhill to Hell…
Don’t Stand Still, written by The Original Snakeboy, performed by Guy Forsyth
Congress is considering whether to renew The MLC, Inc.‘s designation as the mechanical licensing collective. If that sentence seems contradictory, remember those are two different things: the mechanical licensing collective is the statutory body that administers the compulsory license under Section 115. The MLC, Inc. is the private company that was “designated” by Congress through its Copyright Office to do the work of the mechanical licensing collective. This is like the form of a body that performs a function (the mechanical licensing collective) and having to animate that form with actual humans (The MLC, Inc.), kind of like Plato’s allegory of the cave, shadows on the wall being what they are.
Congress reviews the work product of The MLC, Inc. every five years (17 USC §115(d)(3)(B)(ii)) to decide if The MLC, Inc. should be allowed to continue another five years. In its recent guidance to The MLC, Inc. about artificial intelligence, the Copyright Office correctly took pains to make that distinction in a footnote (footnote 2 to be precise. Remember–always read the footnotes, it’s often where the action is.). This is why it is important that we be clear that The MLC, Inc. does not “own” the data it collects (and that HFA as its vendor doesn’t own it either, a point I raised to Spotify’s lobbyist several years ago). Although it may be a blessing if Congress fired The MLC, Inc. and the new collective had to start from scratch.
But Congress likely would only re-up The MLC, Inc. if it had already decided to extend the statutory license and all its cumbersome and byzantine procedures, proceedings and prohibitions on the freedom of songwriters to collectively bargain. Not to mention an extraordinarily huge thumbs down on the scales in favor of the music user and against the interest of the songwriters. The compulsory license is so labyrinthine and Kafka-esque it is actually an insult to Byzantium, but that’s another story.
Rather than just deciding about who is going to get the job of administering the revenues for every songwriter in the world, maybe there should be a vote. Particularly because songwriters cannot be members of the mechanical licensing collective as currently operated. Congress did not ask songwriters what they thought when the whole mechanical licensing scheme was established, so how about now?
Before the Congress decides to continue The MLC, Inc. many believe strongly that the body should reconsider the compulsory license itself. It is the compulsory license that is the real issue that plagues songwriters and blocks a free market. The compulsory license really has passed its sell by date and it’s pretty easy to understand why its gone so sour. Eliminating the Section 115 license will have many implications and we should tread carefully, but purposefully.
Party Like it’s 1909
First of all, consider the actual history of the compulsory license. It’s over 100 years old, and it was established at a time, believe it or not, when the goal of Congress was to even the playing field between, music users and copyright owners. They were worried about music users being hard done by because of the anticompetitive efforts of songwriters and copyright owners. As the late Register Marybeth Peters told Congress, when Congress created the exclusive right to control reproduction and distribution in 1909, “…due to concerns about potential monopolistic behavior [by the copyright owners], Congress also created a compulsory license to allow anyone to make and distribute a mechanical reproduction of a nondramatic musical work without the consent of the copyright owner provided that the person adhered to the provisions of the license, most notably paying a statutorily established royalty to the copyright owner.”
Well, that ship has sailed, don’t you think?
This is kind of incredible when you think about it today because the biggest users of the compulsory license are those who torture the bejesus out of songwriters by conducting lawfare at the Copyright Royalty Board–the richest corporations in commercial history that dominate practically every moment of American life. In fact, the statutory license was hardly used at all before these fictional persons arrived on the scene and have been on a decades-long crusade to hack the Copyright Act through lawfare ever since. This is particularly true since about 2007 when Big Tech discovered Section 115. (And they’re about to do it again with AI–first they send the missionaries.)
If the purpose of the statutory scheme was to create a win-win situation that floats all boats, you would have expected to see songwriters profiting like never before, right? If the compulsory was so great, what we really needed was for everyone to use Section 115, right? Actually, the opposite has happened, even with decades of price fixing at 2¢ by the federal government. When hardly anyone used the compulsory license, songwriters prospered. When its use became widespread, songwriters suffered, and suffered badly.
Songwriters have been relegated to the bottom of the pile in compensation, a sure sign of no leverage because whatever leverage songwriters may have is taken–there’s that word again–by the compulsory license. I don’t think Google, a revanchist Microsoft, Apple, Amazon or Spotify need any protection from the anticompetitive efforts of songwriters. Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Spotify are only worried about “monopolistic behavior” when one of them does it to one of the others. The Five Families would tell you its nothing personal, it’s just business.
Yet these corporate neo-colonialists would have you believe that the first thing that happens when the writing room door closes is that songwriters collude against them. (Sounding very much like the Radio Music Licensing Committee–so similar it makes you wonder, speaking of collusion.)
The Five Year Plan
Merck Mercuriadis makes the good point that there is no time like the present to evolve: “In the United States, we have a position of stability for the next five years – at the highest rates paid to songwriters to date – in the evolution of the streaming economy. We are now working towards improving the songwriters’ share of the streaming revenue ‘pie’ yet further and, eventually, getting to a free market.” The clock is ticking on the next five years, a reference to the rate period set by the Copyright Royalty Board in the Phonorecords IV proceeding. (And that five years is a different clock than the five years clock on the MLC which is itself an example of the unnecessary confusion in the compulsory license.)
What would happen if the compulsory license vanished? Very likely the industry would continue its easily documented history of voluntary catalog licenses. The evidence is readily apparent for how the industry and music users handled services that did not qualify for a compulsory license like YouTube or TikTok. However stupid the deals were doesn’t change the fact that they happened in the absence of a compulsory license. That Invisible Hand thing, dunno could be good. Seems to work out fine for other people.
Let’s also understand that there is a cottage industry complete with very nice offices, pensions and rich salaries that has grown up around the compulsory license (or consent decrees for that matter). A cottage industry where collecting the songwriters’ money results in dozens of jobs paying more in a year than probably 95% of songwriters will make, maybe ever. (The Trichordist published an excerpt from a recent MLC tax return showing the highest compensated MLC employees.) Generations of lawyers and lobbyists have put generations of children through college and law school from legal fees charged in the pursuit of something that has never existed in the contemporary music business–a willing buyer and a willing seller. Those people will not want to abandon the very government policy that puts food on their tables, but both sides are very, very good at manufacturing excuses why the compulsory license really must be continued to further humanity.
The even sadder reality is that as much as we would like to simply terminate the compulsory license, there is a certain legitimacy to being clear-eyed about a transition. (An example is the proposals for transitioning from PRO consent decrees–ASCAP’s consent decree has been around a long time, too.) There would likely need to be a certain grandfathering in of services that were pre or post the elimination of the compulsory, but that’s easily done, albeit not without a last hurrah of legal fees and lobbyist invoices. Register Pallante noted in the well-received 2015 Copyright Office study (Copyright and the Music Marketplace at 5) “The Office thus believes that, rather than eliminating section 115 altogether, section 115 should instead become the basis of a more flexible collective licensing system that will presumptively cover all mechanical uses except to the extent individual music publishers choose to opt out.” An opt out is another acceptable stop along the way to liberation, or even perhaps a destination itself. David Lowery had a very well thought-out idea along these lines in the pre-MLC era that should be revisited.
However, while there is a certain attractiveness to having a plan that the dreaded “stakeholders” and their legions of lobbyists and lawyers agree with, it is crucially important for Congress to fix a date certain by which the compulsory license will expire. Rain or shine, plan or no plan, it goes away on the X Day, say five years from now as Merck suggests. So wakey, wakey.
That transparency drives a wedge into the process because otherwise millions will be spent in fees for profiting from moral hazard and surely the praetorians protecting the cottage industry wouldn’t want that. If you doubt that asking for a plan before establishing X Day would fail as a plan, just look at the Copyright Royalty Board and in particular the Phonorecords III remand. Years and years, multiple court rulings, and the rates still are not in effect. Perseveration is not perseverance, it’s compulsive repetition when you know the same unacceptable result will occur.
But don’t let people tell you that the sky will fall if Congress liberates songwriters from the government mandate. The sky will not fall and songwriters will have a generational opportunity to organize a collective bargaining unit with the right to say no to a deal.
The closest that Congress has come to a meaningful “vote” in the songwriting world is inviting public comments through interventions, rule makings, roundtables and the like–information gathering that is not controlled by the lobbyists. Indeed, it was this very process at the Copyright Royalty Board that resulted in many articulate comments by songwriters and publishers themselves that were clearly quite at odds with what the CRB was being fed by the lobbyists and lawyers. So much so that the Copyright Royalty Judges rejected not only the “Subpart B” settlement reached by the insiders but the very premise of that settlement. Imagine what might happen if the issue of the compulsory license itself was placed upon the table?
Now that songwriters have had a taste of how The MLC, Inc. has been handling their money, maybe this would be a good time to ask them what they think about how things are going. And whether they want to be liberated from the entire sinking ship that is designed to help Big Tech. And you can start by asking how they feel about the $500 million in black box money that is still sitting in the bank account of The MLC, Inc. and has not been paid–with an infuriating lack of transparency. Yet is being “invested” by The MLC, Inc. with less transparency than many banks with smaller net assets.
This “investment” is another result of the compulsory license which has no transparency requirements for such “investments” of other peoples’ money, perhaps “invested” in the very Big Tech companies that fund the The MLC, Inc. That wasn’t a question that was on the minds of Congress in 1909 but it should be today.
Attention Must Be Paid
Let’s face facts. The compulsory license has coexisted in the decimation of songwriting as a profession. That destruction has increased at an increasing rate roughly coincident with the time the Big Tech discovered Section 115 and sent their legions of lawyers to the Copyright Royalty Board to grind down publishers, and very successfully. That success is in large part due to the very mismatch that the compulsory license was designed to prevent back in 1909 except stood on its head waiting for loophole seekers to notice the potential arbitrage opportunity.
The Phonorecords III and IV proceedings at the Copyright Royalty Board tell Congress all they need to know about how the game is played today and how it has changed since 1909, or the 1976 revision of the Copyright Act for that matter. The compulsory license is no longer fit for purpose and songwriters should have a say in whether it is to be continued or abandoned.
We see the Writers Guild striking and SAG-AFTRA taking a strike authorization vote. When was the last time any songwriters voted on their compensation? Maybe never? Voting, hmm. There’s a concept. Now where have I heard that before?
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