@SGAWrites Suggestions to @CopyrightOffice on MLC Operations Part 2

The US Copyright Office solicited comments from the public about the operations of the Mechanical Licensing Collective.  Those first round of those comments (called “initial comments”) were due in November and the second round of those comments (which are called “reply comments” because they essentially comment on the initial comments) were due December 20.

The Songwriters Guild of America filed initial comments and also filed reply comments.  We’re going to post SGA’s reply comments in three parts and then we’ll post other commenters who we think made really good points (like CISAC and BIEM among others).  This is Part 2 and you can read Part 1 here.  Note that SGA’s comment includes a post by Chris Castle, but we are going to link to that post rather than reproduce it as you may have already read it.

All the comments focus on some central themes that seem to be on everyone’s mind which can be boiled down to oversight, oversight and more oversight.  While the DLC controls the MLC’s purse strings, the MLC has been given largely uncontrolled power over songwriters that needs to be checked by the government on behalf of the governed.  SGA’s comment can be boiled down to its motto:  Protect Songwriters.

Reply Comments of the Songwriters Guild of America, Inc.
Re: Notice of Inquiry Issued by the United States Copyright Office Concerning the Orrin
G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act of 2018 Titled “Blanket License
Implementation Regulations”

B. Copyright Office Review and Oversight of Controversial Activities By the MLC As
Denoted By David Lowery and Others

It is well beyond the scope of these comments to delve into the details and individual
administrative issues with which the MLC must deal, such as formulating contractual
arrangements with outside vendors in order to effectively accomplish its statutory duties.

Nevertheless, as noted above, according to independent press reports recently published by sources including former MLC Committee Member David Lowery (“MLC Selects As Digital Services Provider the Company That Sent Fraudulent License Notices to Songwriters”), certain activities of the MLC have aroused legitimate concerns in the independent music creator community that conflicts of interest are already influencing MLC decision-making (see article citations below). As SGA has urged in prior submissions, the USCO and the Librarian of Congress have been empowered under the MMA to monitor, oversee and review MLC activities, and should utilize such authority at the very least to question on an ongoing basis whether the MLC is being managed by its board members in ways consistent with such members’ fiduciary and other duties and responsibilities.

In that regard, SGA believes it is imperative to include for the record citations to three such recent publications concerning MLC activities, in order to call specific attention to the need for robust USCO oversight of issues that rise to the level of potential conflicts of interest such as self-dealing. It is, of course, up to the USCO and the Librarian of Congress to determine the criteria for its active intervention in such potentially problematic MLC matters, consistent with the statutory authority assigned to them under the law. Again, however, SGA urges that strict scrutiny of such issues, once brought to their attention by interested and informed members of the press and public, should at the very least be carefully reviewed and if necessary, investigated and acted upon. Moreover, as some commentators have suggested, the mandating of adoption by the MLC of conflict of interest policies in coordination with the USCO and the Librarian of Congress would likewise be a wise and welcome development.

The three recent, independent articles electronically appended to these Reply Comments for the review and records of the USCO and the Librarian of Congress are as follows (see Attachments C-E):

https://thetrichordist.com/2019/11/27/mlc-selects-as-digital-services-provider-thecompany-that-sent-fraudulent-license-notices-to-songwriters/

https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2019/11/27/hfa-mechanical-licensing-collectivecontract/

https://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2019/12/copyright-office-should-establishconflict-
of-interest-policy-for-the-mma-musical-works-database-op-ed.html

C. Failure to Disclose Amounts of Unmatched Royalties Being Held By Digital Distributors

On December 6, 2019, the USCO held a full day MMA symposium in Washington, DC billed as the “Unclaimed Royalties Study Kickoff.” The event was attended by several dozen copyright experts and other interested parties, some of whom represented the MLC and the DLC, and many of whom participated on one or more of several organized discussion panels. At the end of the event, a representative of SGA took the opportunity to note from the podium that in the approximately seven hours of discussion, not one panelist or participant had raised a single question concerning the aggregate size of the unmatched royalty pool being held by the major digital distributors of music (the very subject of the event). The answer to that question, SGA noted, is certainly a key factor in determining the best practices for scoping the size of the problem, and for identifying and distributing such monies to their proper owners. Or it is concerning why this question was not proactively addressed during any of the day’s panels, otherwise asked, SGA asserted, let alone not answered.

SGA has time and again over the past several years posed this same question to representatives of both digital distributors and music publishers (including in private discussions that took place at the Kickoff event), and even to the USCO. Not once has the question of aggregate unmatched amounts been answered, generally because the information appears to be either willfully undetermined or is purposely being withheld by the digital distributors. Estimates have ranged from several hundred million dollars (based upon extrapolations derived from the past experiences of organizations such as SoundExchange) to a high of $1.6 billion discussed at an Austin, Texas SXSW panel in 2017 that featured representatives of NMPA and a legal representative of one of its affiliated creator groups, who appeared to quote that number.

As the MLC and DLC are well aware, the MMA requires demonstrative actions by each that will “ensure that the policies and practices of the collective are transparent and accountable.” See, Section 102(d)(3)(D)(ix)(I)(aa). SGA suggests that consistent with this requirement, the time has come to at last address the issue of how much money in unmatched royalties is being held by the digital distributors, so that the scope of this daunting problem is publicly disclosed and can be fully and effectively addressed. The community of songwriters and composers has the right to know this information, and a USCO regulation requiring its public disclosure by a date certain in the very near future is clearly warranted. SGA respectfully requests that the USCO issue such a regulation as soon as possible concerning this most basic issue of transparency and accountability as required under the MMA, regarding disclosure of unmatched withholdings both now and in the future.

D. Budgetary Earmarks in Support of Bona Fide Efforts to Identify Unmatched Royalties by the MLC

In its Initial Comments, SGA described in some detail its experience as a participant before the United States Copyright Royalty Judges of the Library of Congress’ Copyright Royalty Board (“CRB”) regarding the Determination and Allocation of Initial Administrative Assessment to Fund Mechanical Licensing Collective, CRB Docket No. 19-CRB-0009–AA. Following both SGA’s withdrawal as a participant in those proceedings, and its subsequent submission of its Initial Comments to the USCO, on December 12, 2019 the CRB issued an order (“Order”) approving the settlement negotiated between the MLC and the DLC concerning the issue of Administrative Assessments.

In that Order, the CRB judges interestingly took note of their receipt and rejection of several comments concerning the proceedings submitted by non-parties:

The Judges have been advised by their staff that some members of the public sent emails to the Copyright Royalty Board seeking to comment on the proposed settlement agreement. Neither the Copyright Act, nor the regulations adopted thereunder, provide for submission or consideration of comments on a proposed settlement by nonparticipants in an administrative assessment proceeding. Consequently, as a matter of law, the Judges could not, and did not, consider these ex parte communications in deciding whether to approve the proposed settlement. Additionally, the Judges’ non-consideration of these exparte communications does not: (i) imply any opinion by the Judges as to the substantive merits of any statements contained in such communications; or (ii) reflect any inability of the Judges to question, sua sponte, whether good cause exists to adopt a settlement and to then utilize all express or reasonably implied statutory authority granted to them to make a determination as to the existence, vel non, of good cause.

The above CRB statement omits, quite unfortunately, the fact that while still a participant in the proceeding, SGA (despite its withdrawal) did indeed file a motion with the CRB that included specific comments applicable to any proposed settlement negotiated between the MLC and the DLC. The September 12, 2019, SGA filing included the following clear statement by SGA on behalf of US and global independent music creators, concerning their desire to ensure justice in the eventual distribution of currently unmatched royalties:

[E]ven as it seeks to withdraw its Petition to Participate in this Proceeding, SGA respectfully implores the Judges…to make the proper funding for MLC activities specifically designed to identify the proper owners of unmatched musical compositions [and royalties] wherever they may reside in the world… one of the highest priorities of these Proceedings…. It further, respectfully requests that the Judges undertake whenever appropriate, to emphasize their intention and expectation that certain resources have been specifically provided for and must therefore be devoted to use in identifying the proper owners of such unmatched compositions and royalties by the MLC…. The clear articulation of such judicial intent, if the Judges deem it appropriate, will be enormously helpful in ensuring transparency, fairness and hopefully success in the carrying out by the MLC of its duties, a result that will be appreciated by every music creator not only in the United States, but throughout the world.” Motion to Withdraw Petition to Participate filed by SGA with CRB, September 12, 2019, Docket No. 19-CRB-0009–AA.

The decision by the CRB judges to put aside SGA’s requests, presumably on the grounds that SGA’s withdrawal (the reasons for which are explained in SGA’s Initial Comments) negated the ability of the CRB to consider such comments, is disappointing at best. SGA, however, is appreciative for being enabled to make the same requests of the USCO, for the same reasons articulated in its motion to the CRB and in its Initial Comments. As SGA stated:

[I]n a situation in which those who control the MLC will likely benefit from not identifying the proper owners of unmatched works (by reason of the fact that potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties pertaining to ‘permanently’ unmatched works will eventually be distributed on a market share basis), every effort must be made to ensure that the search process for those rightful owners be a bona fide and sufficiently financed global effort. (emphasis added)…. Moreover, despite contrary assertions by the MLC, SGA remains unconvinced that the presence on the MLC board of a small minority of music creators (no matter how diligent and well-meaning they may be) will be able to prevent the major music publishing corporations from attempting to successfully exert undue influence. SGA is highly concerned that such multi-national conglomerates may already be seeking to diminish the MLC’s ability to secure proper financing specifically earmarked for designing and carrying out a global program to identify the proper owners of the musical compositions connected to the huge, above-referenced cache of unmatched royalties. SGA similarly doubts that the independent music publishers on the MLC board, many of whom are contractually and/or commercially tied to the major music publishers, will be sufficiently motivated to join with those few MLC songwriter board members to ensure that the rights and interests of such yet-to-be identified music creators and small publishers are properly respected.

In consideration of the foregoing, SGA once again respectfully requests that the USCO and the Librarian of Congress promulgate regulations that make clear to the MLC the expectation that a certain, adequate percentage of the MLC’s Administrative Assessment shall be devoted to undertaking a bona fide and reasonably exhaustive, global search for the rightful owners of currently unmatched royalties, as explicitly intended by Congress under the MMA.

To be continued in Part 3.

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