David Lowery’s Suggestions to the Copyright Office for Regulation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective Part 2

The US Copyright Office solicited comments from the public about the operations of the Mechanical Licensing Collective.  The 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.

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.

David Lowery did not file initial comments but as he notes, developments made him feel compelled to speak up in the reply comments.  We’re going to post his reply comments in four parts, and then we’ll post other commenters who we think made really good points (like CISAC and BIEM among others).  (If you want to skip ahead and read the entire comment, you can download it here.)  This is Part 2 of four parts.

Comments of David C. Lowery, Notice of Inquiry for Blanket License Implementation Regulations Issued by the United States Copyright Office Concerning the Orrin G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act of 2018

Failure is Not an Option

Given my perspective of HFA’s horrendous track record of reporting to independent songwriters and publishers of both Anglo-American and all foreign language repertoire, the Copyright Office really must demand public oversight of the MLC in the crucial run-up to the License Availability Date.

We don’t want to find out on January 2, 2021 that the thing doesn’t work and get either a cobbled together manual accounting statement or no accounting statement or payment at all—and consequentially an exponential increase in the unmatched “black box” monies. I cannot imagine that the DLC wants this result, either.

The Congress did not mandate that the MLC could send out defective or placeholder accounting statements with no or low royalty payments. Unless the Copyright Office regulations holds their feet to the fire, this is entirely possible particularly if there is no downside for MLC. It is also important to keep in mind that the major publishers receive direct accountings from the services and will not use the MLC in all likelihood. These would be the same major publishers on the MLC board.

Do you think that the MLC is likely to punish itself for failing to do its job, especially for unrepresented songwriters or non-Anglo-American repertoire? I don’t. If the unmatched royalties are liquidated in the usual fashion they will be paid out by market share to the biggest publishers. Yes, whether intended or not there is a known perverse financial incentive for the biggest publishers to hope the MLC does a poor job. A large unmatched royalties pool will likely benefit big publishers. In theory the Unmatched Royalties Oversight Committee is supposed to look after this and counterbalance this mismatched incentive structure. However, it appears there is no funding allocated to the UROC. Thus, it is not clear how this oversight will be performed.

Respectfully, the Copyright Office should consider that its role is about to change—going forward the Office has been charged by Congress with an oversight responsibility for the entire process. If I end up being correct—that MLC will not only will fail to launch on the License Availability Date but it will be in total meltdown—the Congress must be able to know of any failures well in advance to be able to apply the pressure through saving legislation of some kind, or to at least have some notice there is a serious problem.

It is well within the Office’s current regulatory mandate to specify the deliverables the MLC must make public at key dates leading to launch for 1/1/21. Because there will be a strong tendency caused by extreme moral hazard for the MLC to view its operations through rose colored glasses, these deliverables require a maximum of public disclosure and peer review in order to be both credible and informative.

Here are some considerations the Copyright Office may wish to take into account:

(a) Systems should be publicly disclosed for peer review and comment on rolling basis starting immediately and continuing on a monthly basis thereafter until the launch, and then after the launch to determine how effective the systems work. If MLC fails operational milestones, then detailed explanation must be made in public with a plan to get back on track.

(b) There is no competition for MLC given its quango status and Congressional exclusivity, so no need for secrecy or redactions in its filings.

(c) Systems tests and certifications should be conducted on no less than monthly basis starting immediately with milestones to completion. These milestones and their results should be published in the Federal Register and on Copyright.gov and also circulated to Hill staff.

(d) If MLC is not fully operational by 9/30/20 then both the Copyright Office and the MLC leadership should report to Congress on why and critical path to full operational functionality. Because of the unprecedented nature of the MLC enterprise, “full operational functionality” may be a moving target, but MLC should not be able to set a low bar that results in only the rich people getting paid.

To be continued in Part 3