David Lowery’s Suggestions to the Copyright Office for Regulation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective Part 4

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 4 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

Additional MLC Oversight: Transparency and Financial Disclosure

There is little financial disclosure required of the MLC or the DLC. As far as DLC is concerned, I expect they will represent the interests of the services. They are also paying the money for MLC which in a way is itself an inherent conflict but is under the oversight of the Copyright Royalty Judges. For the moment, DLC does not appear to be involved in the MLC operations or decision-making. Time may reveal a need to examine this relationship more closely for financial disclosures.

However, the MLC is mandated to engage in many operations fraught with moral hazard, not the least of which is matching and the black box distributions. The MLC has already demonstrated that it has the ability to pick the least appropriate vendors for inexplicable reasons other than the past ownership of HFA by the National Music Publishers Association.

This past ownership creates a special disclosure situation regarding the selection of HFA as a vendor given how long Title I had been in the works (the rumored “SIRA II”). Was the sale of HFA conditioned on HFA becoming the principle vendor of the MLC (like HFA was to be the “General Designated Agent” in SIRA I)? Was Blackstone’s withdrawal of opposition to MMA in the Senate conditioned upon some benefit flowing to HFA? Has the vendor selection process been the kabuki dance it appears to be? As my friend and co-amici Guy Forsyth wrote, “Americans are freedom loving people and nothing says freedom like getting away with it.” Did they get away with it? If the Copyright Office doesn’t force disclosure, we’ll never know unless the issue gets litigated in one of the pending lawsuits against Spotify—and isn’t redacted.

It only seems reasonable that the MLC should disclose any incentives, payments or other benefits received by its board members, non-voting members (DiMA, NMPA, NSAI or SONA for example), officers and other key employees from any person or entity MLC does business with. These benefits should include payments of the administrative assessment, real estate transactions paid for by the assessment, or shares of stock or units of Ether granted to anyone in the supply chain. This kind of anti-payola affidavit is required of various consultants in the music business already so there seems to be no reason why it should not be required for persons of influence at the MLC. And, of course, all such affidavits or disclosures should be part of the public record so that everyone from songwriters to Members of Congress should be able to have a clear picture of who is involved with MLC.

This will be particularly applicable to any payments from the black box which is truly other people’s money. Any proposed payments of the black box should be itemized, published online in an easy to read format prior to being distributed and certified by an independent CPA that is not related to MLC or any board member or vendor. This disclosure may help reduce the inevitable lawsuits. In fact, it would be best if any CPA undertaking certification work for MLC should agree in advance that they would do no other work for the MLC related parties for a significant period of time, say five years.

The “interim application of accrued royalties” is another clause that is fraught with conflicts of interest. Respectfully, the Copyright Office should clarify that MLC board members act as fiduciaries in their decisions to take money from the black box to meet the MLC’s expenses in the case of a shortfall from the administrative assessment. If they’re not fiduciaries, an explanation would be helpful.

In fact, the entire clause relating to the “interim application of accrued royalties” is itself vague and ambiguous. Consider the language:

In the event that the administrative assessment, together with any funding from voluntary contributions as provided in subparagraphs (A) and (B), is inadequate to cover current collective total costs, the collective, with approval of its board of directors, may apply unclaimed accrued royalties on an interim basis to defray such costs, subject to future reimbursement of such royalties from future collections of the assessment.

This paragraph is, in my judgment, one of the most important yet least discussed clauses in the entirety of Title I. Absent implementing rules to the contrary, the clause allows MLC to effectively write itself interest free and nonrecourse loans from other people’s money to cover the costs of a budget that MLC itself determines at a burn rate solely in the control of MLC—currently with no oversight by anyone.

The clause raises a number of questions about the meaning of the statutory language which the Congress likely intended to be clarified in regulations regarding the spending of other people’s money by the MLC. In particular. terms in the statutory language that must be known in order to determine what sums are the “costs” concerned, when are they determined, and what happens if the loan once taken is never repaid. (Which raises income tax issues if nothing else.)

The statutory language also leaves to regulations what happens if the songwriters whose monies are taken from the black box and spent by MLC are later identified because they come forward or due to matching efforts of the DLC or the MLC.

Are those songwriters supposed to wait to be paid from “future collections of the assessment,” if ever? Which future collections? The next assessment after those songwriters are identified? Or another one some time in the future?

Are they to be paid in the normal course at the next accounting period after becoming identified? Immediately upon being identified?

And most importantly perhaps, how will anyone outside of the MLC know this loan is occurring? The mere fact that a board of directors thinks it’s a good idea to avoid themselves having to make voluntary contributions to the MLC’s operations by writing themselves an interest free non-recourse loan from monies they hold in trust (or should hold in trust) is a terrible position to put on board members voting against the loan.

I would respectfully suggest that this entire clause has no place in legislation that was sold as a great boon for songwriters. If it must be in the law, then the Copyright Office has a golden opportunity to shed sunlight on another mysterious operation of the MLC.
I suggest several areas of mandatory disclosure. First, the balance of the black box should be public and prominently posted on a monthly basis to the MLC’s website. Songwriters should be able to search for their titles and determine how much is being held. SoundExchange currently has this feature for the public as do other societies around the world.

The black box should be held in a true escrow account by an escrow agent (such as an unrelated bank) that has clear instructions in regulations as to how and when such funds are to be disbursed, either as a loan or royalty payment.

If the board of MLC decides to write itself a loan from these funds, they should not be able to use the black box as a piggy bank, but rather should borrow against identified funds based on available metadata so that repayment can be accomplished efficiently.
For example, if Songwriter X can look up on the MLC’s website that the MLC board borrowed money for songs A, B and C that were unmatched at the time of the loan, then if Songwriter X is later identified, she can demand payment of her royalties from MLC which the MLC should be required to pay from its current accounts and not take from future black box payments.

Failing to require payment from fresh cash will create an endlessly iterative process by which MLC borrows from Peter to pay Paul, using old money to pay new obligations.
Finally, all these transactions should be well documented and those documents should be published on the MLC website. For example, the statute requires board “approval” to initiate the loan. That approval should take the form of a recorded board vote with minutes to be published on the MLC website, or better yet in the Federal Register. The loan should be documented in the form of a promissory note to the escrow agent. It should also be clear that the MLC board has a fiduciary duty to the songwriters and publishers whose money it is borrowing that is separate from the board’s safe harbor elsewhere in Title I.

Having just gone through the PledgeMusic debacle, I am sensitized more than ever to companies that go insolvent while handling the money of artists with the result that the artists never get paid. If the MLC cannot meet its obligations and requires “interim” loans from the black box, how is that not the case of a company operating while insolvent? Why should the officers and directors of MLC enjoy any lower standard of care or responsibility than they would if they were operating any other company while insolvent?

Surely this was not the intent of Congress.

Finally, I note that the budget proposed by the MLC to the DLC was less than the administrative assessment agreed to in the CRB settlement. Respectfully, the Copyright Office ought to make clear that this shortfall does not trigger the MLC’s ability to take an “interim” loan in the amount of the shortfall. This issue highlights another point requiring clarification—at what point is a shortfall determined? It seems that it should be at a time the shortfall occurs following investigation into why it occurred by an inspector general-type person (such as the Inspector General of the Library of Congress).

The MLC knows how much it’s got in its rather rich kitty to spend on all its various activities. If it also knows that if it goes over budget it can write itself interest free loans from the black box based on its own internal decision and authority, what incentive is there to stay on budget?

Additional MLC Oversight: Transparency and Songwriter Ombudsman

While Congress and the Copyright Office theoretically retain oversight over the MLC, this is of cold comfort to songwriters who are run over by MLC, its policies and its vendors. The vast unmatched problem is the most obvious foreseeable outcome where songwriters need a safety valve, but there are other possibilities.

For example, if the MLC continues HFA’s sad history of simply failing to pay songwriters, it’s just not adequate to say that songwriters can audit MLC or sue. Songwriters should not have to incur even more costs or engage in the labyrinthine process of individual or class action lawsuits against an entity funded by the largest corporations in the world.

The only real leverage that songwriters have over MLC is to persuade the Copyright Office not to re-designate the incumbent. In order for that to be a realistic threat, the Copyright Office regulations should provide for a feedback loop that songwriters can avail themselves of that the Copyright Office must take into account when determining its re-designation. Such complaints must be included in the Copyright Office’s oversight report to Congress. As such a practice is essentially the Copyright Office setting a policy or regulating itself, I see no reason why that practice cannot be set forth in regulations.

However, the Copyright Office is in an ideal position to create an ombudsman-type position with oversight of the entire MLC/DLC process. Such a role would allow the world’s songwriters an immediate outlet for surfacing negligence by MLC. By preserving anonymity of those complaining, any songwriter—whether or not affiliated with MLC—could have an outlet to report any objectionable behavior while being protected along the lines of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

The ombudsman should be completely unrelated to the incestuous practices of MLC and HFA, should be a paid position deducted from the millions in MLC’s rich operating budget, and should be meaningfully consulted in any re-designation.

Creating an ombudsman role would benefit the entire system by maintaining a watchdog and whistleblower role that would help keep the system honest.

Additional MLC Oversight: MLC and DLC Database Conflict of Interest Policy

I would also respectfully call the Copyright Office’s attention to the inherent conflicts between MLC and its vendor HFA in terms of reselling data HFA acquires by virtue of its role as MLCvendor. If the Copyright Office does not prohibit HFA from selling for other commercial purposes the data it acquires through its engagement by MLC to facilitate the compulsory blanket license, the Congress will have just handed HFA a near insurmountable advantage over its competitors. Remember there are other licenses like “micro sync” licenses that are outside of the compulsory mechanical license. Currently there is robust competition and innovation in this market segment, but without this prohibition HFA would crush its young competitors.

The same could be said of ConsenSys, which seems to be desperately seeking use cases for its Ether cryptocurrency. This creates an odd set of incentives for an MLC vendor, not to mention a need for disclosure by the MLC of any stock grants or Ether transfers.

Songwriters are compelled to do business with MLC despite bitter complaints about the imbalance in favor of major publishers in its governance. Songwriters are also compelled to do business with MLC despite bitter complaints about HFA due to what can be described as a bait and switch where the MLC pushed out a lot of hope only to go back to business as usual with long-time cronies.

This cannot be what Congress had in mind, and is even greater evidence for why the Copyright Office should require MLC candidates to fully disclose their vendors and their relationship with their vendors before designation.

Respectfully, any data vendor of the MLC should not be allowed to leverage their privileged role to private benefit after being paid absurd amounts of money to fail upwards.

As Madison said, we’re not angels. But songwriters rely on the Copyright Office to be our better angels.

Thank you for providing this opportunity to discuss these important issues.

David C. Lowery