Guest Post: MLC Black Box Invasion: Transparency for the “Interim Application of Accrued Royalties”

This post is a version of Chris Castle’s comment in the current Copyright Office rulemaking on the transparency of the MLC

By Chris Castle

Just when you think you understand Title I of the Music Modernization Act, another toad runs out from under a rock.  My nickname for the toad we’re going to talk about today is the “Hoffa Clause,” in honor of the Teamster leader and well-known pension fund raider (played by Al Pacino in The Irishman).

Here it is:

INTERIM APPLICATION OF ACCRUED ROYALTIES.—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.[1]

The Office has a serious public education issue about the hygienically titled “Interim Application” clause.  I have yet to meet a songwriter who is aware of this clause in Title I and it was never publicized in the run up to passing MMA. Many publishers have been so taken aback[2] that they deny the clause is there.  Despite the provision’s rather metaphysical properties, it is there and it says what it says.  How it came to be there is only known to the insiders.  But it’s very specific, so must have been placed there for a reason.

Title I gives The MLC tremendous power over affording itself the benefit of administering other people’s money.[5]  The plain language of this clause essentially says that The MLC can invade the black box and make interest free, nonrecourse loans to itself to apply against certain shortfalls in “collective total costs” when the administrative assessment approved by the Copyright Royalty Judges is “inadequate to cover total collective costs.” Under Title I as drafted, The MLC is solely in a position to control that shortfall and to invade the black box.

Anytime anointed people handle other people’s money, stringent rules apply to that duty.  Or ought to.  Strangely enough, this “Interim Application” provision is not addressed at all in the legislative history or the Conference Report.   So we can only look at the words and try to divine the intention of the lobbyists who wrote the bill.

Plain Meaning

The new rule announces itself as relating to the “application” of “accrued royalties” on an “interim” basis.  The Cambridge Dictionary tells us that “interim” means temporary, such as a temporary solution:  “temporary and intended to be used or accepted until something permanent exists”.  That “something permanent” is the “administrative assessment”–which of course will already exist at the moment of “application”.  So there is a chicken and egg issue with this entire concept from the beginning.

(Remember that the “administrative assessment” is the operating budget and startup costs paid for by the users of the Title I blanket license who may also be the beneficiaries of the Title I safe harbor.  The administrative assessment always exists once it has been set in motion by the Copyright Royalty Judges, which is now in place for the foreseeable future.  The CRJs essentially recently rubber stamped the agreement between The MLC (the biggest publishers, having single-mindedly gotten rid of the independents through legal maneuvering) and the DLC (i.e., the biggest services).)

So what money is available to be tapped through this “interim application”?  “Unclaimed accrued royalties”, which sounds like the black box.  Which is why I call it a “black box invasion.”

It is worth noting that Title I uses the terms “unmatched” and “unclaimed” somewhat interchangeably.  I would point out that it is possible for royalties to be both matched and unclaimed, matched and disputed and unilaterally held by The MLC, as well as unmatched and therefore unclaimed. And remember that just because money is unclaimed does not mean that there was any method in place for it to be claimed.

Realize that the entire Hoffa clause is based on an assumption–that there was a meaningful process in place for songwriters (1) to know that The MLC had decided that their money should be held as accrued but unclaimed and (2) to claim their money.  There is neither present today and there is unlikely to be either available any time soon based on public statements of executives of The MLC.  Without both these processes in place, it seems that it should be important, if not crucial, to preserve the status quo until they are and that the public interest would be served by doing so.

Holding Periods Maketh the Black Box

I suggest that the common interpretation of black box is that it includes a series of royalty payments that may be disputed, matched, unmatched and unclaimed and has been so for a holding period of at least a few years, in this case three years.[3]  That suggests that no invasion may occur under this clause before the passing of three years, and the holding period should run on an item-by-item contributory share basis for each rolling accrual.

But that isn’t really the whole story on the holding periods in the first black box distribution from the DLC to The MLC.  The first distribution is going to be all the black box money ever held by all the DLC members (and any other users of the blanket).  Because the security surrounding this amount is tighter than the nuclear football, it is impossible to say how much will be in the black box.  The Songwriters Guild and Society of Composers and Lyricists (the ones who were maneuvered out of the assessment hearing) have been asking this question for months and no one has responded.

The relevant holding period for the black box is not only the three years that The MLC can hold the money, but the entire holding period from when the black box first “accrued”.  That could be many years longer than the Title I holding period.  There’s a question as to the three-year rule should apply or whether the DLC should be allowed to ignore all those holding periods on top of the three years.  You can see this is a story for another post, but keep that in mind for this post.  I don’t think that sentient beings with the ability to think sequentially can just accept that the relevant holding period is three years–after the black box is transferred to The MLC as though the money had been there all the time.  I don’t think songwriters need a court to tell them that’s just wrong.

What Does Accrued but Unclaimed Even Mean?

The fact that royalties are “accrued but unclaimed” for all or part of a song does not tell the whole story, because “unclaimed” standing alone doesn’t tell the whole story.  The “Interim Application” clause applies to “unclaimed accrued royalties” which could be royalties payable for unmatched contributory shares of songs that The MLC doesn’t know who to pay (therefore unclaimed) as well as matched royalties that have yet to be claimed but for which a payee might be identified with subsequent research.

Which contributory shares of a song that are or are not claimed is a fact determined by a snapshot in a moment of time that could easily change in the next moment.  In fact, accrued royalties being held on disputed songs may also find their way into the black box.[4]  Unfortunately, Title I has yet another drafting glitch because it does not identify that moment in time for purposes of the black box invasion.

Borrowing from Frankie to Pay Big Paulie

There could easily be a situation where the black box is invaded but the future assessment is not made for a year or more, or the future assessment is insufficient to repay Peter for the loan to Paul.  Because an expenditure may be an item of “collective total cost” but may not be reimbursed by “future collections of the assessment” rather than the next collection of the assessment occurring after the interest-free nonrecourse black box invasion, the statutory drafting is glitchy.

Plus, while the CRJs approve the administrative assessments, they have no direct approval right over a black box invasion—although approval over one does imply approval over both to the extent the invasion takes money from an assessment in a proceeding before the CRJs (which would be all assessments).  I’ve almost talked myself into believing that the CRJs actually were intended to approve any black box invasions, at least to the extent the sums are to be included in future assessments or offset prior assessments.  I think we all would be grateful if the Copyright Office could clarify this point.

In any event, it is clear that The MLC is allowed to write itself what amount to limitless[6] interest-free nonrecourse loans against the black box that can only be repaid from the assessment if the DLC approves (or perhaps the CRJs could be persuaded to approve).

The DLC would then be put in a position of declining to approve an increase to cover a black box invasion in the assessment that the DLC had nothing to do with incurring and will not have been informed of based on the plain language of Title I.  Since the current assessment seems to be on a fixed trajectory based on the last assessment settlement, it is likely that any invasion amount might exceed the stipulated assessment.  What happens if the assessment is not available to repay the invasion amount is unclear, even though The MLC is allowed to make the decision before knowing how the loan will be treated?

Required Transparency

The first issue in this cluster must be transparency on the board vote at a minimum.  Because the statute refers to approval by The MLC’s  “board of directors” and because the nonvoting members are part of the board, I have always assumed that such a board vote requires both voting board members and at least the assent of nonvoting members.  Neither does the glitchy language require any particular majority, so the new regulations may be an opportunity for the Copyright Office to require a majority, supermajority or unanimous board vote in regulations.

My preference would be for unanimous because I think taking other people’s money is a controversial act and they should lock arms and all go together.  Unanimity would also require both publishers and songwriters to vote for the loan (as publishers already have a supermajority representation written into the law).  As far as I can tell, we can only go by the plain language of the statute as I have found no legislative history on this provision.

Notice to Songwriters

I also think that regulations should provide that there be some written public statement by The MLC’s chief financial officer to the Copyright Office (or the CRJs) that these funds are being approved by the board for disbursement before the taking.  The CFO should also provide a justification statement.  The MLC board should have to sign up to that statement with full transparency of (1) why there is this compelling need and (2) why that need can only be met this way.  Frankly, it would be best if the funds could not be disbursed until the Register or the Librarian approved the disbursement in all respects.  One would think that the board members would want this sharing of responsibility.

Another option, if possible, would be to require The MLC and the DLC to return to the CRJs and request an increase in the applicable assessment or amendment to The MLC’s budget to cover the black box invasion.

What’s in Your Wallet?  Explain Why There is a Shortfall

There yet another drafting glitch in this section.  The statute fails to ask why a quango like The MLC is in a position that the millions in the Administrative Assessment doesn’t cover the relevant costs in the first place.  The assumption seems to be that there was a spike in the defined “collective total costs”.  As The MLC is in control of how the Administrative Assessment is spent, there may need to be some true up between the authorized budget approved by the CRJs and what was actual spent on a line item basis.

This raises, of course, the question of what kind of items should never be covered by the Administrative Assessment (which, if violated, could cause a shortfall requiring the black box invasion).  Such items might include loans to executives, performance bonuses, excessive travel reimbursements (such as first-class travel or reimbursement for tips in transit), expensive restaurant tabs and alcohol bills, but also items like settlements of harassment claims or related court costs.  Since harassment claims often are subject to nondisclosure agreements, it does not seem appropriate for The MLC to be able to recover such payments from black box invasion.  None of those items should be deductible from the Administrative Assessment and should never be the cause of a black box invasion.

It must also be said that “collective total costs” includes “bad debt.”  This caught my eye.  “Bad debt” is generally defined as a contingency or credit extended (such as to a customer) that is determined to be uncollectable.  Why would a pass-through quango like The MLC which has all of its costs covered by a third party need to be extending credit or loaning money to anyone, certainly not to any employee, board member, or vendor?  Under these circumstances, how would the bad debt be matched according to GAAP?  What controls are there within The MLC to disclose bad debt?  And why should bad debt be able to cause a black box invasion?

A corollary to bad debt is the indebtedness of The MLC itself as a borrower.  Again, given that the collective total costs are underwritten by a third party, why would The MLC need to borrow any money at all?  One could imagine that The MLC might properly have a modest bank credit line for cash flow purposes, but servicing any credit line should not result in a black box invasion, nor should the black box be used as collateral for any loan.

Paying Songwriters Who Claim or Are Matched After the Loan

The other drafting glitch I spotted that I would recommend needs closing up has to do with subsequent matching and paymenting.  What happens if there is a call on the black box invasion funds loaned to The MLC after the loan is made but before it is repaid.  These black box invasion loans should not delay matching and should also not delay payment of royalties matched after the loan is disbursed.

The easiest solution for a call on these loaned funds is to require the board members (or their companies) to cover the required funds, but I really think the Copyright Office needs to address the potential to abuse this tempting power.  Abuse of this power is exactly the kind of thing that could give rise to the very “waste, fraud and abuse” Congress wants the Copyright Office to take into account in the quinquennial review and potential redesignation (discussed above).

Yield Not Unto Temptation:  Detection Leads to Correction

This comment is not intended to be a knock on The MLC.  I am simply noting that any MLC may face the temptations that have certainly been irresistible for many smart people similarly situated in other contexts.  This kind of loan might well be a breach of a fiduciary duty by board members, and certainly would be in other similar situations.

It also must be said anecdotally that there are many songwriters who, perhaps unfairly, think that publishers use black box payments as a slush fund to run their operations with interest-free loans as the hygienically named “interim applications” would be.

The problem is that without the disinfectant of sunlight, there may be no detection to lead to correction.  Who would not prefer to avoid that problem who was able to avoid it?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

[1] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(7)(C).

[2] I have also discussed this clause off the record in the context of the Dispute Resolution Committee and Unmatched liability safe harbor for The MLC with friends at CMOs outside of the U.S.  When the laughter subsided, they all said that if they did anything like this they’d be fired long before they hit the gross negligence threshold.  “Heads on pikes” was the description.  We must then wonder what the CMOs think of this clause and what in the world they think the Americans are up to.  The Office might want to ask them.

[3] 17 U.S.C. §115 (d)(3)(H)(i).

[4] It appears that royalties held by the Dispute Resolution Committee for disputed works will also be kept in the black box account and presumably would be subject to invasion.  “The dispute resolution committee established under subparagraph (D)(vi) shall establish policies and procedures…that shall include a mechanism to hold disputed funds in accordance with the requirements described in subparagraph (H)(ii) pending resolution of the dispute.”  17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(3)(K)(ii).  Subparagraph (H)(ii) provides for an “Interest-bearing account.—Accrued royalties for unmatched works (and shares thereof) shall be maintained by the mechanical licensing collective in an interest-bearing account that earns monthly interest….”

[5] Presumably this issue will be addressed in the Copyright Office Unclaimed Royalties Study of best practices on both matched but unclaimed and unmatched royalties.  Even so, this may be a good place to insert a true escrow account for the mandated interest-bearing account for the black box so that the account is held by a third-party bank unrelated to The MLC, the DLC, their board members or their vendors.  There should be specific withdrawal instructions to that third-party bank.  I find it difficult to understand why anyone would oppose such an ethical separation.

[6] The loans are limitless because there is no limitation on the amount in Title I.  The loan could theoretically even exceed the amount of the then-existing black box and be taken from a future accrual.

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