Professor Kevin Casini (@KCEsq) Asks Congress and the CRJs for Meaningful Public Comment on Frozen Mechanical Royalty Settement

May 27, 2021

Senator Richard Blumenthal
90 State House Square
Hartford, CT 06103

Senator Chris Murphy
Colt Gateway
120 Huyshope Avenue, Suite 401
Hartford, CT 06106
Hon. C.J. Jesse M. Feder
Hon. J. David R. Strickler
Hon. J. Steve Ruwe

US Copyright Royalty Board
101 Independence Ave SE / P.O. Box 70977
Washington, DC 20024-0977

Senators Blumenthal and Murphy, and Honorable Judges of the Copyright Royalty Board:

I am a Connecticut resident, attorney, and law professor, and the views expressed here are mine, and not necessarily those of any local or state bar association, or any employer. I am an active participant in politics local, state, and federal. I am a registered non-affiliate in New Haven. And I need your attention for about ten minutes.

On May 18, 2021, a “Notice of Settlement in Principle” was filed by parties to the proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Board about its Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Making and Distributing Phonorecords.[1] That Notice was followed on May 25, 2021 by a Motion To Adopt Settlement Of Statutory Royalty Rates And Terms For Subpart B Configurations, filed by the NMPA, Sony, Universal and Warner and NSAI.[2] I write today in reference to that proposed settlement.

This settlement outlines the terms by which mechanical royalty[3] and download rates will remain locked at the current rate of 9.1¢. The same almost-dime for each copy of a work manufactured and distributed. The same almost-dime that it’s generated since 2006. A paltry sum to be certain but a far cry from the 2¢ royalty rate mechanical royalties imposed for the better part of seventy years.[4] Starting in 1977, Congress mandated that the mechanical royalty be increased incrementally until 2006 when the rate of 9.1¢ was achieved. And there it has remained.

This proposed private settlement would extend that 2006 freeze until 2027.

In March 2017, a precursor to Phonorecords IV found the Copyright Royalty Board ruling that interactive streaming services must pay more in mechanical royalties over the course of the next five years.[5] Surely more than a simple inflation adjustment, but nonetheless a sign that the CRB thought costs and values needed to become more aligned for streaming—which is paid by the streaming platforms unlike the physical and download mechanical which is paid by the record companies. Now comes Phonorecords IV, and a proposed settlement from the major publishers and their affiliated major labels. Before this proposal can be accepted by the CRB, I asked for the simple opportunity of public comment.

As you well know, in nearly all other administrative proceedings public comment is an integral and indispensable component of the process. To see that the CRB may allow for a public comment period by members of the public beyond the participants in the proceeding or parties to the settlement is a step in the right direction, and my hope is that this development will be broadcast far and wide so that the CRB, and in turn, Congress, may get a full picture of the status of mechanical royalty rates, especially from those that are historically underrepresented. “Public comments” should be comments by the public and made in public; not comments by the participants made publicly.

Let me back up and state that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the work put into the landmark copyright legislation that came about at the end of 2018, and for those that made it happen. So too for the members of the CRB, and in this space, I thank those Judges for taking the time to read a letter from an adjunct law professor with no economic stake in the outcome, but rather an interest in, and duty of, candor to the Court.

In an age of unprecedented political polarization, the consensus built in the passage of the Music Modernization Act showed that politics aside, when it’s time to make new laws that fix old problems, Congress can still get the job done. I know well the sweat-equity poured into its creation by the very same people that propose this settlement. I have found myself on the same side fighting the same fight as them many times. They have proven capable of navigating your halls and taking on those that would seek to devalue (or worse) the work of the songwriter, and musician. In this instance, I would like to see them fight the fight yet again. recognize the reasoning and intention behind the proposed settlement. Comment by the public made publicly is a way for that to happen.[6]

Our state, Connecticut, has a long and storied history with music. In 1956, The Five Satins recorded what would go on to be one of the most recognizable and beloved doo-wop songs in history. “In The Still of the Night” was ranked 90th in Rolling Stone’s list of Top 500 songs of all time.[7] Five years later, the 1961 Indian Neck Folk Festival was where a young Bob Dylan’s first recorded performance.[8] That young man turned into a fine songwriter, as evidenced by the 4,000+ covers recorded of his works, and his record sale last year of his publishing royalties.[9] And no one will forget Jim Morrison’s arrest at the old New Haven Arena, December 1967. Ticket price: $5.00. Connecticut is home to more than 14,000 registered songwriters, only a small percentage of whom have engaged a music publisher. These writers are considered “self-publishing”, but the reality is, they have no publishing. Ironically, it is these independent writers who rely disproportionately on physical sales, direct downloads, and Bandcamp Fridays.[10]

A year ago, I made the unilateral decision to pivot our consulting company, Ecco Artist Services, to purposefully work with, and advocate for, the traditionally and historically underserved and underrepresented in the music industry. Freezing the growth of rates for physical and digital sales that are already digging out of the residual effects of 70 years at 2¢ strikes at the heart of that community’s ability to generate revenues from their music.

Sadly, rate freezes for mechanical royalties are nothing new. I’ll tell you what has not been frozen since 2006: the cost of living. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for rent of primary residence were 53.49% higher in 2021 versus 2006 (a $534.91 difference in value). Between 2006 and 2021 rent experienced an average inflation rate of 2.90% per year. This rate of change indicates significant inflation. In other words, rent costing $1,000 in the year 2006 would cost $1,534.91 in 2021 for an equivalent purchase. Compared to the overall inflation rate of 1.82% during this same period, inflation for rent was higher.[11] Milk? How about 19.48%.[12] Childcare? In Connecticut? Senators, you don’t even want to know.[13]

Now, it’s no secret the trade association for the US music publishing industry is funded by its music publisher members, and of course, as a professional trade organization, the association is bound to represent those members. Publishers have long enjoyed a better reputation amongst industry insiders than “the labels,” and for good reason, but the fact remains that writers signed to publishing deals are in contractual relationships with their publishers, and their interests are not always aligned. Such is the state of play in a consumer-driven marketplace, and especially now that publishers and labels are consolidating their businesses under the same tents.

Unfortunately, the independent songwriter lacks the resources to participate fully in the process, and although a signed songwriter may believe her interests and those of her publisher are one and the same, they may not always be. It would seem the economic analysis the publishers undertook in deciding the mechanical royalty was not worth the heavy cost and burden of fighting is the same calculus the writers need not do: they couldn’t afford the fight no matter the decision.

But I ask: if the mechanical royalty covered by the proposed settlement is a dying source of revenue, why would the fight be so onerous? By the RIAA’s 2020 year-end statistics, physical sales and downloads accounted for 15% of the music marketplace.[14] That’s a $12.2 billion marketplace, and that 15% amounts to $1.8 billion. Now, I know attorney’s fees can be exorbitant in regulatory matters, but I would think we could find a firm willing to take the case for less than that. As for sales, in 2020, 27.5 million vinyl LPs were sold in the United States, up 46-percent compared to 2019 and more than 30-fold compared to 2006 when the vinyl comeback began,[15]  while some 31.6 million CD albums were sold.[16]

Median wages in the US, adjusted for inflation, have declined 9% for the American worker. Meanwhile, since the 9.1¢ rate freeze, the cost of living has gone up 31%, according to the American Institute of Economic Research[17]. The 2006 inflation rate was 3.23%. The current year-over-year inflation rate (2020 to 2021) is now 4.16%[18], which is all really to say, simply, an accurate cost-of-living increase would have a mechanical rate of at least 12¢ per sale. Twelve cents! You would think that would be an easy sell, but the streaming rates are fractions of that rate. The reality is a song would need to be streamed 250 times to generate enough money to buy it from iTunes. As my dear friend Abby North put it, the royalty amount for the digital stream of a song is a micro penny.[19]

An adjustment for inflation should require no briefing, let alone argument. If songwriters were employees, this would simply be line-item budgeted as a “cost-of-living adjustment.” If songwriters were unionized it would be a rounding error, but I digress.

A period and opportunity for the general public to comment publicly and on the record in these and other proceedings before the presentation to the CRB of this proposed settlement is in the interest of all involved. Even if it is true that the mechanical revenue is a lost and dying stream, by the RIAA’s own figures, there stand to be billions of dollars at stake. An opportunity to be heard, without having to sign with a publisher and then hope that publisher takes up the fight you want, maybe that’s all the independent writers of the industry—and, indeed, the world–need to be able to win.

In addition to a meaningful public comment period, and an inflation-adjusted cost-of-living update to the mechanical statutory royalty rate at issue, I’d ask that this letter be made a part of the Phonorecords IV public record and that you review the best practices of the Copyright Royalty Board. Not only so that those independent, self-published writers affected by its decision may voice their concerns through public comments that the CRB considers before it makes its final decision, but so that those of us that speak without financial stake in the matter can provide perspective from a policy and legal perspective.

I want to close by thanking the Board, and Copyright Office, the Judiciary Committee and the Intellectual Property Subcommittee, and the Copyright Royalty Board for their continued attention to the universe of copyright, licensing royalties, and the economy that exists therein. Lord knows there are lots of fires to be put out all over and the time spent and thought given to these policies is acknowledged and appreciated.

Kevin M. Casini
New Haven, CT

Attorney-at-Law, Adj. Professor, Quinnipiac Univ. School of Law

cc: Ms. Carla Hayden, US Librarian of Congress

Ms. Shira Perlmutter, US Register of Copyrights


[1] (Phonorecords IV) (Docket No. 21–CRB–0001–PR (2023–2027)).

[2] Available at https://app.crb.gov/document/download/25288

[3] The term “mechanical royalty” dates back to the 1909 Copyright Law when Congress deemed it necessary to pay a music publishing company for the right to mechanically reproduce a musical composition on a player-piano roll. As a result, music publishers began issuing “mechanical licenses”, and collecting mechanical royalties from piano-roll manufacturers. The times, and the tech, changed, but the name stuck.

[4] A summary of historical mechanical royalty rates is available from the U.S. Copyright Office at https://www.copyright.gov/licensing/m200a.pdf

[5] Docket No. 16-CBR-0003-PR (2018-2022) (Phonorecords III).

[6] The CRB arguably has the statutory obligation to publish the Motion in the Federal Register for public comment, but may have the discretion to construe those commenting to the participants in the proceeding and the parties to the settlement.  17 U.S.C. § 801(b)(7).  It would be unfortunate if the Judges narrowly construed that rule to the exclusion of the general public, unlike the Copyright Office regulatory practice.

[7] “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Rolling Stone. April 2010.

[8] “Looking Way Back, As Bob Dylan Turns 60” Roger Catlin, Hartford Courant May 24, 2001
https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2001-05-24-0105241174-story.html

[9] “Bob Dylan Sells His Songwriting Catalog in Blockbuster Deal” Ben Sisario, New York Times, December 7, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/arts/music/bob-dylan-universal-music.html

[10] Bandcamp Fridays Brought in $40 Million for Artists During Covid Pandemic Ethan Millman, Rolling Stone December 15, 2020

[11] https://www.officialdata.org/Rent-of-primary-residence/price-inflation/2006-to-2021?amount=1000

[12] https://www.in2013dollars.com/Milk/price-inflation/2006-to-2021?amount=4

[13] According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for childcare and nursery school were 52.57% higher in 2021 versus 2006 (a $5,256.98 difference in value).

Between 2006 and 2021: Childcare and nursery school experienced an average inflation rate of 2.86% per year. This rate of change indicates significant inflation. In other words, childcare and nursery school costing $10,000 in the year 2006 would cost $15,256.98 in 2021 for an equivalent tuition. Compared to the overall inflation rate of 1.82% during this same period, inflation for childcare and nursery school was higher.

[14] RIAA year-end revenue statistics. https://www.riaa.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/2020-Year-End-Music-Industry-Revenue-Report.pdf

[15] MRC 202 Year End Report. https://static.billboard.com/files/2021/01/MRC_Billboard_YEAR_END_2020_US-Final201.8.21-1610124809.pdf

[16] Id.

[17] American Institute for Economic Research. https://www.aier.org/cost-of-living-calculator/

[18] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index https://www.officialdata.org/articles/consumer-price-index-since-1913/

[19] Abby North, North Music Group Letter to Congress on Frozen Mechanicals and the Copyright Royalty Board, The Trichordist (May 24, 2021) available at https://thetrichordist.com/2021/05/24/northmusicgroup-letter-to-congress-on-frozen-mechanicals-and-the-copyright-royalty-board/

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