It was a big week for songwriters last week! The Copyright Royalty Judges rejected the frozen mechanicals settlement put forward by the majors in the current rate-setting proceeding at the Copyright Royalty Board thanks in part to the best audience in the world–that would be you! All that hammering on the issue paid off.
We also acknowledge the hard work of all the commenters who spoke straight from the heart and of course songwriter George Johnson who has been fighting the good fight in the Copyright Royalty Board all by himself for years now. We’re also very grateful to the Judges for a well-thought out ruling and a thorough vetting of the issues, George’s many filings and the songwriter public comments.
The question we’ve heard a lot in recent days is where do we go from here? Clearly the answer is “Up” but how far up is the question. We need to be mindful of the economic impact that increased rates will have on independent labels in particular, but at the same time acknowledge that all record companies have gotten the benefit of frozen rates for 16 years and that songwriters have taken it in the shorts for a long, long time.
The Judges seem to be hinting at a deal in their ruling (remembering this is the rate for physical and downloads only (called “Subpart B rates”) and not for Spotify-type streaming which is not affected by these rate changes). Here’s the relevant quote from the ruling:
Commenters advocated application of an inflation adjustment beginning, at a minimum, in 2006. See, e.g. [Songwriters Guild of America] Comments at 4; [Monica] Corton Comments at 4; [Kevin] Casini Comments at 4. According to the proponents of a cost of living adjustment (COLA) applied to the 2006 rates, that adjustment would yield a 2021 royalty rate of $ 0.12 (an upward 31.9% inflation adjustment over the sixteen-year period). See, e.g., SGA Comments at 4. SGA conceded that the COLA extrapolation cannot be considered dispositive on the issue of new rate-setting, but they contended that it does “starkly demonstrate the outrageous unfairness that has been imposed on the music creator community over a period of more than an entire century.”
Step one, then, could be to increase the minimum statutory rate to 12¢ (or 13¢ depending on how you do the math) with customary adjustments for the “long song” formula for songs over 5 minutes.
That increase in the rate would be significant and probably the biggest rate increase ever on a percentage basis for the statutory rate. Will that satisfy everyone? Probably not, but it’s a step forward.
But–and this is a big but–that’s not the end of the story. We do not want to be right back in the same position in a few years time. One way to avoid this is to increase the new rate for inflation every 12 months (called “indexing”) the same way that the webcasting rates are indexed for sound recordings.
The Judges also hint at indexing as a potential solution to avoid just another rate freeze:
[George Johnson] has long advocated inclusion of an inflation index in royalty rates set by the Judges, including the…rates at issue here. In support of his advocacy, GEO has filed 27 pleadings, including motions seeking imposition of an inflation index on section 115 rates and periodic notices of U.S. inflation rates. His plea is bolstered by the many commenters who, almost unanimously, included this suggestion.
So the way this would work is that starting in 2023, the current 9.1¢ rate would be increased to 12¢. After 12 months, the rate would be increased by the Consumer Price Index (the CPI-U rate) for each 12 month period until 2027 when new rates would get decided by the CRB in the next rate proceeding (Phonorecords V). Example: If the CPI is 10%, then the minimum statutory rate would increase to 13.2¢ for the next 12 months. If the CPI in the second year was also 10%, then the 13.2¢ rate would be increased to 14.52¢ and so on until the last year of the period (2027). (Of course we can’t tell today what the CPI will be in 2023.)
Given the Judge’s rejection of the frozen rates, it is very doubtful that there will ever be another freeze, but we have to stay alert and vocal. When the new rates come up, we all have to pay attention.
It’s important to remember that “indexing” to inflation just preserves buying power. Meaning that 12¢ today is what 9.1¢ was worth in 2006. Would it be the fair thing to index all the way back to 1909? Sure, but while the Judges hint at going back further (the “at a minimum” reference), the Judges may not be inclined to go further back than 2006 when the current freeze started, but we’ll see what happens.
We’d be very interested in hearing from you with any questions you have or other ideas for solutions. Obviously, this post is just sharing ideas with our audience and isn’t a formal statement by any particular person or group. There may be a number of proposals coming out and we’ll of course post them on Trichordist.
It must also be said that George Johnson has yet to weigh in on the situation and may very well have a different idea. There’s also some twists and turns to sort out, such as the black box “MOU” (the fourth of its name) but especially the controlled compositions rates that the Judges discussed in some detail (as Judge Barnett said, “The disparity between the static rate and the dynamic market is even more stark when considering the “controlled composition clause.””).
In any event, feel free to comment and we welcome the discussion.