Will the @CommonsDCMS Committee Ask How Apple and Spotify Got Away With Hundreds of Millions in Black Box for So Many Years?

One of the questions that immediately comes to mind with the announcement of the MLC’s $424 million black box payment is how did they get away with owing so much money to so many people for so long? Tough question to get an answer to for the average songwriter, but good news: The UK Parliament’s inqiury into the economics of streaming is meeting on February 23 and will have before it senior representatives of Amazon, Apple and Spotify! Great timing! These three companies alone account for $350,000,000 in black box, or 82% of the total.

MLC Payments

So not only can the Committee inquire into how long the companies got away with it and the justification for holding onto so much of other people’s money for so long, but the Committee could also inquire as to whether there are any UK songwriters included in the respective companies black box payments for exploitations in the US during the worst pandemic in living memory.

Remember, these services are required by law to obtain a license to exploit all these songs. This was always the deal and they knew going into business what was expected of them. The law requires them to find the songwriter or not use the song. It doesn’t require them to not find the songwriter but use the song anyway.

Save the Date! January 14 at Noon CST, Zoom Panel with @musictechpolicy @northmusicgroup @sealeinthedeal for Independent Songwriters

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By Chris Castle

I’m grateful to Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts, Austin Texas Musicians and the Austin Music Foundation for hosting an information webinar next week on the impact of the new blanket mechanical license under the Music Modernization Act on independent songwriters. We will also cover the nuts and bolts of dealing with The MLC, Inc. and a unit on the Digital Licensee Coordinator.

I couldn’t be happier to have two great panelists in music publisher and song data solver Abby North and my fellow Austin music lawyer Gwen Seale.

While this panel has an Austin origin, the topics are not Austin-centric and will apply to all songwriters in the world just like the MLC does.

Please RSVP to Eventbrite if you think you might attend at this link and also take a moment to complete the anonymous 10 question MLC Awareness Questionnaire on Survey Monkey at this link. The Zoom code to join will be posted through Eventbrite.

I’ll be posting some other materials, but for those who want the more nitty gritty background, you can read this package of documents at this link.

Please take our Mechanical Licensing Collective Survey

Please take a moment and complete the ArtistRightsWatch new anonymous 10 question survey regarding The MLC at this link. We’re gathering general anonymized information about how songwriters and publishers have heard about The MLC and whether you think an independent advocate (or an “ombudsman”) would be useful to you. This will help us plan future programming and input.

The survey is available to everyone and will be open until January 31, 2021.

Thanks!

Optimism is Contagious, Too: @nivassoc’s #SaveOurStages Included in COVID Stimulus–Update

Guest post by Chris Castle

Thanks to the hard work of the National Independent Venue Association and their allies, it looks like some stimulus relief is finally coming to small venues, theater operators, bars and restaurants. The NIVA effort began with the  Save Our Stages Act that authorizes the Small Business Administration (SBA) to make grants to eligible live venue operators, producers, promoters, or talent representatives to address the economic effects of the pandemic on certain live venues. Save Our Stages will be included in the new COVID stimulus bill. The stimulus bill text was released yesterday (Dec 21) and was voted on last night by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, DC.

SOS Act authorizes the Small Business Administration to make (1) an initial grant of up to $12 million dollars to an eligible operator, promoter, producer, or talent representative; and (2) a supplemental grant that is equal to 50% of the initial grant. An initial grant must be used for costs incurred between March 1, 2020, and December 31, 2020, but a supplemental grant may be used for expenses incurred through June 30, 2021. I haven’t seen the final language of the COVID stimulus bill, but I would imagine it will be carried over.

Many people pulling together have helped to deliver a miraculous Christmas present for music cities like Austin, Texas and the country. The bi-partisan Save Our Stages Act was carried by two members of the huge Texas Congressional delegation, Senator John Cornyn and Austin Representative Roger Williams alongside their outstanding colleagues Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Peter Welch. As we saw in the CLASSICS Act and later in the Music Modernization Act, Senator Cornyn is a strong advocate for the Texas music industry which needs him more than ever.

We also have to thank Governor Greg Abbott and the Governor’s Texas Music Office for their efforts in getting SOS passed and in supporting the local music economy–tireless is an overused word, but the Governor has never forgotten Texas venues in the State’s plans to open in the middle of the 25/8 whole of government response to the pandemic. I’m sure there are many others to thank in many other states and cities, but I know these folks have been white-knuckling the express train for months.

The lobbying effort to pass SOS was a heartening example of our business pulling together with the artist community in the vanguard. That extensive lobbying effort led by NIVA highlighted the importance of live music and music tourism to the local economies of cities across the country. I don’t know if it’s even possible to measure the global economic impact of the lockdown approach on our business, but given the pre-COVID economic impact of the festival business alone, it’s got to be over a $1 trillion loss. As Universal’s Michael Nash said at the University of Georgia Artist Rights Symposium earlier this year, the label was very concerned about keeping live music alive even though labels might not be directly involved. According to MusicAlly, Nash said “The reality is that the health and welfare of our artists is central to everything we do, and so we do have a stake in what’s happening in the broader ecosystem.” That view was reflected in the broad support for SOS from RIAA and other industry groups as well as Universal’s commitment to major investments in live music destination hotels.

It appears that the limitation on liability for businesses like venues that reopen is not going to make it into the stimulus bill. That’s unfortunate because the liability issue is a critical piece, and the situation cries out for a federal solution when there’s a lawyer behind every cough. You may ask why such a crucial aspect of reopening is still a question mark at this late hour? Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, summed it up: “I am frustrated to be part of an institution that is so dysfunctional that it doesn’t even work until the last minute.” Well, frankly, no surprise there. The liability issue will have to be dealt with in the new Congress.

The question has always been if you lock down the venues without protecting that investment, will we have an live music infrastructure to reopen? Austin is an all-too-perfect example. We have no idea what Austin will look like when we get past the pandemic. SOS is too late to save Margin Walker and many others. But with this cash infusion we have a better chance that post-pandemic Austin will bear some resemblance to what it was and can hopefully help get some people back on their feet in Austin and around the country, which is the point. The team is moving in the right direction and will attract others. Universal’s investment in the future is an example of leadership and optimism for the survival of our live music venues and all the wonderful people who run them. Optimism is also contagious, and is more likely to accelerate with Save Our Stages.

The good news is the bad news is wrong–our work is not over, but we live to fight another day–or another 300 days. And that is a Christmas miracle in many households.

Here is the press release from NIVA:

Save Our Stages Act just passed as part of the COVID-19 Relief Bill! 

Thank you for helping to #SaveOurStages! You responded in an overwhelming fashion. NIVA thanks those across the country who sent 2.1 million emails to their elected officials expressing their support for the Save Our Stages Act. All 535 Congresspeople heard from their constituents through SaveOurStages.comWithout your support and continued attention, we could not have accomplished this goal.

Our gratitude also extends to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen.Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in the Senate, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) in the House, champion leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and 230 bipartisan cosponsors in Congress.

The Save Our Stages Act will provide emergency relief to independent venues and promoters that have been devastated by the pandemic’s shutdown. This legislation will enable these mom-and-pop businesses to hold on until it’s safe to gather, reopen fully, and once again return to serving as the economic engines for their communities. Read NIVA’s full statement and thanks here

The legislation provides critical help to shuttered businesses by providing a grant equal to 45% of gross revenue from 2019, with a cap of $10 million per entity. This grant funding will ensure recipients can stay afloat until reopening by helping with expenses like payroll and benefits, rent and mortgage, utilities, insurance, PPE, and other ordinary and necessary business expenses.

WHAT’S NEXT

NIVA hopes to work with the Small Business Administration to ensure the emergency relief is dispersed as Congress intended, that the instructions and process to apply for grants ensure that the process is implemented accurately, fairly and as expediently as possible.

Since it could take many weeks, even months for the funding to flow, the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund, with The Giving Back Fund as its 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor, continues to raise money to assist the venues at greatest risk of permanently going under as we wait for the grants to be issued. Anyone wishing to donate can do so here.

What is Apple Music Up to with the MLC?

You may have received this notice from HFA Client Services with the subject line “APPLE LEGAL NOTICE OF TERMINATION OF AGREEMENT” which a vigilant reader sent to us:

What is interesting about this is the opening paragraph:Dear Publisher, Reference is hereby made to that certain Subscription, Lyrics, and Cloud Services License Agreement or Subscription and Cloud Services License Agreement (the “Agreement”) between Apple Inc. (“Apple” or “we”) and the publishing entity with which you are affiliated (“Publisher” or “you”)In support of the Orrin G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act and the significant benefits this new legislation is expected to deliver to music publishers and songwriters, we intend to move our licensing and royalty administration for Apple Music to the MLC starting from January 1, 2021.Accordingly, we hereby notify you that Apple has elected, pursuant to the Agreement, to terminate the Agreement, effective December 31, 2020. If you have never entered into such an agreement with Apple you may disregard this notice.

Focus on that “lyrics” and “cloud services” part.  The MMA blanket license does not cover lyrics or cloud services.  That means that Apple is out of contract with the publisher concerned because they terminated the agreement.  They cannot get those rights under the blanket.

Then notice that Apple says, “we intend to move our licensing and royalty administration for Apple Music to the MLC”.  The MLC cannot license outside the blanket to my knowledge.

But also realize that Apple are not stupid, so this must mean something.  We’re looking into it.

Black Box Hunting: The Songwriters Guild/Society of Composers & Lyricists/Music Creators North America’s Ex Parte Letter Stands Up for Transparency

[Editor T says: Remember when songwriters were promised that the Music Modernization Act was going to solve all your problems—AND give you a set of steak knives? Remember? Never needs ironing? And doubles on sax? One big feature was digital music services paying up to the Mechanical Licensing Collective for matching the entire black box from “inception” meaning all the money a service ever held that their data vendors couldn’t match and weren’t paid to try very hard, especially Spotify aka “defendant”. Who was that data vendor who couldn’t match? HFA. And who is the MLC’s data vendor? HFA. So the last couple weeks the insiders have been back-tracking behind closed doors at the Copyright Office on how–or if–that black box will be paid to songwriters. The only way you’d ever know this was happening is if you were paying very close attention to the Copyright Office “ex parte” letters. (sign up for email alerts there.) The Songwriters Guild/SCL/MCNA group is the songwriter’s junkyard dog with their teeth sunk in the tuchus of the insiders. We’ll be posting a selection of these recent “ex parte” letters which publicly document private conferences held by the Copyright Office with “stakeholders”. “Everyone’s a winner, bargains galore….the large print giveth and the small print taketh away” as Tom Waits said.]

EX PARTE MEETING SUMMARY WITH

THE UNITED STATES COPYIGHT OFFICE

Docket Number 2020-12

November 18, 2020

Re: Summary of the November 13, 2020 Ex-Parte Meeting Between the United States Copyright Office on behalf of the following independent, US-based music creator organizations: the Songwriters Guild of America, Inc. (SGA), the Society of Composers & Lyricists (SCL), and Music Creators North America, Inc. (MCNA)

On Friday, November 13, 2020, an ex-parte video-conference meeting was conducted by the United States Copyright Office (USCO) with multiple interested parties concerning rulemakings in connection with Doc. No. 2020-12. This summary is submitted on behalf of SGA, SCL and MCNA (together, the “Independent Music Creator Organizations” or “IMCOs”), all of which were represented at the meeting. Attending for SGA were President Rick Carnes, outside counsel Charles Sanders, and outside legislative consultant Marla Grossman of the American Continental Group (ACG). Attending for SCL was President Ashley Irwin. Attending for MCNA was President Eddie Schwartz. The meeting was chaired on behalf of the USCO delegation by its General Counsel, Regan Smith.

Individuals representing the IMCOs began by respectfully stressing, as they had in their ex parte tele-conference with the USCO on September 11, 2020, the bedrock principle that independent music creators speak for themselves on all issues related to their rights and interests, and that no other music community groups have the right or authority to claim otherwise. Specifically, the IMCOs rejected the assertion by some music publisher representatives (backed by at least one of their affiliated songwriter groups) that the USCO’s oversight and rulemaking authority concerning matters related to 2020-12 should be viewed as being narrowly limited.

The IMCOs have stressed on multiple occasions through their USCO Comments a strong belief that Congress, by its very construction of the Music Modernization Act (MMA), intends the Office to have broad and expansive authority to oversee and guide the implementation of the MMA by the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC). That is especially so in regard to ensuring transparency, reliability and fairness regarding the safeguarding of music creator rights, the class of persons for whom the MMA was most clearly enacted to protect pursuant to Article I Section 8 of the US Constitution.

The main issue of concern addressed at the November 13, 2020 meeting was the oversight and disposition of accrued, unmatched royalties collected and held by Digital Music Providers and subsequently distributed pursuant to private negotiated agreements with music publishers. It is believed by the IMCOs that as regards those agreements and royalties, some or all of the parties thereto were very likely aware at the time of negotiation and execution, that (i) such confidential agreements and payments concerned royalties accrued from the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of musical works owned by unrelated third parties; (ii) little to no effort had been made to properly identify rightful ownership, and (iii) such accruals might soon be subject to payment rules under the MMA that would require strictly delineated sharing of such “permanently” unmatched royalties with music creators by music publishers (including a minimum floor of 50%) after the conducting by the MLC of bona fide searches for rightful owners.

Further assertions were made by the IMCOs at the meeting that after three years of discussions, still no informed estimate had yet been made by Digital Music Providers of the aggregate amounts of unmatched royalties both still being held and already distributed. Thereafter, one knowledgeable representative of Digital Music Providers estimated that while there remain hundreds of millions of dollars in accrued, unmatched royalties in the possession of the Digital Music Providers, tens of millions of dollars in accrued unmatched royalties were indeed turned over directly to music publishers pursuant to the terms of the confidential, private negotiated agreements.

As was also made clear during the meeting, the IMCOs have no direct information as to the content of such private negotiated agreements, and no direct information as to what became of the unmatched royalties such music publishers received.

Several music publishers have claimed in ex parte letters to the USCO that they indeed shared such unmatched royalties with their affiliated music creators, but no specific information has been provided as to the methodology and details of such sharing, including whether the principles and and guarantees eventually set forth in the MMA as enacted were applied.1 Moreover as the IMCOs reported at the meeting, an informal and ongoing process of canvassing creators currently being conducted by each MCNA member organization have yet to confirm a single instance in which a songwriter or composer received a royalty statement indicating that portions of such accrued, unmatched royalties were included (though they may have been) and on what basis.

As the IMCOs asserted at the meeting, were such unmatched royalties paid to songwriters and composers by music publishers on terms resembling the MMA rules concerning music creator protections (as either drafted or eventually enacted), it seems counter-intuitive that that no line item would appear anywhere in accounting statements indicating the source of such payments, not only as a matter of sound accounting practice, but of earned good will. No other music creator groups present at the meeting challenged or contradicted these ongoing findings or assertions. In any event, as noted, it seems that the burden of demonstrating the details of such payments is more properly placed on the music publishers who claim to have made them, which could be as simple as each publisher disclosing a properly predicated and binding assertion that the payments were made, how many were made, what was the aggregate payment, and how was each songwriter’s share determined.2

Under such circumstances as they currently exist, as SGA President Rick Carnes pointed out at the meeting, asking interested parties to render opinions on the minutiae of proposed rules concerning the disposition of accrued unmatched royalties –with only some parties having an understanding of how the private agreements operated, who got paid, who didn’t, and why– is a difficult position in which to place the IMCOs and other parties with important, related interests.

As Mr. Carnes pointed out, the issues of (i) how to protect the rights of those music creators and copyright owners who did not participate in the privately negotiated agreements by ensuring that there is an opportunity to actually match those already-distributed royalties to their proper owners and to effect the prompt payment of such sums, (ii) how to balance accounts once such proper identifications have been made, while also ensuring that affiliated music creators have been properly paid by their music publishers concerning royalties collected under the private negotiated agreements that otherwise would have flowed through the MLC and been explicitly subject to MMA distribution requirements, (iii) how to address demands of Digital Music Providers that they not be made to pay twice for the same unmatched uses, and (iv) how to ensure that such private negotiated agreements are not utilized in the future in attempts to override the provisions of the MMA, all need to be addressed prior to a proper analysis of how most effectively to move forward.3

Thus, as was stated at the meeting, while the IMCOs agree the MMA makes clear that ALL accrued unmatched royalties for unauthorized reproductions and distributions dating back to inception must be turned over to the MLC by Digital Music Providers, and that the term “generally accepted accounting principles” used in the Act in no way provides an exception to that unambiguous provision, the crucial questions enumerated above also need to be immediately addressed as matters of fairness and transparency mandated by the Act.

As to the very important issue of retroactive effect of the MMA provisions concerning guaranteed music creator participation in the distribution of permanently unmatched royalties at or above the fifty percent level, the IMCOs adamantly believe, as stated at the meeting, that it is wholly illogical for any interested party to argue that Congress intended as it did to require that all accrued, unmatched royalties be rendered to the MLC by Digital Music Providers back to each service’s date of inception, but that the songwriter, composer, transparency and good faith protections guaranteed by the Act would not otherwise be applicable in the event of premature disgorgement of unmatched royalties by Digital Music Providers to music publishers pursuant to prior agreements. This is an issue that certainly requires further attention, and calls for more comprehensive discussion than for which there was time at the meeting.

As was noted several times by various speakers, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary has warned that absent a fair and transparent resolution of these complex issues, the MMA may become a magnet for litigation, the very opposite effect that it was intended to achieve. The IMCOs wholeheartedly agree, and stand ready to assist the USCO in taking all reasonable measures to achieve the transparency, fairness and robust oversight that the legislation demands in order to avoid that undesirable result.

To reiterate in closing, as the IMCOs tried to make clear at the meeting, voluntary disclosure of the specific details of the privately negotiated agreements, redacted to protect legitimate privacy and antitrust concerns, is an important prerequisite to achieving those goals. The IMCOs further repeat their stated beliefs that the USCO has the singular ability if not to compel, at least to facilitate such disclosures in a timely manner, and respectfully urge it to do so.

Further comments of SGA, SCL and MCNA will be forthcoming in regard to the proposed rulemaking by next week’s deadline. As stated at the conclusion of the meeting, however, the IMCOs believe that all parties would benefit by a brief extension for the submissions of such comments until the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday in order to allow for further discussions among the parties. The IMCOs acknowledge a certain lack of unified support for this suggestion at the meeting, and active opposition by at least one music publisher representative, but continue to believe it to be an advisable accommodation. Those parties wishing to abide by the original deadline would always be free to do so, as was explicitly pointed out.

The IMCOs thank the USCO for scheduling the ex parte discussion, and look forward to continuing this constructive dialog.

Respectfully submitted,

Charles J. Sanders
Outside Counsel
Songwriters Guild of America, Inc.

cc: Regan Smith, General Counsel, The United States Copyright Office
Rick Carnes, SGA President
Ashley Irwin, SCL President
Eddie Schwartz, MCNA President

  1. At least one publisher has indicated an alleged willingness to share details of such payments with any writer who makes inquiry as to his or her own works, an unlikely scenario considering that a huge percentage of writers have no knowledge of the private negotiated agreements in the first place, and –to the knowledge of the IMCOs based on informal canvassing– have not been directly informed about them by their publishers. See, e.g., Ex Parte letter from Sony/ATV dated October 28, 2020: “It has been SATV’s practice to explain to our writers who inquire how these royalties are distributed and reflected on their statements.”

2. Likewise, it seems that the burden of demonstrating how much each Digital Music Provider paid to music publishers is more properly placed on the services who claim to have made the payments, which in turn could be as simple as disclosing a properly predicated and binding assertion that the payments were made, how many were made, what was the aggregate payment, and how was each publisher’s share determined. It is anticipated that such details may be forthcoming from Digital Music Providers in their reporting under the MMA, but that remains uncertain.

3 That is especially so in light of the apparent assertions of one or more Digital Music Providers that they may forego the limited safe harbor provisions provided by the MMA by not turning over to the MLC the full amount of accrued, unmatched royalties dating back to inception of use, probably under the assumption that the potential running of applicable statutes of limitations will provide the same protections as the safe harbor without payment of the royalties due. The IMCO raised this statute of limitations issue at the meeting, and was gratified that at least one Digital Music Provider representative felt that this was an issue worthy of further discussion, hopefully with the important input of the USCO. See also, related comment of DLC that “…a DMP could make the rational choice to forego the payment of accrued royalties entirely, and save that money to use in defending itself against any infringement suits.” Comments Of Digital Licensee Coordinator, Inc. In Response To Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking , Docket 2020-12, Document COLC 2020-0011-0008 (Aug. 17, 2020) at 4.

Guest Post: The False Double Payment Bottom of the MMA Black Box

By Chris Castle

[T-Editor says: This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

The Dog Who Didn’t Bark On the Mirror

There seems to be some concern about pre-Music Modernization Act confidential lump sum payments of accrued black box monies under direct licenses or settlement agreements.  Services are promoting the idea that these payments must be deducted from the cumulative black box payments required for services to get the benefit of the limitation on liability and reach back safe harbor. 

That limitation on liability, of course, comes with a condition that the services use “good faith, commercially reasonable efforts” to match works to copyright owners.  Uses that remain unmatched are then turned over to the Mechanical Licensing Collective for matching and distribution.

The Digital Music Providers [“DMPs”] are now promoting the payment of black box as an option for which they can elect to take the limitation on liability.   The Digital Licensee Coordinator [representing the DMPs] tells us “If the regulations make it less likely that a DMP will be able to rely on that liability protection when it needs iti.e., if it increases the risk that a court would deem a DMP to not have complied with the requirements in section 115(d)(10)—a DMP could make the rational choice to forego the payment of accrued royalties entirely, and save that money to use in defending itself against any infringement suits.”

The SOCAN company MediaNet tells us that absent some aggressive concessions by the Congress to essentially re-write the Copyright Act in their favor, “MediaNet may decline to take advantage of the limitation on liability, which may deprive copyright owners of additional accrued royalties.”  

The DMPs have somehow managed to convince themselves that payments of unallocated sums under settlement agreements (which they weren’t required to match before the MMA) and payments of unallocated sums under the MMA’s black box (which they are required to match under the MMA) are a “double payment.”  While easy to say, “double payment” makes it sound like someone paid twice for the same thing.  That would be bad if it were true.  

But it’s not.

Betting and Strangers

Certain DMPs and certain publishers made settlement agreements of prior unpaid royalties.  We don’t know exactly what gave rise to those agreements but we do know that they covered unmatched (and therefore unallocated) black box payments.  Because the payments were unmatched, they were necessarily a lump sum payment to the participating publisher (although the amounts may have been reduced by commissions for administering the lump sum distributions under so-far confidential settlements).  

At the time of the settlement, nobody did the work to match the unallocated.  This is important for at least two reasons:  Because the works were not matched, the lump sum couldn’t have been allocated to specific works owned by strangers to the settlement.   Therefore there was no initial payment to those strangers, the strangers were not represented in the transaction, the strangers did not authorize the settlement of their claims, and there was no legal basis for the parties to settle ripe but inchoate claims the strangers could have made had they been asked.

The lump sum settlement was evidently based on market share of the then-unallocated black box.  Market share payments would be a typical way to avoid doing the work of matching.  It’s like a DMP saying to a publisher “I’ll make you a bet—if you have 10% market share of the known knowns, I’ll bet that the most I owe you for then known unknowns is 10% of the cash value of the unallocated black box.  Particularly if you are the first payment.”

Why not do the matching at the time?  We’ll come back to that.  

Betting Secrecy

The settling publisher feels they made a good bet and accepts the terms.  The DSP adds one additional post closing condition—the bet must be secret.  The settling publisher will likely voluntarily distribute the monies to their own songwriters on a ratio of earnings (similar to market share), so it can’t be entirely secret.  And there are no secrets in the music business.  But given these realities, why must the bet be secret?  

To keep the strangers to the bet in the dark.

If the bet is announced, strangers to the bet may decide they need to look into how much they are owed.  They may not be willing to take a bet.  They may want what the statute contemplates—good faith commercially reasonable efforts to actually match.

After the DMPs negotiated their safe harbor in the MMA—remembering that the black box payment was never sold to songwriters as optional—it became apparent that all the strangers were now going to be paid for all the uses that were never matched as a part of the lump sum bet.  All the DMPs efforts to keep the strangers in the dark were going to be exposed.  And exposed all at once.  To what end is this secrecy?  Probably for the same reason the DMPs have never posted the unmatched (unlike Royalties Reunited or the AFM-SAG/AFTRA Trust Funds.

Who’s At Fault?

The settling publishers have done absolutely nothing wrong here.  They could have pressed for matching but chose to take the bet.  Could be high, could be low, but seemed like a good bet at the time.  

Plus, by making the bet, they did not take anything away from strangers.  The DMPs still owed an obligation to the strangers.  The settling publishers did not owe the strangers anything.  

This is why the bet is not a double payment so long as the settling publishers are not claiming any uses that were released and settled, which they are not as far as we can tell.  

If the DMPs made a bad bet, that’s on them.  

The DMPs cannot now reduce a cumulative unmatched black box by the prior bets they made.  And of course, as transactions are matched, the unknown knowns become known knowns and are paid out.  In order to accomplish the purpose of the statute, all the transactions must be reported. 

The MMA “deal” was for cumulative payment of the black box.  If settling publishers end up having matched works in the black box—when the unknown become known—those per-transaction payments can be offset to the extent they were covered by a prior release agreed to by a bettor.

But what they cannot do is simply say I made a bet with these guys, so I’m going to claw that back from what I owe to other people who are strangers to the bet.  That’s not a double payment either to the bettor or the stranger to the bet.

Letter of Misdirection

I also do not understand a conversation about letters of direction in this context.  As known unknowns get matched, the DMP should render a statement.  

If the known unknown becomes a known known, that statement will reflect at a minimum the title, copyright owner and the usage as well as whatever other metadata the regulations require.  The now known knowns will either be payable as matched works or have already been covered by a settlement and release for the corresponding period.

In the former case, the payable royalty will be available.  In the latter case, the royalty will have already been paid as part of the settlement.  If that settlement royalty is included in the corresponding black box, that settled usage would be deducted as already paid, which would have a corresponding reduction in the total amount of accrued but unpaid royalties.  That’s not a letter of direction, that’s an offset against otherwise payable royalties due to matching.  

Alternatively, the settling publisher would not be allowed to make a claim for the periods subject to the release because they have no live claims, assuming a total settlement and release for the corresponding accounting period.

Said another way, whatever transactions are in the pending file stay in the pending file with accrued royalties until claimed.  Prior settlements can only be deducted from the transaction lines in the pending file that are for songs owned or controlled by publishers that fall under a prior settlement.  

Tolling the Statute of Limitations

The way the DMPs have actually harmed the strangers is by keeping quiet on this idea that the reach back safe harbor is optional.  They could have raised this issue during the drafting of MMA and after.  But they waited until they had scared away anyone except Eight Mile Style from suing while in theory statutes of limitations ran out starting on 1/1/18 at a minimum.  They used the MMA as a kind of in terrorem stick.

That is grossly unfair.  This has to be changed so that strangers who didn’t make the bet, who didn’t get the payment, and who were silent with their ripe claims since 1/1/18 are not harmed.  

It’s all fine for the DLC to say they do a cost benefit analysis and elect not to take the safe harbor while allowing strangers to be duped.  They should not be able to fool both Congress and the strangers.  Any statute of limitations running since 1/1/18 should be tolled, perhaps under the Copyright Office emergency powers.

Songwriter Black Box Payments

It is rare for a songwriter to have a royalty claim on unallocated catalog-wide payments such as black box monies absent a specific negotiated deal point.  This is a point of some contention with songwriters, so the Copyright Office should look into it as part of the black box study if nothing else.

This black box issue that keeps coming up may be many things, but a double payment it’s not.  

@digitalmusicnws Asks Is the MLC Putting Smaller Streaming Platforms Out of Business? — ArtistRightsWatch

By Editor Charlie

Dylan Smith at Digital Music News asks the question, “Is the MLC Putting Smaller Streaming Platforms out of Business?” We’ve raised this very question long, long ago, back in early 2018 when the Music Modernization Act was getting passed and the chorus of braying by MLC supporters was at a fever pitch. Everyone ignored the obvious flaws in the legislation, especially the anticompetitive nuances that Dylan has highlighted today. 

But understand–this issue is not new. We raised it in the blogs, and Chris raised it to Congressional staff directly–he said the response was a hangdog “I know, I know. It’s what the parties wanted.”

In other words, Congressional staff knew it was stupid, but were being railroaded into doing it anyway by “the parties” (plural) and there are so many hours in the day. When staff said “the parties” back in 2018 before there was an MLC, guess who they meant? One of those parties was the Digital Media Association which still runs the “Digital Licensee Coordinator” or the DLC–which is essentially the companies with trillion-dollar market caps who we think of as Big Tech. (The DLC’s membership application is here.)

And as you will see, it’s more like is the DLC putting smaller streaming platforms out of business. (See the DLC membership assessment fees “explainer” for DLC members.)

DLC Members

And since the DLC appears dominated by Google, Amazon and Spotify, maybe the real issue is that it’s Thursday, so of course Big Tech wants to keep competition weak and vulnerable to being shut down or acquired. And the MLC and its promoters did nothing to stop it because of the pact between the MLC and the DLC that they would each keep anyone out of the vicinity of the Copyright Royalty Judges who might get in their way. 

Of course the most ludicrous part of this is that these trillion-dollar companies don’t just eat the cost of running the DLC since by the time you get finished reading this post, they will have collectively grossed some sum well, well in excess of the annual operating costs.

But–as we will see, there may be some hope for brave startups to challenge the insider deal that penalizes them without giving them an opportunity to speak up for themselves.

As Dylan writes in DMN:

According to the document [establishing the insiders’ allocation of the fee structure], digital service providers have to cover the MLC’s startup fee ($33.5 million) via a “startup assessment,” or “the one-time administrative assessment for the startup phase of the Mechanical Licensing Collective.” This payment must be made alongside the first annual bill, which is due on February 15th, 2021; the second annual fee disclosure is due in November of the same year and must be paid by January of 2022, for a considerable overall obligation.

Total-wise, platforms “that have a Unique Sound Recordings Count” – or the average number of “royalty-bearing” works streamed or downloaded each month – of less than 5,000 will pay an annual minimum fee of $5,000, to a $60,000 annual minimum fee for those with over 5,000 such works. For DSPs that break the 5,000 threshold, it appears that 2021 will bring with it a low-end bill of $120,000.

Significantly, our source proceeded to indicate: “That’s just the minimum – the total assessment is dependent on market share, which is basically unpredictable at this point. And that’s on top of mechanical royalties for those who use the blanket license.”

This completely out of whack cost structure was obviously a major, major flaw in the Music Modernization Act–specifically the incredibly muddled and meandering Title I which established the Mechanical Licensing Collective and the DLC. The chickens are now coming home to roost.

As Chris wrote in Newsmax Finance on August 20, 2018:

[T]he problem [with the MMA] doesn’t come from songwriters. It comes from the real rule makers—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Spotify. And startups know which side butters their bread.

Public discussion of MMA has focused on the song collective and the compulsory blanket license for songs, but the mandated digital services collective is more troubling given the size of the players involved…Rule taker startups are governed by the rule maker DLC, but have no say in the DLC’s selection.

Like Microsoft’s anonymous amici, startups know their place —especially against Google, Amazon, and Facebook, whose monopoly bear hug on startups includes hosting, advertising and driving traffic.

The MMA authorizes these aggressive incumbents to effectively decide the price to startups for the “modernized” blanket license. Why? Because the MMA requires users of the license to pay for the lion’s share of the “administrative assessment,” the licensees’ collectivized administrative cost payment that the CBO estimates will be over $222 million for eight years….

Why should the government only permit one game in town? Rather than have the DLC run by the usual suspect monopolists, why not allow competition?

This is important–if startups can’t afford to buy-in to the license, it does them no good, and their biggest competitors decide the price of that license through the DLC.

“Modernization” should make licensing easier: level the playing field for startups and protect them from famously predatory competitor incumbents, as well as copyright infringement lawsuits from the rule takers.

These are all good reasons for the private market solution. Competition at least gives startups hope for the pursuit of fair treatment.

“The parties” and everyone else ignored this warning (and of course, since it wasn’t included in a press release, the trade press did no investigation). This is exactly what Dylan is focused on in DMN. It was only a matter of time until the invoice for startups came due. 

That invoice arrived as part of the “administrative assessment” hearing mandated by Congress in Title I. This is a curious procedure before the Copyright Royalty Judges that expressly excluded anyone from participating who might get in the way of the check that would reunite the Harry Fox Agency with its former owners. That order by the CRJs is the document that Dylan links to.

In a blog post at the time on MTP, Chris drilled down on the nuances of this settlement for the administrative assessment (which is what gives teeth to the mechanism to sandbag startups:

Notice two things:  First, the CRJs’ adopt the position of the MLC and the DLC that the only people who could object to the settlement were “participants”.  Who might that be?  Why the DLC and the MLC, of course.  There were other participants, most prominently the Songwriters Guild of America.  SGA was hounded out of the proceeding because the MLC apparently did not want to include SGA in the negotiation of a settlement.

I can understand the complexity of a three-way negotiation with those pesky songwriters about a matter that affects all the songwriters in the world who have ever written a song or that may ever write a song.  Those songwriters might really get in the way.  What I do not understand, however, is why the songwriters would not be afforded the opportunity to at least comment on the settlement that carries the awesome power of the Leviathan behind it.  I do understand how the rules came to be written the way they are, however.

And this leads to the other thing to observe about this ruling.  “Because there were no non-settling participants…the proposed settlement was unopposed.”  Rather tautological, right?  How can the settlement be opposed if those who might oppose it are not allowed to do so?

Let’s be clear what “opposition” means in this context.  You could just as easily say “improve” or “make fair”.  And lest you think that this is yet another example of sloppy legislative drafting in the mistake-prone Title I, this time I don’t think it’s a mistake.  I think it is exactly what the drafters intended.

This is all pretty darkly typical swampy behavior by the insiders and their lobbyists dedicated to lawyering their way to an unfair court order masquerading as a good thing for songwriters. Of course.

Here’s the ray of sunshine:

After the world “unopposed” the CRJs drop a footnote.  And it is this footnote that is probably the most important point to the unrepresented songwriters and startups who either couldn’t afford to participate or who were afraid of back alley retaliation if they did.

“The Judges have been advised by their staff that some members of the public sent emails to the Copyright Royalty Board seeking to comment on the proposed settlement agreement.Neither the Copyright Act, nor the regulations adopted thereunder, provide for submission or consideration of comments on a proposed settlement by non-participants in an administrative assessment proceeding. Consequently, as a matter of law, the Judges could not, and did not, consider these ex parte communications in deciding whether to approve the proposed settlement. Additionally, the Judges’ non-consideration of these ex parte communications does not: (i) imply any opinion by the Judges as to the substantive merits of any statements contained in such communications; or (ii) reflect any inability of the Judges to question, [on their own motion without a filing from a participant] whether good cause exists to adopt a settlement and to then utilize all express or reasonably implied statutory authority granted to them to make a determination as to the existence…of good cause [to reject the settlement now or in the future].

This footnote is very, very important.  I would interpret it to mean that the CRJs may anticipate that they are directly or indirectly appealed or their decision is examined by the Congress that has ultimate oversight. 

Note that the Judges clearly anticipate reviewing the assessment for “good cause” without a filling from the DLC or the MLC. It’s not clear exactly how that might happen, but it might be as simple as a startup complaining to the CRJs in an email.

So it seems to us that it’s only an MLC issue in that both the MLC and the DLC are each complicit in keeping outsiders away from the decisions about the administrative assessment and how it will be tagged to startups or smaller services. You know, “the parties” decided how the little people are to make do.

SoundExchange Comment on The MLC’s Public Database

[One of the problems that The MLC will encounter is matching songs to transaction data from the “safe harbor services” using the blanket licenses and enjoying the reach back safe harbor giveaway in the Music Modernization Act. There are different ways to do this, but it appears that The MLC wants to gather sound recording metadata (like the ISRC unique identifiers) and then map the songs to the sound recordings based on sound recording information from the services. This is hardly an authoritative basis to determine sound recordings, but that appears to be what The MLC intends to do. SoundExchange is the authoritative source for this information and they’ve been assembling that data for many, many years. This except from SoundExchange’s comment to the Copyright Office sheds light on the issues. Again, you’ll rarely find any of the issues in these Copyright Office comments discussed in the trade press unless someone like The MLC issues a press release. It’s also worth noting that The MLC has merely stated that The MLC “agrees that the data in the public MLC musical
works database is not owned by the MLC or its vendor.” First, “data” is not the same as a “database”. We want to find out if there is any difference between disclaiming ownership of individual data and claiming ownership of the database as a whole. But second, there’s no proof yet that The MLC’s current “data quality initiative” does not simply update the database of The MLC’s vendor, HFA.]

Read the entire SoundExchange comment here.

SoundExchange appreciates the inclusion in Section 210.31(h) of the Office’s proposed regulations the requirement that MLC Database include a “conspicuous” disclaimer that states that the database is not an authoritative source for sound recording information. It appears that the
MLC has decided to populate the MLC Database with sound recording identifying information sourced from usage data provided by digital music providers (rather than authoritative sources such as rights owners). SoundExchange believes this decision will result in the MLC Database being chock-full of redundant records variously misidentifying a large number of sound recordings.

Nonetheless, SoundExchange also recognizes that the MLC needs to launch its business on a tight timetable, and that the Office has sought to mitigate the issue through other provisions such as the requirement to provide data provenance. However, the MLC’s decision makes it critically important the MLC’s disclaimer concerning sound recording information be clear and prominent, and perhaps linked to a more detailed explanation of the issue, because this design decision carries a significant risk of confusing the public, which needs to understand what the MLC Database is and what it is not….

[I]t is critical that the MLC Database be easily accessible to all other
industry participants, so others can build on the MLC Database to create value-added resources for the industry. For example, while the MLC’s reluctance to include and organize its data around authoritative sound recording information may make sense given practical constraints, it represents a missed opportunity to develop a resource with authoritative linkages between sound recordings and musical works that would be of significantly greater value for participants in the ecosystem. Fortunately, the statutory requirement that the MLC make its data available to others provides an opportunity for third parties to fill that void. This kind of function depends on API access to the MLC Database.

Guest Post: The Supreme Court Should See Through Google’s Industrial-Strength Fair Use Charade

[This post first appeared on Morning Consult. The US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the Google v. Oracle case on October 7]

Google’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of two Federal Circuit decisions in Oracle’s favor is turning into the most consequential copyright case of the court’s term — if not the decade. The appeal turns in part on whether the Supreme Court will uphold the Federal Circuit’s definition of fair use for creators and reject Google’s dubious assertion of “industrial strength” fair use.

I co-wrote an amicus brief on the fair use question on behalf of independent songwriters supporting Oracle in the appeal. Our conclusion was that the Supreme Court should affirm the Federal Circuit’s extensive analysis and hold for Oracle because Google masks its monopoly commercial interest in industrial-strength fair use that actually violates fair use principles.

The story begins 15 years ago. Google had a strategic problem. The company had focused on dominating the desktop search market. Google needed an industrial-strength booster for its business because smartphones, especially the iPhone, were relentlessly eating its corporate lunch. Google bought Android Inc. in 2005 to extend its dominance over search — some might say its monopoly — to these mobile platforms. It worked — Android’s market share has hovered around 85 percent for many years, with well over 2 billion Android devices.

But how Google acquired that industrial boost for Android is the core issue in the Oracle case. After acquiring Android, Google tried to make a license deal for Sun Microsystems’ Java operating system (later acquired by Oracle). Google didn’t like Sun’s deal. So Google simply took a verbatim chunk of the Java declaring code, and walled off Android from Java. That’s why Google got sued and that’s why the case is before the court. Google has been making excuses for that industrial-strength taking ever since.

Why would a public company engage in an overt taking of Oracle’s code? The same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. Because that’s where the money is. There are untold riches in running the Internet of Other People’s Things.

Google chose to take rather than innovate. Google’s supporters released a study of the self-described “fair use industries” — an Orwellian oxymoron, but one that Google firmly embraces. Google’s taking is not transformative but it is industrial strength.

We have seen this movie before. It’s called the value gap. It’s called a YouTube class-action brought by an independent composer. It’s called Google Books. It’s called 4 billion takedown notices for copyright infringement. It’s called selling advertising on pirate sites like Megaupload (as alleged in the Megaupload indictment). It’s called business as usual for Google by distorting exceptions to the rights of authors for Google’s enormous commercial benefit. Google now positions itself to the Supreme Court as a champion of innovation, but creators standing with Oracle know that for Google, “innovation” has become an empty vessel that it fills with whatever shibboleth it can carelessly manipulate to excuse its latest outrage.

Let’s remember that the core public policy justification for the fair use defense is to advance the public interest. As the leading fair use commentator Judge Pierre Leval teaches, that’s why fair use analysis is devoted to determining “whether, and how powerfully, a finding of fair use would serve or disserve the objectives of the copyright.” You can support robust fair use without supporting Google’s position.

Google would have the court believe that its fair use defense absolves it from liability for the industrial-strength taking of Oracle’s copyright — because somehow the public interest was furthered by “promoting software innovation,” often called “permissionless innovation” (a phrase straight out of Orwell’s Newspeak). Google would have the court conflate Google’s vast commercial private interest with the public objectives of copyright. Because the internet.

How the Supreme Court rules on Google’s fair use issue will have wide-ranging implications across all works of authorship if for no other reason than Google will dine out for years to come on a ruling in its favor. Photographers, authors, illustrators, documentarians — all will be on the menu.

Despite Google’s protestations that it is really just protecting innovation, what is good for Google is not synonymous with what is good for the public interest — any more than “what’s good for General Motors is good for America,” or more appropriately, “what’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA.”