Will the Copyright Royalty Board approve Big Tech’s attempted cover-up?
By Chris Castle
[This MusicTechPolicy post appeared on Hypebot]
There’s an old saying among sailors that water always wins. Sunlight does, too. It may take a while, but time reveals all things in the cold light of dawn. So when you are free riding on huge blocks of aged government cheese like the digital music services do with the compulsory mechanical license, the question you should ask yourself is why hide from the sunlight? It just makes songwriters even more suspicious.
This melodrama just played out at the Copyright Royalty Board with the frozen mechanicals proceeding. Right on cue, the digital services and their legions of lawyers proved they hadn’t learned a damn thing from that exercise. They turned right around and tried to jam a secret deal through the Copyright Royalty Board on the streaming mechanicals piece of Phonorecords IV.
To their great credit, the labels handled frozen physical mechanicals quite differently. They voluntarily disclosed the side deal they made with virtually no redactions and certainly didn’t try to file it “under seal” like the services did. Filing “under seal” hides the major moving parts of a voluntary settlement from the world’s songwriters. Songwriters, of course, are the ones most affected by the settlement–which the services want the CRB to approve–some might say “rubber stamp”–and make law.
To fully appreciate the absolute lunacy of the services attempt at filing the purported settlement document under seal, you have to remember that the Copyright Royalty Judges spilled considerable ink in the frozen mechanicals piece of Phonorecords IV telling those participants how important transparency was when they rejected the initial Subpart B settlement.
This happened mere weeks ago in the SAME PHONORECORDS IV PROCEEDING.
Were the services expecting the Judges to say “Just kidding”? What in the world were they thinking? Realize that filing the settlement–which IF ACCEPTED is then published by the Judges for public comment under the applicable rules established long ago by Congress–is quite different than filing confidential commercial information. You might expect redactions or filings under seal, “attorneys eyes only,” etc., in direct written statements, expert testimony or the other reams of paper all designed to help the Judges guess what rate a willing buyer would pay a willing seller. That rate to be applied to the world under a compulsory license which precludes willing buyers and willing sellers, thank you Franz Kafka.
When you file the settlement, that document is the end product of all those tens of millions of dollars in legal fees that buy houses in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vinyard as well as send children to prep school, college and graduate school. Not the songwriters’ children, mind you, oh no.
The final settlement is, in fact, the one document that should NEVER be redacted or secret. How else will the public–who may not get a vote but does get their say–even know what it is the law is based on assuming the Judges approve the otherwise secret deal. It’s asking the Judges to tell the public, the Copyright Office, their colleagues in the appeals courts and ultimately the Congress, sorry, our version of the law is based on secret information.
Does that even scan? I mean, seriously, what kind of buffoons come up with this stuff? Of course the Judges will question the bona fides and provenance of the settlement. Do you think any other federal agency could get away with actually doing this? The lawlessness of the very idea is breathtaking and demonstrates conclusively in my view that these services like Google are the most dangerous corporations in the world. The one thing that gives solace after this display of arrogance is that some of them may get broken up before they render too many mechanical royalty accounting statements.
To their credit, after receiving the very thin initial filing the Judges instructed the services to do better–to be kind. The Judges issued an order that stated:
The Judges now ORDER the Settling Parties to certify, no later than five days from the date of this order, that the Motion and the Proposed Regulations annexed to the Motion represent the full agreement of the Settling Parties, i.e., that there are no other related agrements and no other clauses. If such other agreements or clauses exist, the Settling Parties shall file them no later than five days from the date of this order.
Just a tip to any younger lawyers reading this post–you really, really, really do not want to be on the receiving end of this kind of order.
Reading between the lines (and not very far) the Judges are telling the parties to come clean. Either “certify” to the Judges “that there are no other related agreements and no other clauses” or produce them. This use of the term “certify” means all the lawyers promise to the Judges as officers of the court that their clients have come clean, or alternatively file the actual documents.
That produced the absurd filing under seal, and that then produced the blowback that led to the filing of the unsealed and unreacted documents. But–wait, there’s more.
Take a close look at what the Judges asked for and what they received. The Judges asked for certification “that there are no other related agrements and no other clauses. If such other agreements or clauses exist, the Settling Parties shall file them no later than five days from the date of this order.”
What the Judges received is described in the purportedly responsive filing by the services:
The Settling Participants [aka the insiders] have provided all of the settlement documentsand, with this public filing, every interested party can fully evaluate and comment upon the settlement. The Settling Participants thus believe that the Judges have everything necessary to “publish the settlement in the Federal Register for notice and comment from those bound by the terms, rates, or other determination set by the” Settlement Agreement, as required under 37 C.F.R. 351.2(b)(2). The Settling Participants respectfully request that the Judges inform them if there is any further information that they require.
Notice that the Judges asked for evidence of the “full agreement of the Settling Parties”, meaning all side deals or other vigorish exchanged between the parties including the DSPs that control vast riches larger than most countries and are super-conflicted with the publishers due to their joint venture investment in the MLC quango.
The response is limited to “the settlement documents” and then cites to what the services no doubt think they can argue limits their disclosure obligations to what is necessary to “publish the settlement”. And then the services have the brass to add “The Settling Participants respectfully request that the Judges inform them if there is any further information that they require.” Just how are the Judges supposed to know if the services complied with the order? Is this candor?
It must also be noted that Google and the NMPA have “lodged” certain documents relating to YouTube’s direct agreements which they claim are not related to the settlement to be published for public comment. These documents are, of course, secret:
[And] are not part of the settlement agreement or understanding of the settling participants concerning the subject matter of the settlement agreement, and do not supersede any part of the settlement agreement with respect to the settling participants’ proposed Phonorecords IV rates and terms. Further, the letter agreements do not change or modify application of the terms to be codified at 37 C.F.R. 385 Subparts C and D, including as they apply to any participant. Rather, the letter agreements simply concern Google’s current allocation practices to avoid the double payment of royalties arising from YouTube’s having entered into direct agreements with certain music publishers while simultaneously operating under the Section 115 statutory license.
You’ll note that there are a number of declarative statements that lets the hoi polloi know that the Data Lords and Kings of the Internet Realms have determined some information involving their royalties is none of their concern. How do you know that you shouldn’t worry your pretty little head about some things? Because the Data Lords tell you so. And now, back to sleep you Epsilons.
So you see that despite the statements in the group filing to the CRB that the “Settling Participants” (i.e., the insiders) claim to have provided all of the settlement documents required by the Judges, Google turns right around and “lodges” this separate filing of still other documents that they think might be related documents with some bearing on the settlement that should be disclosed to the public but they apparently will not be disclosing without a fight. How do we know this? Because they pretty much say so:
Because the letter agreements are subject to confidentiality restrictions and have each only been disclosed to their individual signatories, each such music publisher having an extant direct license agreement with Google, Google and NMPA are lodging the letter agreements directly with the Copyright Royalty Judges, who may then make a determination as to whether the letter agreements are relevant and what, if anything, should be disclosed notwithstanding the confidentiality restrictions in each of the letter agreements.
Ah yes, the old “nondisclosure” clause. You couldn’t ask for a better example of how NDAs are used to hide information from songwriters about their own money.
The Judges noted when rejecting the similar initial frozen mechanical regulations that:
Parties have an undeniable right of contract. The Judges, however, are not required to adopt the terms of any contract, particularly when the contract at issue relates in part, albeit by reference, to additional unknown terms that indicate additional unrevealed consideration passing between the parties, which consideration might have an impact on effective royalty rates.
So there’s that.
What this all boils down to is that the richest and most dangerous corporations in commercial history are accustomed to algorithmically duping consumers, vendors and even governments in the dark and getting away with it. The question is, if you believe that sunlight always wins, do they still want to hide as long as they can and then look stupid, or do they want to come clean to begin with and be honest brokers.
As Willie Stark famously said in All the King’s Men, “Time reveals all things, I trust it so.”
@MMercuriadis on the @CMAgovUK’s Whiff on the Streaming Report
Hipgnosis CEO Merck Mercuriadis had a strong statement in Music Week about the Competition and Markets Authority’s swing and a miss at the obviously absurd music streaming system as it was clearly identified by the groundbreaking report from the Digital Culture Media and Sport Select Committee of the UK Parliament. Given the good work done by the DCMS committee, the CMA report is simply insulting to those Members of Parliament.
Unfortunately the CMA report reads like a lobbyist’s press release and Mercuriadis lays it down and calls them out. Even though this is a little inside baseball in the UK, Trichordist readers understand that the underlying issues involve every songwriter and involve every artist regardless of where you live and regardless of where you claim as home. Mercuriadis is exactly right, the money is there it’s just not getting to the right people.
The battle continues.
“[Hipgnosis] would like to thank the Competition and Markets Authority for acknowledging in its report today the lack of transparency in the music streaming market, and for highlighting the continued dominance of the market by the major labels and recorded music, along with the severely adverse impact this is having on songwriters’ ability to earn a living,” he said. “However, with 70% of all those responding to the CMA consultation calling for reform, it is regrettable that the CMA is not minded to investigate and address the clear failures its study identified.
“The Digital Culture Media and Sport select committee in its July 2021 report on the economics of music streaming – ‘Music streaming must modernize. Is anybody listening?’ – called for the CMA to address the economic impact of the music majors’ dominance.
“Today the CMA has not acted to address the impact on the creative songwriting community, and this is a missed opportunity to follow up on those concerns raised by Members of Parliament on the Digital Culture Media and Sport select committee. It is a disappointment for songwriters who earn pitiful returns from streaming, not because there is not enough to go round, but simply because it is not being shared fairly and equitably.”
Mercuriadis added: “Hipgnosis will continue to call for fundamental reform of a broken system which does not recognise the paramount role of the songwriter in the music ecosystem. We have always believed that the ultimate solution lies within the music industry itself and we will continue to advocate on behalf of songwriters with the major recorded music companies to push for a fair and equitable split. There would be no recorded music industry without songwriters.
“Legislative and government authorities have the power to redress the economic imbalance where major recorded music companies that own and control the major publishing companies are purposefully undervaluing the songwriter’s contribution. The Intellectual Property Office [UK’s Copyright Office] has a key role to play in redressing the imbalance and we will continue to support its work and efforts.
“Hipgnosis will continue to campaign for change at the highest levels, using our success to advocate and fight on behalf of the songwriting community and to take the songwriter from the bottom of the economic equation to the top.”
The @CMAgovUK UK Competition and Markets Authority’s Missed Opportunity: Reaction from @MrTomGray #BrokenRecord
The literature suggests that in the presence of…positive feedbacks [from the Get Big Fast strategy], firms should pursue an aggressive strategy in which they seek to grow as rapidly as possible and preempt their rivals. Typical tactics include pricing below the short-run profit-maximizing level (or even below the cost of goods sold), rapidly expanding capacity, advertising heavily, and forming alliances to build market clout with suppliers and workers and to deter entry of new players. Intuitively, such aggressive strategies are superior because they increase both industry demand and the aggressive firm’s share of that demand, stimulating the positive feedbacks described above.Limits to Grown in the NEw Economy: Exploring the Get big Fast strategy in ecommerce https://scripts.mit.edu/~jsterman/docs/Oliva-2003-LimitsToGrowthInTheNewEconomy.pdf
You may have seen that the UK Competition and Markets Authority released a report on music streaming in the UK. Of course, because the same players dominate the UK market like they do in France…sorry, I meant Germany…sorry I meant Canada…sorry I meant Sweden…sorry I meant the United States…how different could the competition issues be for US artists and songwriters? You have the biggest corporations in commercial history (Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google) and the “get big fast” wannabes like Spotify (and Pandora in the US) on one side, the three major labels and the music publishing affiliates on the other side and the artists, songwriters, indie labels, indie publishers and especially the session musicians and vocalists squeezed in the middle.
Plus you have all of the biggest of Big Tech companies as well as wannabe Get-Big-Fast acolytes like Spotify and Pandora setting almost identical price points and freezing them there for a decade while refusing to exercise pricing power and nobody finds that just a trifle odd? Then in the grandest of grand deflections passing this off as the “pie” that everyone should look at instead of acknowledging that it’s the poptart served at the kid’s table in the nursery instead of the feast at the adult’s table in the dining room where the gravy bowls of shares of public stock are handed out dot-bomb style with a side of advertising barter. All while singing an apologia for payola and consumer welfare based on cheapness? You know there’s another way to get really, really cheap goods for consumers that ain’t quite so well received in history.
And yet somehow the Competition and Markets Authority passes this off as good for the consumer? With no meaningful discussion of the Malthusian and anticompetitive effects of the pro-rata model and pretty much summarily ignoring the actual revenue earned by “successful” artists in the beggar-thy-neighbor pricing and revenue charade. Not to mention the complete failure to discuss the supervoting stock at Spotify, Google and Facebook and all the other accoutrements of power that give Daniel Ek, Martin Lorentzen, Tim Cook, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos control over the global music industry–pale males one and all and also looking pretty stale around the edges the singularity notwithstanding. And then there’s Bytedance and Tencent.
The logic of the CMA in avoiding these issues rivals the Warren Commission’s Single Bullet Theory. But makes total sense as the triumph of the lobbyists for the biggest corporations in commercial history. And sometimes you just might find you get what you need.
We will continue to dig into this latest report and its methodology as will others like Tom Gray, the dynamic founder of the hugely effective #BrokenRecord campaign that led to this investigation which is not over by a long shot. Tom had this reaction to a what’s next question and we take his guidance:
The CMA’s initial findings are:
the music market doesn’t have much competition;
the actions of the Majors and DSPs actively reduce that competition;
artists and songwriters are mostly, if not entirely, doing badly out of it;
but they accept the status quo using the narrowest paradigm of competition and its value to the consumer. It doesn’t go near the fact that the Majors used market power to create the very ‘norms’ the report resigns us to.
A difficult read: one which points to the weakness or indifference of national ‘authorities’ in the face of the gross expansion of multi-nationals unfettered by regulation. Monopolies should be broken to protect citizens and workers, not only to defend consumerism’s need of a saving.
What’s most ironic is you could take the CMA’s findings to a different authority with a more progressive outlook and get a completely different result. They simply don’t seem to have considered it their job to care about the hugely visible negative consequences of concentrated power on musicmakers.
If you would like to tell the Competition and Markets Authority what you think about their statements they want to hear from you.
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