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.”

Thinking Outside the Pie: @legrandnetwork Study for GESAC Highlights Streaming Impact on Choking Diversity and Songwriter Royalties

By Chris Castle

[This post first appeared in MusicTech.Solutions]

Emmanuel Legrand prepared an excellent and important study for the European Grouping of Societies of Authors and Composers (GESAC) that identifies crucial effects of streaming on culture, creatives and especially songwriters. The study highlights the cultural effects of streaming on the European markets, but it would be easy to extend these harms globally as Emmanuel observes.

For example, consider the core pitch of streaming services that started long ago with the commercial Napster 2.0 pitch of “Own Nothing, Have Everything”. This call-to-serfdom slogan may sound good but having infinite shelf space with no cutouts or localized offering creates its own cultural imperative. And that’s even if you accept the premise the algorithmically programed enterprise playlists on streaming services should not be subject to the same cultural protections for performers and songwriters as broadcast radio–its main competitor.

[This] massive availability of content on [streaming] platforms is overshadowed by the fact that these services are under no positive obligations to ensure visibility and discoverability of more diverse repertoires, particularly European works….[plus]  the initial individual subscription fee of 9.99 (in Euros, US dollars, or British pound) set in 2006, has never increased, despite the exponential growth in the quality, amount of songs, and user-friendliness of music streaming services.

Artists working new recordings, especially in a language other than English, are forced to fight for “shelf space” and “mindshare”–that is, recognition–against every recording ever released. While this was always true theoretically; you never had that same fight the same way at Tower Records.

This is not theoretically true on streaming platforms–it is actually true because these tens of millions of historical recordings are the competition on streaming services. When you look at the global 100 charts for streaming services, almost all of the titles are in English and are largely Anglo-American releases. Yes, we know–Bad Bunny. But this year’s exception proves the rule.

And then Emmanuel notes that it is the back room algorithms–the terribly modern version of the $50 handshake–that support various payola schemes:

The use of algorithms, as well as bottleneck represented by the most popular playlists, exacerbates this. Furthermore, long-standing flaws in the operations of music streaming platforms, such as “streaming fraud”, “ghost/fake artists”, “payola schemes”, “royalty free content” and other coercive practices [not to mention YouTube withholding access to Content ID] worsen the impact on many professional creators….

This report suggests solutions to bring greater transparency in the use of algorithms and invites stakeholders to undertake a review of the economic models of streaming services and evaluate how they currently affect cultural diversity which should be promoted in its various forms — music genres, languages, origin of performers and songwriters, in particular through policy actions.

Trichordist readers will recall my extensive dives into the hyperefficient market share distribution of streaming royalties known as the “big pool” compared to my “ethical pool” proposal and the “user centric” alternative. As Emmanuel points out, the big pool royalty model belies a cultural imperative–if you are counting streams on a market share basis that results in the rich getting richer based on “stream share” that same stream share almost guarantees that Anglo American repertoire will dominate in every market the big streamers operate.

Emmanuel uses French-Canadian repertoire as an example (a subject I know a fair amount about since I performed and recorded with many vedettes before Quebecoise was cool).

A lot of research has been made in Canada with regards to discoverability, in particular in the context of French-Canadian music, which is subject to quotas for over the air broadcasters which however do not apply to music streaming services. The research shows that while the lists of new releases from Québec studied are present in a large proportion on streaming platforms, they are “not very visible and very little recommended.” 

It further shows that the situation is even worse when it is not about new releases, including hit music, when the presence of titles “drops radically.” It is not very difficult to imagine that if we were to swap Québec in the above sentence with the name of any country from the European Union [or any non-Anglo American country], and even with music from the European Union as a whole, we could find similar results.

In other words, there may be aggregators with repertoire in languages other than English that deliver tracks to streamers in their countries, but–absent localized airplay rules–a Spotify user might never know the tracks were there unless the user already knew about the recording, artist or songwriter. (Speaking of Canada, check the MAPL system.)

This is a prime example of why Professor Feijoo and I proposed streaming remuneration in our WIPO study to allow performers to capture the uncompensated capital markets value to the enterprise driven by these performers. Because of the market share royalty system, revenues and royalties do not compensate all performers, particularly regional or non-featured performers (i.e., session players and singers) who essentially get zero compensation for streaming.

Emmanuel also comments on the imbalance in song royalty payments and invites a re-look at how the streaming system biases against songwriters. I would encourage everyone to stop thinking of a pie to be shared or that Johnny has more apples–when the services refuse to raise prices in order to tell a growth story to Wall Street or The City, measuring royalties by a share of some mythical royalty pie is not ever going to get it done. It will just perpetuate a discriminatory system that fails to value the very people on whose backs it was built be they songwriters or session players.

We must think outside the pie.

@KerryMuzzey Calls Out Chinese Streamer iQiyi and Tencent for Massive Infringement of Composers

Readers will recall Kerry Muzzey, a leading film composer and outspoken advocate for composers. Kerry’s testimony before the U.S. Senate is some of the best analysis of the struggle of independent creators against the DMCA onslaught. We’ve also been lucky to have him post on MusicTechPolicy and Trichordist.

As Kerry has taught us, composers are often ripped off by some of the biggest names in streaming, some of which are based in China. This is particularly ironic given the long arm of companies like Tencent into the legitimate music business.

Never say never, but it does seem like the mainstream trade press never reports on this angle: These companies are ripping off our artists in a whole other kind of human rights violation because artist rights are human rights.

Save the date: A2IM Indie Week Panel with @musictechpolicy on the Impact on Indie Labels of Unfreezing Mechanicals

If you are coming to Indie Week, Trichordist readers might enjoy a panel Chris Castle is on to discuss the impact on indie labels of the Great Unfreeze! 

Entitled How the CRB’s Rejection of Frozen Mechanicals Will Affect Your Label?, the panel goes off at 10:30 am ET on Wednesday, June 15 at the New York Law School.

Speakers are Victor Zaraya: Concord (Moderator), Danielle Aguirre: NMPA (National Music Publishers’ Association), Glen Barros: Exceleration, and Chris.

If you want to read up on the issues that caused the Copyright Royalty Board to reject the failed settlement, here’s some background:

Copyright Royalty Board’s Rejection of NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Warner, Universal settlement

Copyright Royalty Board’s Reaction to Second Settlement Proposal by NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Warner and Universal

Survey Results from Songwriter Survey on Frozen Mechanicals

Comments:

Rosanne Cash

Helienne Lindvall, David Lowery, Blake Morgan

David Poe

Abby North, Erin McAnally, Chelsea Crowell

Kevin Casini

NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Warner, Universal Comment with Copy of MOU4

Chris will post about the panel afterward.

A new proposal for songwriters in the Imperial City

[This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

By Chris Castle

As MTP readers will recall, the National Music Publishers Association and the Nashville Songwriters Association International purported to agree on behalf of a “consensus” that never seemed to materialize to extend the long-frozen 9.1¢ mechanical rate for physical and downloads in the form of a settlement agreement in the Copyright Royalty Board’s Phonorecords IV proceeding.  I thought this deal reeked and so did a number of other people, including the Copyright Royalty Board itself which rejected the settlement.

To their great credit, Sony, Universal and Warner stepped up and agreed to offer all the world’s songwriters increased rates of 12¢ plus inflation indexing for the next five years which they didn’t have to do (and was a deal that the CRB hinted that they would find acceptable when they resoundingly rejected the first settlement).  Assuming the Copyright Royalty Board accepts the deal—a step you might miss out from the press coverage–this had the effect of a quick end to a process the labels had every right to litigate at the CRB.

The other benefit to the settlement is that it should—if it doesn’t get screwed up again—it should take away a major argument that the digital retailers are using against songwriters in the streaming part of the Phonorecords IV proceeding.  That argument is the most obvious negotiating tactic in the world:  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  The services are essentially saying that if the rates should be frozen when the labels are paying the mechanical (which they are on physical and downloads), then the rates should be frozen when the services are paying the mechanical (which the services are on streaming).  And no inflation adjustment. Well, no kidding.

In one power move, the labels did something fair for songwriters and incidentally also helped publishers in spite of themselves by taking away a major argument from the digital retailers.  Rather than play a schoolyard game of high/low bargaining and stretching out the process for another couple years, the labels cut to the chase and closed. Hopefully the CRB will agree (again, don’t forget that the CRB still has to approve the proposed deal.)

Do we still have bones to pick with the labels?  Absolutely.  Could the rate have been even more fair?  Sure.  Might it have been if the publishers had actually done their job and negotiated in the first place?  Maybe.  Probably.  But they didn’t so we’ll never know.  However, credit where credit’s due, the labels pulled this one out and saved the publishers’ bacon in spite of themselves.

I do have to note in passing that when you read the press coverage on the filing of the settlement, there’s not one US group with a press release today that actually picked up a pen and filed a comment at the CRB when they were needed and duty called.  The awesome UK songwriter group Ivors Academy stepped up and bled with songwriters like Rosanne Cash, George Johnson, Helienne Lindvall, David Lowery and Blake Morgan and all the other commenters who took one for the team when it was unpopular to do so. And as that guy said, he who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.

You’ll hear a lot of hoorah about how streaming is what’s important from people who are trying to CYA today.  Here’s a hot tip:  IT’S ALL IMPORTANT IF IT’S YOUR MONEY.  Why is that so hard to understand?

Which is why going forward all songwriters and all publishers need to be involved with the rate-setting proceedings at CRB including on streaming.  The CRB knows this and acknowledges.  I think the labels know this on their side.

The question is whether the publishers do.  The announcement of this settlement proposal is both inauspicious and true to form.  Remember—they had practically nothing to do with making the deal they celebrate today.  But don’t let that stop anyone.

We need fairness at the Copyright Royalty Board.  Notice I’m not using the word “transparency” which means whatever the speaker wants it to mean.  I’m very specifically talking about a seat at the table not just for songwriters, but for independent labels and publishers as well as the majors.  As Ann Richards used to say, if you’re not at the table you are on the menu, and this was a very, very close run thing in Phonorecords IV. 

If it weren’t for all the people who commented negatively and resisted the rates that had been bootstrapped in the past and would have been again, I don’t know where songwriters would be today. You gave the Judges the truth, straight from the heart and they responded. So thank you, all of you. And thank you to the readers of MTP and The Trichordist who raised hell right along side. It’s a good day for everyone.

Remember–keep coming back because it works if you work it.

Guest Post by @georgejohnson: The only songwriter in Phonorecords IV speaks his mind

[You may have never heard of George Johnson, but you should have. He’s the only songwriter in the Phonorecords III and IV rate proceedings at the Copyright Royalty Board, representing himself. It’s also important to understand that if George wasn’t carrying the flag as a “participant” in the proceedings, it’s unlikely that the Copyright Royalty Judges would have rejected the bizarre “settlement” proposed by the major labels and publishers paving the way for the second proposed settlement announced today that raises the mechanical rate to 12¢. George asked us to post a short comment on today’s settlement.]

Unfortunately, as glad as I am to see the labels finally offer a slightly better rate of 12 cents, the Judges have not even ruled on the last unreasonable settlement that they rejected, nor had time to hear a back from the Register on the Novel Question of Law proposed by the 3 Major Record Labels. Therefore, it would be premature for me to agree to any rushed deal before first hearing the Register‘s and the Judges’ rulings of law on this issue, and the many other problems the Judges pointed out with these extremely flawed settlements.

Furthermore, the multiple conflicts of interest, self dealing, vertical integration “warning flags”, side deals, and other problems may still need to be resolved by the Judges before any new settlement can be approved.

NMPA CEO David Israelite even stated in 2015 that the rate should be 50 cents, yet he continues to fight me to keep the rate frozen and below market, despite now being forced to offer 12 cents to the Judges which he absolutely did not want to do and fought every step of the way. He is no songwriter advocate whatsoever. He also makes $2 million dollars a year in salary and extra compensation to keep songwriters frozen at 9.1 cents all these years because he really works for the parent record labels, not their vertically integrated publishing division as he claims. It’s a total waste of time for songwriters and I hope Congress puts a stop to this self-dealing and increasing antitrust issues created by these two-timing lobbyists’ behavior.

Btw, when the rate is accurately calculated for inflation since 2006 it’s actually 13 cents, not 12 cents like they offered, but it’s still way below market considering the rate was 2 cents in 1909.  A rate based on today’s marketplace reality would place the rate at a break-even point of 58 cents per song to make up for 89 ignored years of zero inflation adjustments for songwriters, who are entitled to a raise, much less a simple cost of living adjustment for 2022 real world prices. Plus there is no legal difference between adjusting from 2006 or 1909.  NMPA, NSAI, and RIAA just don’t want to increase the profits for their own songwriters, much less all their competitors who have to have their rates frozen by NMPA, NSAI, and the RIAA, which is extraordinary and must end.

There is also the issue of the free unlimited “limited download” loophole which must be paid a mechanical and, of course, the labels completely ignored this core issue which goes hand in hand with a properly adjusted 58 cent inflation royalty rate which all songwriters and publishers deserve now.  Apple and the other Services need to reduce their 30% per dollar fee on downloads to help share in the cost of the Judges’ ruling of no more static rates for songwriters.  If the labels offer a reasonable rate and fix their self dealing conflicts and side deals, along with a paid mechanical for limited downloads, then I would sign a deal like that. Plus, the labels refuse to address the issue of old controlled composition clauses at 75% of the lawful statutory rate or any new controlled composition clauses to reduce any new agreed increases.

Keeping the Songwriter Survey Open!!

Thanks for the HUGE response to the songwriter survey on what you think the new unfrozen mechanical rate should be!! The response has been so strong we’re going to keep the survey open so more of you can participate.

This Survey Monkey questionnaire is anonymous and easy to take–3 minutes to complete–and you could really help a lot by giving your opinions on what you think the rate should be! We will post the results so everyone can see.

You can start the survey at this link. Thank you!

Please take our physical and download mechanical royalty rates survey and help decide the new rates!

We are participating in a survey being conducted by a number of songwriter groups around the world to ask our readers what you think the new un-frozen mechanical royalty rate should be since the Copyright Royalty Judges rejected the settlement that would have extended the 9.1¢ freeze. Trichordist readers have heard a lot about the frozen mechanicals but after the Judges rejected extending the freeze we have moved on now to a new phase–if the rate isn’t 9.1¢ anymore, what should it be?

This Survey Monkey questionnaire is anonymous and easy to take–3 minutes to complete–and you could really help a lot by giving your opinions on what you think the rate should be! We will post the results so everyone can see.

You can start the survey at this link. Thank you!

Is @UMG coming to the party on unfrozen mechanicals?

By Chris Castle

[This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

I have it on good authority from someone close to the talks not authorized to speak on the record that Universal is taking the lead on solving the now un-frozen mechanicals crisis. This obviously needs to be confirmed and may not be final, but I think it’s well worth posting about.

Recall that the crisis pertains to the so-called “Subpart B” mechanical royalties paid by record companies for permanent downloads, vinyl and compact discs. The mechanical rate has been frozen at 9.1¢ since 2008 and the Copyright Royalty Judges recently rejected a settlement among the NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Universal and Warner to extend the freeze in the Phonorecords IV proceeding. Having rejected the proposed settlement, the next step could be knock down, drop dead, drag out litigation that would, in my view, be totally unnecessary. Or the next step could be the labels and publishers submitting a new proposed settlement and asking for the Judges’ approval. 

Also recall that the Judges hinted at a potential deal they would like to see in their rejection of the proposed settlement that would essentially uplift the current 9.1¢ rate by an inflation factor since the rate was set in 2008, bringing the minimum statutory rate for all “Subpart B” configurations to 12¢ that would be further uplifted by an annual cost of living adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U in this case).

We’ve written about this topic so much that you’re probably sick of hearing about it–but if this source turns out to be correct, it’s a real step in the right direction by Universal taking a leadership role that will no doubt be controversial.

As I understand it, Universal may propose a minimum statutory rate of 10¢ for permanent downloads and 12¢ for both vinyl and CD configurations. All three rates would be adjusted annually by the Consumer Price Index (in a similar way that the Judges just indexed the webcasting royalty in Webcasting V applicable to sound recordings). This rate would apply to all songs–not just to George Johnson–as one would expect.

There’s no way to know at this point today whether all the participants in the Phonorecords IV proceeding will accept these terms, including George Johnson who has held out for a much higher minimum statutory rate. Some may scratch their head over why the download rate is less, but my suspicion is that it’s because Apple and Amazon have been inflexible on increasing the wholesale price and I could understand why a label would give themselves some headroom on downloads going into what will surely be highly inflationary times but at the same time agreeing a cost of living adjustment. (When the dust settles, it may be worth a discussion in the artist rights community about whether to campaign against Apple and Amazon.)

I do think it’s commendable if Universal is taking the first step toward bringing fairness to a process that has been unfair for many years. We’ll see what happens, but it looks like it could be light at the end of the tunnel. Watch this space.

The Effect of Unfrozen Mechanicals on Controlled Compositions

[A “controlled compositions clause” explainer for artists and songwriters by Chris Castle on MusicTech.Solutions]

Nice post by Ed Christman in Billboard explaining the continuing crisis on frozen mechanicals. Ed comes up with a rough justice quantification of the impact on songwriter and music publisher revenues in light of controlled compositions clauses in recording contracts that apply to (a) songs written and recorded by artists, or (b) songs by “outside writers” if and only if the artist can get the outside writer to accept the controlled compositions terms and rates.

For those reading along at home, one theory (aside from sheer leverage) that gets used in this context is that the artist/writer can agree on behalf of all co-writers to accept the terms of the license granted by the artist to the label in the controlled compositions clause because they are co-owners of an undivided interest in the song copyright and can grant nonexclusive licenses in the whole subject to a duty to account provided the license is not economic waste or self-dealing. Let’s just leave all that where it lays for now, but that story has never really been properly challenged–particularly the economic waste part given the rate fixing date issue and even the frozen mechanicals crisis itself. We’ll come back to that bit some other time.

The rate fixing date is a key part of the discussion for understanding the impact of unfreezing mechanicals. So what is that rate fixing provision? 

Remember, the controlled compositions clause starts with reducing the minimum statutory mechanical rate in the US (and in theory in Canada subject to MLA) in effect at a point in time. That point in time is either commencement of recording (booo!), delivery, release or sale of a unit embodying the song at issue. Remember that the labels only pay mechanical royalties on physical and downloads (the rates at issue in the frozen mechanicals crisis)–streaming services pay for the interactive streaming mechanicals (and there is no mechanical for webcasting, a whole other beef).

You say, wait–isn’t the mechanical rate 9.1¢? Why does it matter when the record was recorded, delivered, released or sold? Won’t the rates all be the same? And you’d be right if you were asking about a record recorded and released in 2006 or after, or a record recorded and released between 1909 and 1978, like, say some titles by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Otis Redding or Miles Davis. 

But–it wasn’t always this way. The mechanical royalty rate was set at 2¢ by Congress with the first statutory license, i.e., compulsory license, in 1909 and did not change until the 1976 revision of the US Copyright Act effective 1978. The rate then began to incrementally increase over the years until it reached 9.1¢ in 2006, a phased increase that was to compensate for Congress failing to increase the rate for 70 years, aka “the Ice Age”. The Congress really screwed up songwriters’ lives by freezing the rate at 2¢ during the Ice Age and songwriters and their heirs have been paying for it ever since, right up to the 2006-2022 period, aka “the Second Ice Age” or the Return of the Neanderthals. 

In an effort to help songwriters shovel out from the Ice Age, The Congress also authorized indexing the minimum rate to inflation from 1988 to 1995. Indexing is again on the mind of the Copyright Royalty Board right now–bearing in mind that an increase in rates due to inflation has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the song copyrights so there’s no confusion. Indexing simply applies any increase in the consumer price index to the statutory rate and preserves buying power. In a way, it is the opposite of a case about value. Indexing assumes that the value issue was already decided (in this case in 2006) and simply preserves buying power so that the “nominal” rate of 9.1¢ in 2006 can still buy the same amount of goods or services in 2022 (or 2023 in the case of the CRB rate period). Otherwise the “real” rate, i.e., the inflation adjusted rate, is not 9.1¢ it is about 6¢.

Remember–the proposed rate increase to 12¢ by the CRB is not about value, it’s about buying power because it’s solely focused on inflation.

So back to controlled compositions. It is no coincidence that at the same time as the 1978 increases were phased in, the labels established controlled compositions clauses that knocked songwriters back down. They would probably not have gotten away with freezing by contract at 2¢ so they let the rate float up but much more slowly and with several caps. The first cap is the maximum number of songs, usually 10 or 11. The next cap is the infamous 3/4 rate, where the label pays based on 75% of the minimum statutory rate. But the third cap is the rate fixing date and that’s the one we want to focus on in the unfrozen mechanicals context.

In simple form, it looks something like this contract language:

If the copyright law of the United States provides for a minimum compulsory rate: The rate equal to seventy-five percent (75%) of the minimum compulsory license rate applicable to the use of musical compositions on audio Records under the United States copyright law (hereinafter referred to as the “U.S. Minimum Statutory Rate”) at the time of the commencement of the recording of the Master concerned but in no event later than the last date for timely Delivery of such Master (the applicable date is hereinafter referred to as the “Copyright Fixing Date”). (The U.S. Minimum Statutory Rate is $.091 per Composition as of January 1, 2006); 

The way that the statutory rate increases come into the controlled compositions clause is because from 1978-2006 the statutory rates increased across albums delivered across album cycles. If you consider that the rates used to increase about every two years and that an album cycle can be two years, it’s likely that LP 1 would have a lower rate than LP2, LP 2 than LP3 and so on right up to 2006.

Also remember that the increases in rates are prospective, meaning that the controlled compositions rate on recordings delivered in the future will, of course, get the higher rate, even if the past rates don’t change which they don’t, at least not yet. Also consider that permanent downloads often are excluded from controlled comp treatment and are paid at full rate, probably on the rate fixing date in the artist’s agreement. Sometimes the download rates “float” or increase in line with increases in the statutory rate, but that’s part of individual negotiations.

If there is an outside songwriter who does not agree to accept the artist’s controlled composition rate (and there are plenty of these) what happens? Typically the label will account to the outside writer at their full minimum statutory rate but will deduct that payment from the maximum aggregate mechanical royalty payable to the artist (i.e., the 10 song cap). There’s some twists and turns to this involving rates on different units “made and distributed”, but for our purposes there is one clear thing to understand:

Because of the rate fixing date which is frozen by contract (the Mini Ice Age) the artist/songwriter will be paying a higher mechanical to the outside writer from a frozen royalty “pool”. 

This is why you should always, always demand “protection” for at least one outside song in your contract and then review each album to determine if that needs to be increased. This is particularly true for records made in places like Nashville where the record company will demand you work with “A” list songwriters (assume none of whom will take 3/4 rate) and then try to deduct the difference between the uncontrolled rate and the controlled rate from you (and if it gets big enough, cross it to your record royalties). (Not only will A list writers not take the 3/4 rate, they’re pissed because they can’t charge you double stat like they do double scale for sessions.)

Example: You have a 10 x 3/4 rate cap on mechanicals, the “cap rate”. That’s the 68.25¢ album rate you hear about (10 x .75 x 9.1¢). Say you have 10 songs on your album and you wrote all of them. You get the entire 68.25¢. If you had two outside songs whose writers get 9.1¢ under current rates, you deduct 18.2¢ from the cap rate, and that leaves 50.05¢ as the “controlled pool” or the total mechanical royalty payable to the artist/songwriter (actually all controlled writers, but leave aside that wrinkle).

So you can see, that’s no longer a 75% rate, it’s actually more like a 55% rate.

Now let’s assume that the new rate is 12¢. Same calculation, two outside songs now get 24¢, but the cap rate stays the same because of the rate fixing date. During the Mini Ice Age, i.e., while that cap rate is fixed at 9.1¢ x 10 x .75, the controlled pool now is expressed as 68.25¢ – 24¢ = 44.25¢, or about 48% (44.25 ÷ 91). The artist’s publisher is not going to be wild about that; the outside writer’s publishers will be thrilled.

This will start to true up on the next LP that takes a rate fixing date after the 12¢ rates go into effect. In that situation you’d be increasing both sides of the equation, so the cap rate would increase to 90¢ (10 x .12 x .75). The outside writers still get 12¢ each for two songs (or 24¢) which is deducted from the cap rate to get a controlled pool of 66¢. The true controlled comp rate is then back to about 55%.

These effects will be less pronounced if you have protection for one or more songs (or fractions of songs) or you have a higher cap, say 11 or 12 instead of 10 (with corresponding increases on other configurations). But you see the trend line.

I think this leads to the conclusion that increasing the statutory rate is a huge step forward and we should all be grateful to the Judges. The rate fixing dates for catalog titles (really the entire rate fixing date concept) must also be considered and any new effort to tweak the controlled compositions clause to effectively nullify the Judges’ rate increase will no doubt cause further conflict.

One day Congress will again act to reduce the effects of the controlled compositions clause and especially the rate fixing date, but in the meantime the Judges may well visit the issue to the extent they are able before we see the Return of the Neanderthals.