by Chris Castle
Government intervention into the economy can, and usually does, produce negative externalities (or unanticipated harms). Government interference with price can produce the negative externality of poverty. While we can sue if we are harmed by some negative externalities, we usually can’t sue the government for causing poverty.
Understanding poverty often considers the government’s interaction with citizens. Do the government’s policies increase poverty or reduce poverty?
One of those analytical inquiries is whether the government gives the people too much or too little agency in establishing poverty policy. Does poverty policy remember to allow people the ability to have a meaningful effect on their lives and outcomes based on their own efforts and human agency? Or does poverty policy trap them and limit or even take away their agency?
The Compulsory License as Poverty Program
I can’t think of a better example of the government limiting the outcomes of a class of people than the compulsory mechanical license. Minimum wage tries to influence poverty favorably by establishing a lower bound of fair compensation for employees. Minimum wage policy anticipates that some employers will pay above minimum wage because employees will be able to quit a lower paying job and strive for a higher paying job.
Employees exercise agency because the government policy does not stop them from doing so and gives them a seat at the table in negotiating their own compensation. Money isn’t the only consideration, but it is a core issue. And employees can walk across the street and get a better paying job. Unlike the minimum wage, the compulsory license places a limit on what the biggest corporations in the world are required to pay a specific class of people–songwriters.
Neither can I think of a better example of the government working with Big Tech to destroy human agency than the Copyright Royalty Board–which is strangely consistent with Big Tech’s dehumanizing data trafficking business model.
The New Streaming Mechanical Rates
The Copyright Royalty Judges have issued their final ruling on the rates and terms under the government-mandated compulsory license for streaming mechanicals. That ruling is to be published in the Federal Register in the coming days and is based on a settlement among the National Music Publishers Association, Nashville Songwriters International, Amazon, Apple, Google, Pandora, and Spotify.
The CRJs mostly discuss the 20 comments they received on the proposed version of their rule and don’t really spend much time defending why they are adopting the settlement reached by the richest corporations on Earth (and in Earth’s history) on the one hand and–let’s be honest (and we’ll come back to this)–the major publishers on the other hand. The Judges are adopting the deal these parties made essentially because the CRJs can’t find anything unreasonable or illegal about it.
Said another way, the Judges can’t find a reason to take the heat of rejecting it. That’s unfortunate, because they did reject the “frozen mechanicals” settlement as is their role in the Copyright Royalty Board process required by Congress.
I’m not going to argue about the rates and terms of the settlement itself. I could and I know others will, but I’m going to focus on one economic point today: the absence of a cost of living adjustment (or COLA). There are some other points that should also be addressed that are more nuanced and policy oriented which I’ll come to in another post.
It’s important to understand one aspect of the CRB’s procedural nomenclature: Participants and commenters. There is only one individual songwriter who is a participant in Phonorecords IV–a songwriter named George Johnson who represents himself. Being a “participant” means that you are appearing before the Judges as a legal matter. In the case of settlements that the Judges intend to approve and adopt as law, the Judges are required to make those settlements available for public comment which they did. Those comments are posted in the CRB’s docket for the particular proceeding, styled as “Phonorecords IV” in our case today. Note that if the Judges did not make those settlements available, no one who is answerable to the electorate would be involved in the rate setting.
It is important to understand that the voluntary settlement excludes George Johnson from negotiation and drafting of the settlement even though he is a participant. Commenters are also excluded and only find out the terms of the proposed settlement once the Judges post the settlement as a proposed rule and seek public comments.
Unless commenters persuade the Judges to reject a settlement (which MTP reader will recall happened in the “frozen mechanicals” proceeding), this means that the only people who have a meaningful opportunity to affect the outcome are the important people: The National Music Publishers Association, Nashville Songwriters International, Amazon, Apple, Google, Pandora, and Spotify, that is, “Big Tech.”
It should be noted that the smart money is betting that the next session of Congress will not be a pleasant experience for any of these DSPs based on public statements of a number of Members, including House Judiciary Chairman-select Jordan. It will be easy for songwriters to point to the latest insult in the form of the streaming mechanical ruling as yet another example of that special combination of Big Tech, the compulsory license and the nine most terrifying words in the English language. One novel issue of law at least at the CRB that the Copyright Office may wish to opine on is what happens if one or more participants in a proceeding negotiate an oppressive voluntary agreement but cease to exist when it is put into effect. Just sayin.
But songwriters will be able to point to the poverty-creating externality of the compulsory rate and the human agency-destroying effect of Congress’s Copyright Royalty Board.
The Failure to COLA
As the Judges confirm in the streaming mechanicals ruling, George Johnson and the commenters who opposed the settlement all support some version of a cost of living adjustment applied to the statutory rate. A COLA is the standard government approach to preserving buying power in a number of areas of the economy driven by government intervention including the physical mechanical royalty for the same songs.
However, since the important people did not agree to a COLA as part of their settlement for the streaming mechanical, the Judges evidently believed they were unable to add a COLA in the final rule because it might disturb the “negotiation” by the biggest corporations in commercial history and God know we wouldn’t want to do that. They might get mad and there’s no poverty at Big Tech.
The Judges authority is an issue that one day may be decided in another forum, perhaps even the Supreme Court. I’m not so sure the role of the Judges was to ignore the utility of a COLA and merely scriven into law the deal the lobbyists and lawyers made while ignoring George and all the public comments in this case supporting a COLA.
This is of particular interest because the Judges had just adopted a COLA in Phonorecords IV for physical records and permanent downloads and have adopted COLAs in other compulsory licenses (and have done so for many years). It must be said that one reason there is a COLA in the “Subpart B” proceeding for physical royalties is because the Judges themselves suggested it when they rejected the initial Subpart B settlement. Presumably the Judges could have done the same thing in the streaming mechanicals proceeding despite the tremendous political clout wielded by Big Tech, at least for the moment.
For some reason, the Judges decided not to treat likes alike when it involved the richest corporations on Earth. This means that the exact same writers with the exact same songs will have the value of the government’s compulsory rate protected by a COLA when exploited on vinyl but not when the exact same song and the exact same writers on the exact same recordings are streamed.
If that’s not arbitrary, I’m looking forward to the explanation. I’m all ears.
Bootstrapping for Rich People
One might think that this unequal treatment wasn’t arbitrary because the Judges are directed by Congress to favor adopting as the law applicable to all songwriters voluntary settlements agreements on rates and terms reached among some or all of the participants in a proceeding like Phonorecords IV. Of course Congress made it so expensive to be a participant in a proceeding (and that negotiation) that it’s likely that if you are both a participant and also a party to any voluntary settlement, you must be one of the rich kids.
What is very interesting about Phonorecords IV is that the proceeding was divided between physical and streaming mechanicals. Although the publisher representatives were the same (NMPA and NSAI), the music users were, of course different: The major labels were in the physical negotiation and the DSPs were in the streaming. Faced with strident opposition from commenters and continued opposition from George Johnson, the major labels came up with a solution that included a COLA and got the publishers to agree. That solution increased the minimum penny rate from 9.1¢ to 12¢ as a base rate with an annual COLA.
Why this difference between labels and DSPs? Could it be because the labels understand that they are in the age of the songwriter and they need to be certain that songwriters thrive? You know, no hits, no hit records? Could it be because the DSPs are so blinded by leverage, wealth and political power that they and their THIRTY SIX LAWYERS lack this understanding?
The label deal was acceptable to a lot of people, albeit begrudgingly in some cases, but it closed. And the deal was a step toward what I would call the primary goal of government rate setting–stop bullying songwriters with insulting rates while repeating nonsense talking points that nobody in the trenches believes for a second. It should not be forgotten that the label deal also came with a renewed commitment to finding a way toward a longer table with more people at it to negotiate these deals in the future. We’ll see, but the labels should expect to be reminded about this in the future.
But–nothing like this common sense approach to inclusion happened on the streaming side with DSPs. Why not? Probably because the rich kids were calling the shots and did not give a hoot about what the songwriters thought. They used their situational leverage as participants throughout the Phonorecords IV proceeding to jam through an insulting deal no matter how much they embarrassed themselves in the process. The conduct of the DSPs–and did I mention their THIRTY SIX LAWYERS–was the complete opposite of how the major labels conducted themselves.
You may notice that I refer to the DSPs and the labels as calling the shots in these negotiations. There’s a very simple reason for that–the government has put its thumb on the scale because of the compulsory license. Songwriters can’t say “no” (much less “Hell, no”), so are forced to fight a rear guard action because the outcome is predetermined–unless the settling parties do something to change that outcome. To their great credit, the labels did. But to their great–and highly predictable–shame the DSPs–and did I mention their THIRTY SIX LAWYERS–didn’t. The way the government has constructed the CRB procedures songwriters are thrown into the arena to engage in what amounts to slow motion begging and managed decline.
When the Judges’ ruling is subject to legal review, this arbitrary distinction may be difficult to defend and the Judges certainly don’t put much effort into that defense in their ruling. They say, for example:
[T]he Judges observe the broad increases within the Settlement, including the headline percentage rate applicable to Service Revenue, the percentage of Total Content Costs, and each of the fixed per subscriber elements. The Judges find that the structure and increases are a reasonable approach to providing an organic cost of living adjustment.
In other words, the DSPs and the Judges are pushing a “trickle down” approach that a rising tide lifts all boats. They ignore the underlying algebra that is the flaw at the heart of the “big pool” royalty calculation that’s as true for songwriters as it is for artists. The more DSPs keep prices the same and the more songs are added to the big pool denominator, the lower the per-song royalty trends (particularly for estates because the numerator cannot grow by definition). If the rate of change in the denominator is greater than the rate of change in revenue or the number of songs being paid out in the numerator, the Malthusian algebra demands that the per-writer rate declines over time. It may be less obvious in streaming mechanicals due to the mind bending greater of/lesser than formula, TCC, etc., but gravity always wins.
There is a common misapprehension of what the COLA is intended to accomplish as well as the government’s compulsory license rate. A COLA is not an increase in value, it is downside protection to preserve value. Stating that the headline rate increases over time so you don’t need a COLA compares apples to oranges and gets a pomegranate. It’s a nonsense statement.
Plus, no element of the Judge’s list of producer supply side inputs have anything to do with cost items relevant to songwriters providing songs to DSPs (or publishers and labels for that matter). The relevant costs for COLA purposes are the components of the Consumer Price Index applicable to songwriters who receive the government’s royalty such as food at home, rent, utilities, gasoline and the like. That’s why you have a COLA–otherwise the real royalty rate declines BOTH because of inflation AND because of the Malthusian algebra. And that creates the negative externality of poverty among songwriters and discourages new people from taking up the craft.
There’s a reason why Big Tech never wants to talk about per-stream rates on either recordings or songs. That’s because if you explained to the average person or Member of Congress what the rates actually were in pennies, the zeros to the right would make it obvious how insulting the entire proposal is to songwriters.
One of the surest ways to cause poverty is for the government to cap income and destroy human agency. But this is what has happened with the streaming mechanicals. Songwriters are crushed again by Big Tech–and did I mention their THIRTY SIX LAWYERS?
And don’t forget–if no one writes hits, no one has hit records. Eventually, this will become a catalog business and American culture will be impoverished right along side the impoverishment of songwriters.