@sealeinthedeal: Why Did Spotify Reduce Its Black Box Royalty Transfer to the MLC by Nearly $2.3 million?

By Gwendolyn Seale

Remember the $424 million in historical unmatched royalties (also referred to as black box royalties) delivered to the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) by the streaming services last February that songwriters are waiting to receive?

As a refresher, the Music Modernization Act (MMA) required the streaming services to estimate these “historical” black box royalties going back years, and then pay whatever they came up with to the MLC by February 15, 2021.  Why did the services pay this “historical” black box?  Because songwriters gave them a safe harbor in the MMA to enjoy a limitation of liability from statutory damages for the services’ prior acts of copyright infringement—services like Spotify, which was being sued into oblivion.

Now here’s the jawdropper. What if I told you that Spotify inexplicably reduced its portion of these historical unmatched royalties by nearly $2.3 million?

According to the MLC, on December 20, 2021 Spotify decreased its transfer of historical unmatched royalties by $2,296,820.15. You can find this information by visiting the MLC’s website here: https://www.themlc.com/spotify-usa-inc-spotify. You may wonder why this occurred. Unfortunately, I cannot provide you with any concrete answers, but I do think it is a more than fair question to raise.

Following the February 2021 data dump and transfer of the historical unmatched royalties to the MLC, the streaming services were given until June (in accordance with the regs) to provide the MLC with their second sets of data. According to the MLC’s Interim Annual Report (https://themlc.com/sites/default/files/2021-12/The%20MLC%20Interim%20AR21%20Hi-res%20FINAL.pdf) “[t]his second set of data contained information regarding works for which DSPs had previously paid some, but not all, of the relevant rightsholders for a given work.” The streaming services then had the right over the summer to amend or adjust the royalties and data provided to the MLC.

It is interesting to compare the historical unmatched royalties transferred by each streaming service in February 2021 with the final transfer amounts reported in summer 2021 — and I invite all of you to do the same (https://www.themlc.com/historical-unmatched-royalties ). What you will quickly realize is that the final transfer amounts for every service—other than Spotify, the Harry Fox Agency’s client, either reflected the same totals from the February dump, or, resulted in a higher amount transferred (like in the cases of Amazon, Apple and Google). At least so far.

You may be thinking, how do we know if this nearly $2.3 million reduction is accurate? Frankly, we do not know, and we forced to trust that Spotify is telling the truth. Regrettably, the MMA negotiators did not get (and may not have asked for) an audit right for songwriters or for the MLC with respect to these historical unmatched royalties. (Although it must be said that publishers with direct deals very likely had the right to audit, and possibly those who licensed to Spotify through Spotify’s licensing agent, the Harry Fox Agency, which was simultaneously acting as a licensors’ publishing administrator may have had an audit right. Have a pretzel and the conflicts make more sense).

I recognize I have the benefit of hindsight here — notwithstanding, I find it unfathomable that the MMA dealmakers did not secure an audit right in connection with what was sure to be hundreds of millions of dollars in unmatched royalties.

It is theoretically possible that Spotify overpaid its amount in historical unmatched royalties back in February 2021. Notwithstanding, and feel free to call me a cynic —  how am I to believe that for once Spotify actually made an overpayment in royalties?

How can I trust a company which amassed its billions in wealth by stealing musicians’ works, and has continued to supplement its wealth by fighting for the lowest mechanical royalty rates for songwriters ever?

How can I trust a company that unveiled a payola-like feature offering further reduced nanopenny rates to artists in exchange for “promotion?” (see “Discovery Mode”: https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/music-biz-commentary/spotify-payola-artist-rights-alliance-1170544/ ).

How can I trust a company that when faced with reasonable requests about paying musicians fairly, responded with a straight up gaslighting campaign?  (see “Loud & Clear” campaign: https://loudandclear.byspotify.com/ )

Remember, this is the company whose executive literally told an independent artist the following in a public forum:

“The problem is this: Spotify was created to solve a problem. The problem was this: piracy and music distribution. The problem was to get artists’ music out there. The problem was not to pay people money.”  (See here: https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2021/06/29/spotify-executive-entitled-pay-penny-per-stream/)

In sum, how can I trust a company that has proven time and time again from its inception that it has never cared about songwriters and artists? Ultimately, I cannot — which makes it utterly difficult for me to trust that Spotify incorrectly overpaid nearly $2.3 million in historical unmatched royalties to the MLC. Granted, if Spotify made misrepresentations here, it could lose its limitation of liability for those past infringements–after years of litigation. But, without the MLC having the right to audit the historical unmatched amounts, determining whether Spotify’s total transfer is correct is essentially futile.

Awesome.

So, if you happen to contact Spotify this week about removing your catalog or canceling your subscription, consider also asking them to provide evidence that they overpaid the MLC $2,296,820.15 in historical unmatched royalties last February. Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get another Loud & Clear gaslighting campaign to post about!

#FrozenMechanicals Take 2: Comment of Professor @KCEsq to the Copyright Royalty Board

[A little context:  As readers will recall, the Copyright Royalty Board is in the middle of two (count ’em, two) simultaneous rate proceedings for the statutory mechanical royalty rates under the reliably absurd Section 115 of the Copyright Act. These two are styled “Phonorecords III” and “Phonorecords IV” respectively. Technically, Phonorecords III was appealed to a higher court (DC Circuit for those reading along at home) and was pretty much rejected and sent back to the Copyright Royalty Board on what’s called “remand” or as it’s know in the vernacular, “nice try.” Phonorecords IV is for the 2023-2027 period and is currently in the discovery phase for streaming mechanicals. MTP readers will also recall that I anticipated an attempt to extend the freeze on physical mechanicals at the 2006 rate of 9.1¢–long since corroded by inflation to a real mechanical rate of about 6¢ given an inflation rate of approximately 33% since 2006. And the majors are vigorously pursuing both a freeze as well as an extension of the pending and unmatched settlements for NMPA members (aka “MOU” for “Memorandum of Understanding” among the insiders) that is tied to the freeze for everyone else. See what they did there? Today we are posting the first of the 2nd round comments on the freeze filed with the Copyright Royalty Board in the Phonorecords IV proceeding. I was kind of hoping that someone would file a comment in support of the freeze but no one did–all comments are opposed. The first up is Professor Kevin Casini’s thoughtful comment. We will be cross posting with the Trichordist.]

November 20, 2021


Hon. C.J. Suzanne Barnett
Hon. J. David R. Strickler 
Hon. J. Steve Ruwe 

US Copyright Royalty Board 
101 Independence Ave SE / P.O. Box 70977 
Washington, DC 20024-0977

Honorable Judges of the Copyright Royalty Board:

I am a Connecticut resident, attorney, and law professor, and the views expressed here are mine, and not necessarily those of any local or state bar association, or any employer. The bulk of this comment appeared in an open letter to this body, and to my senators, dated May 27, 2021. It requested time to comment for those that were not represented by the publishing lobby, the so-called “self-administered” songwriters that were so en vogue during the passing of the Music Modernization Act, and with it, the advent of the Mechanical Licensing Collective. As the preeminent music economist of the day, Will Page, put it in his annual “Global Value of Music Copyright” compendium, “anyone can record a song, but only someone can compose it.”[1] I don’t speak for them, I’ve not been empowered to do so, but because so many of us know “self-administered” means “not administered” I speak to their best interests, even if they don’t know anything about this process. These writers are considered “self-publishing”, but the reality is, they have no publishing. Ironically, it is these independent writers who rely disproportionately on physical sales, direct downloads, and Bandcamp Fridays. In essence, “I speak for the trees.”[2]

On May 18, 2021, a “Notice of Settlement in Principle” was filed by parties to the proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Board about its Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Making and Distributing Phonorecords.[3] That Notice was followed on May 25, 2021 by a Motion To Adopt Settlement Of Statutory Royalty Rates And Terms For Subpart B Configurations, filed by the NMPA, Sony, Universal and Warner and NSAI.[4] I write today in reference to that proposed settlement. 

This settlement outlines the terms by which mechanical royalty[5] and download rates will remain locked at the current rate of 9.1¢. The same almost-dime for each copy of a work manufactured and distributed. The same almost-dime that it’s generated since 2006. A paltry sum to be certain but a far cry from the 2¢ royalty rate mechanical royalties imposed for the better part of seventy years.[6] Starting in 1977, Congress mandated that the mechanical royalty be increased incrementally until 2006 when the rate of 9.1¢ was achieved. And there it has remained. 

This proposed private settlement would extend that 2006 freeze until 2027. 

In March 2017, a precursor to Phonorecords IV found the Copyright Royalty Board ruling that interactive streaming services must pay more in mechanical royalties over the course of the next five years.[7] Surely more than a simple inflation adjustment, but nonetheless a sign that the CRB thought costs and values needed to become more aligned for streaming—which is paid by the streaming platforms unlike the physical and download mechanical which is paid by the record companies. Now comes Phonorecords IV, and a proposed settlement from the major publishers and their affiliated major labels. Before this proposal can be accepted by the CRB, I asked for the simple opportunity of public comment. This COurt saw fit to grant that request, and I express my appreciation.

As you well know, in nearly all other administrative proceedings public comment is an integral and indispensable component of the process. To see that the CRB may allow for a public comment period by members of the public beyond the participants in the proceeding or parties to the settlement is a step in the right direction, and my hope is that this development will be broadcast far and wide so that the CRB, and in turn, Congress, may get a full picture of the status of mechanical royalty rates, especially from those that are historically underrepresented. “Public comments” should be comments by the public and made in public; not comments by the participants made publicly.

I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the work put into the landmark copyright legislation that came about at the end of 2018, and for those that made it happen. So too for the members of the CRB, and in this space, I thank those Judges for taking the time to read a letter from an adjunct law professor with no economic stake in the outcome, but rather an interest in, and duty of, candor to the Court. 

In an age of unprecedented political polarization, the consensus built in the passage of the Music Modernization Act showed that politics aside, when it’s time to make new laws that fix old problems, Congress can still get the job done. I know well the sweat-equity poured into its creation by the very same people that propose this settlement. I have found myself on the same side fighting the same fight as them many times. They have proven capable of navigating your halls and taking on those that would seek to devalue (or worse) the work of the songwriter, and musician. In this instance, I would like to see them fight the fight yet again. recognize the reasoning and intention behind the proposed settlement. Commenting by the public is a way for that to happen.[8] I commend this Court for re-opening the comment period to allow for as much dialogue, and information, as possible. 

A year ago, I made the unilateral decision to pivot our consulting company, Ecco Artist Services, to purposefully work with, and advocate for, the traditionally and historically underserved and underrepresented in the music industry. Freezing the growth of rates for physical and digital sales that are already digging out of the residual effects of 70 years at 2¢ strikes at the heart of that community’s ability to generate revenues from their music. 

Now, it’s no secret the trade association for the US music publishing industry is funded by its music publisher members, and of course, as a professional trade organization, the association is bound to represent those members. Publishers have long enjoyed a better reputation amongst industry insiders than “the labels,” and for good reason, but the fact remains that writers signed to publishing deals are in contractual relationships with their publishers, and their interests are not always aligned. Such is the state of play in a consumer-driven marketplace, and especially now that publishers and labels are consolidating their businesses under the same tents. They, it seems, are the forest. An indie songwriter is but a tree. 

Unfortunately, the independent songwriter lacks the resources to participate fully in the process, and although a signed songwriter may believe her interests and those of her publisher are one and the same, they may not always be. It would seem the economic analysis the publishers undertook in deciding the mechanical royalty was not worth the heavy cost and burden of fighting is the same calculus the writers need not do: they couldn’t afford the fight no matter the decision. 

But I ask: if the mechanical royalty covered by the proposed settlement is a dying source of revenue, why would the fight be so onerous? By the RIAA’s 2020 year-end statistics, physical sales and downloads accounted for 15% of the music marketplace.[11] That’s a $12.2 billion marketplace, and that 15% amounts to $1.8 billion. Now, I know attorney’s fees can be exorbitant in regulatory matters, but I would think we could find a firm willing to take the case for less than that. As for sales, in 2020, 27.5 million vinyl LPs were sold in the United States, up 46-percent compared to 2019 and more than 30-fold compared to 2006 when the vinyl comeback began,[12]  while some 31.6 million CD albums were sold.[13]

Median wages in the US, adjusted for inflation, have declined 9% for the American worker. Meanwhile, since the 9.1¢ rate freeze, the cost of living has gone up 31%, according to the American Institute of Economic Research[14]. The 2006 inflation rate was 3.23%. The current year-over-year inflation rate (2020 to 2021) is now 4.16%[15], which is all really to say, simply, an accurate cost-of-living increase would have a mechanical rate of at least 12¢ per sale. Twelve cents! You would think that would be an easy sell, but the streaming rates are fractions of that rate. The reality is a song would need to be streamed 250 times to generate enough money to buy it from iTunes. As my dear friend Abby North put it, the royalty amount for the digital stream of a song is a micro penny.[16]

An adjustment for inflation should require no briefing, let alone argument. If songwriters were employees, this would simply be line-item budgeted as a “cost-of-living adjustment.” If songwriters were unionized it would be a rounding error, but I digress. 

Even if it is true that the mechanical revenue is a lost and dying stream, by the RIAA’s own figures, there stand to be billions of dollars at stake. An opportunity to be heard, without having to sign with a publisher and then hope that publisher takes up the fight you want, maybe that’s all the independent writers of the industry—and, indeed, the world–need to be able to win. 

An inflation-adjusted cost-of-living update to the mechanical statutory royalty rate should be of no issue. Those independent, self-published writers affected by the decision of the CRB have been given the opportunity to voice their concerns through public comments. I hope that the CRB considers the disparities in bargaining power among those on the “writers’ side” of this issue before it makes its final decision. Please note, I pass on judgment on those that serve their constituencies, I just know there is no substitute for direct action, direct aid, or direct advocacy.

I want to close this time by thanking the Board, and Copyright Office, all for their continued attention to the universe of copyright, licensing royalties, and the economy that exists therein, and specifically the recently retired CJ of Copyright Royalty Board Jesse Feder, for allowing this opportunity, and so many other. It is my sincere hope (and effort) that the tone and tenor of these negotiations, deliberations, and litigation proceedings can be focused on the issue at hand, with collaborative results the goal, but when that cannot be, I trust the Copyright Royalty Board will see both forest and trees. 

Kevin M. Casini 
New Haven, CT

Attorney-at-Law, Adj. Professor, Quinnipiac Univ. School of Law

cc: Ms. Carla Hayden, US Librarian of Congress 

Ms. Shira Perlmutter, US Register of Copyrights 


[1] Available at https://tarzaneconomics.com/undercurrents/copyright-2021

[2] SEUSS. (1971). The Lorax. MLA (7th ed.) Seuss, . The Lorax. , 1971. Print.

[3] (Phonorecords IV) (Docket No. 21–CRB–0001–PR (2023–2027)).

[4] Available at https://app.crb.gov/document/download/25288

[5] The term “mechanical royalty” dates back to the 1909 Copyright Law when Congress deemed it necessary to pay a music publishing company for the right to mechanically reproduce a musical composition on a player-piano roll. As a result, music publishers began issuing “mechanical licenses”, and collecting mechanical royalties from piano-roll manufacturers. The times, and the tech, changed, but the name stuck.

[6] A summary of historical mechanical royalty rates is available from the U.S. Copyright Office at https://www.copyright.gov/licensing/m200a.pdf

[7] Docket No. 16-CBR-0003-PR (2018-2022) (Phonorecords III).

[8] The CRB arguably has the statutory obligation to publish the Motion in the Federal Register for public comment, but may have the discretion to construe those commenting to the participants in the proceeding and the parties to the settlement.  17 U.S.C. § 801(b)(7).  

[9] https://www.officialdata.org/Rent-of-primary-residence/price-inflation/2006-to-2021?amount=1000

[10] https://www.in2013dollars.com/Milk/price-inflation/2006-to-2021?amount=4

[11] RIAA year-end revenue statistics. https://www.riaa.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/2020-Year-End-Music-Industry-Revenue-Report.pdf

[12] MRC 202 Year End Report. https://static.billboard.com/files/2021/01/MRC_Billboard_YEAR_END_2020_US-Final201.8.21-1610124809.pdf

[13] Id.

[14] American Institute for Economic Research. https://www.aier.org/cost-of-living-calculator/

[15] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index https://www.officialdata.org/articles/consumer-price-index-since-1913/

[16] Abby North, North Music Group Letter to Congress on Frozen Mechanicals and the Copyright Royalty Board, The Trichordist (May 24, 2021) available at https://thetrichordist.com/2021/05/24/northmusicgroup-letter-to-congress-on-frozen-mechanicals-and-the-copyright-royalty-board/

The DLC Finally Confirms (Sort Of) How Much is in the MMA Black Box–Bigger than a breadbox

By Chris Castle

[This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

We’ve all heard rumors about how much is in the “inception to date” black box at the digital music services. The main reason that nobody knows is another example of the dismal drafting of the Music Modernization Act.

Limitation on Liability

Wouldn’t you think that if the class actions against Spotify gave the insiders the leverage to negotiate the MMA giveaway that they could at least have gotten an immediate accounting from the services for how much of the songwriters’ money they’ve been holding all these years? But no, it’s sleepy time in Washington yet again. From the Land of Frozen Mechanicals they bring you more Brinksmanship 101. The retroactive black box payment is due to be made by the services to the MLC and its data vendor, HFA–remembering that HFA was also the data vendor for at least some of the services that created the black box in the first place.

limitation on liability 2

However, there is some activity at the Copyright Office now about how to get this money paid. It’s at the Copyright Office because while drafting the aircraft carrier revision to the Copyright Act (aka Title I of the Music Modernization Act), the hard parts were never drafted and were left to the Copyright Office to handle through regulations. Musicians–you’ve seen this before. This is the Washington version of “we’ll fix it in the mix.” So you do have feel sympathy for the Copyright Office in the situation when all the smart people leave them twisting in the breeze.

Not that I necessarily believe this number, but for the first time the services have given a bigger than a breadbox idea of how much is in the black box. The DLC’s lawyers filed an “ex parte” letter in which they made that revelation (along with the known universe: Artist Rights Alliance Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Digital Licensee Coordinator Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Mechanical Licensing Collective Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Music Artists Coalition Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Nashville Songwriters Association International Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)National Music Publishers’ Association Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Recording Academy & Songwriters of North America Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Songwriters Guild of America et al. Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 18, 2020).)

The DLC itself is at the mercy of its members in terms of revealing this number but they claim the following in the Digital Licensee Coordinator Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020):

DLC also provided a rough estimate of accrued royalties that are available to be transferred to the MLC, based on a limited survey of a subset of DLC members at a particular point in time, and with the crucial caveat that the precise amounts are in flux as digital music providers continue to engage in robust matching efforts. Specifically, DLC estimated that several hundred million dollars were available to be transferred to the MLC as accrued royalties, even after accounting for the derecognition of accruals based on preexisting agreements containing releases to claims for accrued royalties.

DLC also explained that the accruals that were derecognized because copyright owners were paid and provided releases were a fraction of that amount—on the order of tens of millions of dollars.

So now we know at least that much. We know there are “several hundred million” dollars at issue in the black box and we generally know where the money is. We may know that DLC members hold the money. We also know that this money has not been identified, but we at least know enough to get the nose of the camel in the tent.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Broad and Antiquated CDA 230 Immunity for TikTok Could Aid China’s Secret Efforts to Undermine U.S. Cyber-Security: Guest Post by Rick Lane

I believe there are only two public policy issues that President Trump and Vice President Biden agree upon: The status quo of Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunication Act is no longer acceptable; TikTok is a threat to our cyber and national security.

Interesting enough, these two issues are interlinked. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230) gives free reign to Internet platforms operating in the United States to act with impunity as it relates to user generated content. Predictably, this has led to unintended and destructive consequences. But, left unsaid is what Big Tech doesn’t want anybody to realize – CDA 230 also unwittingly shields China as America’s top geopolitical adversary challenges U.S. national and economic security right here at home.

According to Bloomberg, Chinese-controlled “ByteDance/TikTok, led by Zhang Yiming, is becoming a viable rival to the dominant American online behemoths, Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc..” Last year, TikTok’s net profit was approximately $3 billion and the company estimates that it has about 80 million monthly active users in the United States, 60% of whom are female and 80% fall between the ages of 16 and 34. Of particular concern is that 60% of TikTok users are Gen Z, which is the largest generational cohort in American history and will include 74 million people next year.

As a champion of free markets, I would normally be among the first to applaud an upstart bringing a competitive “A” game to challenge dominant incumbent players no matter where they are based. But we have learned from experience that homegrown social networking companies like Facebook/Instagram, Google, and Twitter exert dominant and controversial influence in U.S. public policy debates – what sort of foreign influence should we expect TikTok to exert on this year’s election.

Lately, I’ve found myself asking should I really be concerned?

A recent article by Larry Magid was the tipping point for me in this debate. The headline of the article was, “How A 51-Year-Old Grandmother and Thousands of Teens Used TikTok to Derail A Trump Rally & Maybe Save Lives.” Magid lays out the series of events illustrating how attendance at a Trump rally was manipulated by a viral video of a grandmother from Iowa. It sounds innocent enough until you realize that the inflated numbers of expected attendees started when fans of K-pop, the popular Korean music genre, ordered free rally tickets from the Trump campaign with no intention of actually attending. Next, according to the article, the “grandmother from Iowa” posted a video on TikTok urging her mostly young viewers to “Google two phrases, ‘Juneteenth’ and ‘Black Wall Street,’” before also suggesting that they register for two free tickets to the Trump rally. Her video post went viral and motivated young TikTok users to request hundreds of thousands of tickets.

After reading this, I was left with a simple question: Whether Trump or Biden, doesn’t it bother anyone else that a Chinese-controlled social network was used to interfere with an American presidential campaign event at the same time that tensions between our two countries are escalating? Even Vice President Biden has banned TikTok from campaign phones and computers. As Mr. Magid’s article acknowledges, “(i)t’s long been known that social media can have a huge impact on politics. That’s why Russia tasked a state-run agency to flood social media with posts and ads to get Donald Trump elected.”

Two additional facts build on the story told by Magid. Another recent article, titled “Anonymous Hackers Target TikTok: ‘Delete This Chinese Spyware Now,” states that TikTok is “a data collection service that is thinly veiled as a social network. If there is an API to get information on you, your contacts, or your device, they’re using it.” The other fact to connect is that the key driver for algorithms and artificial intelligence, especially when dealing with human behavior, is vast data on human interaction. It is one of the main reasons that Microsoft is so interested in buying TikTok.

So now we are confronted with a Chinese based “social networking” site growing more rapidly than any homegrown US competitor and collecting more data on our youngest and most easily influenced demographic at the same time that China, Russia, and Iran are using social networks to undermine our democracy. Let’s not forget that this social networking site has been proven not to be secure and agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children, the largest civil penalty ever obtained by the FTC in a children’s privacy case.

But most alarming is that TikTok is protected by CDA 230 and cannot be held accountable for the actions of its “users” even if those “users” happen to be foreign governments. For example, if the Chinese government is leveraging TikTok for its own strategic advantage, the US government has no recourse against TikTok for these activities. The impunity provided by CDA 230 to TikTok, as well as Chinese and other hostile governments, directly threatens our democratic process. Even more troubling is the fact that TikTok, along with Facebook and other social networking sites, cannot be held responsible for illegal conduct occurring on their platforms – even when they know about it.

Besides the potential of interfering with our elections, TikTok also continues to facilitate the sale of illegal drugs. Below are three screenshots of illicit activity being perpetrated on TikTok. The first two images show illegal drug sales of opioids and the other shows illegal drug sales of steroids. Remember, TikTok’s core demographic and the intended audience for these posts consists primarily of members of Gen Z, those born between 1995 and 2012 –our children.  [Similar to Google’s near-indictment and $500,000,000 fine for violating the Controlled Substances Act.]

(Screenshots Provided by Eric Feinberg)

I will leave you with a quote from a recent speech at the Hudson Institute by FBI Director Christopher Wray. He stated:

“The Chinese government is engaged in a broad, diverse campaign of theft and malign influence, and it can execute that campaign with authoritarian efficiency. They’re calculating. They’re persistent. They’re patient. And they’re not subject to the righteous constraints of an open, democratic society or the rule of law… China, as led by the Chinese Communist Party, is going to continue to try to misappropriate our ideas, influence our policymakers, manipulate our public opinion, and steal our data. They will use an all-tools and all-sectors approach—and that demands our own all-tools and all-sectors approach in response.”

For addressing this clear and present danger, the United States must modify CDA 230 and ensure that we have all the tools necessary to hold TikTok accountable for criminal activity that occurs by “others” on their platform. Importantly, this includes illegal actions taken by the Chinese government to misappropriate the site, and the massive amounts of data it collects, in order to inflict harm on the US and its allies. Finally, we must avoid inadvertently making this problem worse by spreading the excessively broad and antiquated immunity of CDA 230 through trade agreements with other countries.

Rick Lane is the founder and CEO of IGGY Ventures. IGGY advises and invests in technology startups and public policy initiatives that can have a positive societal impact. Rick served for 15 years as the Senior Vice President of Government Affairs of 21st Century Fox. Before joining Fox, Rick was the Director of Congressional Affairs focusing on e-Commerce and Internet public policy issues for the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Guest Post: Follow the Money: YouTube’s Failure to Pay Retroactively Gives “Conversion Rate” a Whole New Meaning

[Cross-posted from MusicTechPolicy]

by Chris Castle

Conversion

A performance metric one hears from the digerati is the term “conversion rate.”   “Conversion rate” for a streaming service usually means the rate at which users of an ad-supported free service are “converted” to paying users.  That motivation is usually because they are so fed up with the advertising they are willing to pay.  (This was one of the many failed pitches from Spotify before people stopped trying to justify hanging on until the IPO riches flowed in.)

YouTube, of course, has never been too terribly interested in anything that moves users away from advertising.  That resistance (and potential internal competition between the massive ad sales team and the ever changing YouTube managers), may explain the many failed efforts at launching a YouTube subscription service by a company that knows more about user behavior than anyone in history.  They just couldn’t seem to get it right for the longest time.  You don’t suppose that YouTube’s apparent lack of interest in getting large numbers of users to substitute away from free to subscription was because YouTube made a lot more money from the ads than they ever would from the subscriptions?

One of the ways that YouTube (and Google) makes money from advertising is by taking money that is not theirs to take (sometimes called “monetizing” content).  The civil law calls that act a claim of “conversion” and   the criminal law calls it the crime of “theft”.  Conversion and theft are two sides of the same coin and often one implies the other, albeit with different burdens of proof.

theft

YouTube’s Content ID tool is a way for copyright owners to block or permit advertising on user-generated content that includes their copyrights, often music.  Users of Content ID will tell you that it works just well enough that Google can say it is an effective tool, but even with Content ID music still gets through (and is often monetized by YouTube) for a variety of reasons.  This requires time consuming and costly manual searches.  Companies like AdRev make it a bit easier, but are essentially third party Content ID users.  These companies are compensated with a commission on infringing works they find on YouTube that they convert–there’s that word again–from infringing to monetized, which means that YouTube now splits the advertising revenue with the copyright owners who in turn split their share with an AdRev.

But see what happened there?  If you have Content ID, you can block on the upload some of the time, or you can do a search.  If you don’t have Content ID (see Maria Schneider’s class action) then you can’t block on the upload only chase the infringements manually.  But quite rightly from an economic perspective, companies like AdRev are not that interested in doing that work on a rev share basis if there’s no rev share when you block.

Here’s the point–you have a property right in your copyright.  You have a property right to license that copyright.  Any revenue derived from exploitations of that copyright is your money.  YouTube uses its monopoly power to impose a deal to monetize your copyright (under duress, of course, due to whack a mole DMCA).  That deal involves a revenue share.  (Let’s just assume you decide to take the King’s shilling and accept Google’s deal under duress which you shouldn’t have to do and which may not even be enforceable.)

The question is, when should that revenue share attach–when they start exploiting your copyright in violation of your property rights or when you catch them doing it.  And if (1) you catch them violating your property rights and (2) agree to monetize, when should they pay you your agreed upon share of the revenue from monetizing?  Should they pay retroactively to the first exploitation?  Or only prospectively after you catch them?

The correct answer is they should pay retroactively.  But they don’t.  They just keep the money.  For millions of infringements.  And they get away with it because of their monopoly power, which leaves one choice most artists won’t make, which is to sue them like Maria has.

Remember–Content ID operates largely like any other fingerprinting tool.  (Psychoacoustic fingerprinting is old technology–remember Jonesy in “The Hunt for Red October”?  That’s fingerprinting.  A “fingerprint” is simply a mathematical rendering of the waveform of an audio file.)

There is a reference databases of recordings that are “known knowns” (which is why it is important to be included in the Content ID database as Maria Schneider correctly points out in her class action.)  The fingerprinting tool encounters a new file, takes a fingerprint, then looks for a match in the reference database and reports a result that triggers an action.  Typically, fingerprinting tools are binary:  match or no match.  What happens after the tool finds a match is entirely in the control of the operator.  (So while the tool could have a match rate of 90%, the operator could report a random number of matches or a fixed number of matches, like one every ten, or one every 1000.  That means 90% accuracy could turn into a much lesser percentage of reported matches.  It’s important to know how many matches trigger an action.)

Having had some experience with audio fingerprints, I think you will find that once a fingerprint is in the reference database, the recognition tool (Content ID in this case) will spot the reference fingerprint a very, very high percentage of the time.  The fingerprinting tool I’m most aware of caught matches over 90% of the time.  I can’t imagine that a tool developed by the biggest technology company in commercial history would do less–unless they wanted it to.  Remember, this is not taking into account re-records unless the re-record is itself in the database, or pitch bends.  This is an exact match which is very common use of Content ID.  (See Maria’s class action complaint, and Kerry Muzzey has a great description of this in his recent Senate testimony.)

If Content ID is actually missing matches to known knowns on the upload (assuming exact matching is possible), I find it very odd that Content ID is missing much.  Maybe it’s not, but one way to find out is to force Google to reveal the inner workings through discovery in the class action case.

But if Content ID does miss exact matches, it would be interesting to know what percentage of those misses end up being monetized, and of those, what percentage end up getting caught later by a subsequent use of Content ID or a manual investigative process.  This will give an idea of the scale of the retroactive payment issue.

As Maria rightly points out, it is virtually impossible for an artist or film maker without Content ID to catch YouTube monetizing infringing works.  But I think the analysis has to go a step further–even if you have Content ID, at the moment you catch YouTube monetizing illegal versions, you are in no different position than the artist who lacks access to the Content ID tool.

Both have the same problem–YouTube is profiting from illegal copies.  If when you catch them you then elect to monetize, YouTube will pay you going forward, i.e., prospectively.  But I do not believe they will pay you retroactivelyfor the illegal use.  (There is a rumor that some music publishers do get paid retroactively under some settlement, but that needs to be confirmed.)

That means that YouTube is directly profiting from piracy for the retroactive views which could total into the hundreds of millions per day given the massive number of daily views on YouTube.  If you elect to monetize due to YouTube’s monopoly power, you are essentially releasing them from liability under duress.  If you catch them.

So YouTube takes your property, monetizes it, and refuses to pay you for how much they made before you caught them if you ever do catch them.  They dare you to sue them because you would be taking on the biggest company in commercial history that controls 90% of the access to information in the world and routinely defies governments.  Not everyone has the spine of Maria Schneider.

Failing to license at all or failing to pay retroactively means that YouTube profits from piracy by converting your property to their own.  And as Maria rightly points out, Google scrapes user data through non-display uses in the background even if YouTube is not monetizing overtly which they then use to compile user profiles in “millions of buckets” (which dribbled out before Judge Koh in the Gmail litigation (In Re: Google, Inc. Gmail Litigation,  Case No. 13-MD-02430-LHK, (U.S.D.C. N.D. California, San Jose Division, Sept. 26, 2013)).

In either case, the value of the amount converted or stolen should rightly include the value of these user profiles scraped in the background, as well as the advertising revenue.

And don’t forget that Google is controlled by Larry Page, Sergei Brin, and Eric Schmidt through their “supervoting” shares of stock.  It’s hard to believe that this YouTube policy was created without their blessing.

The simplest move for Google would be to simply pay both retroactively and (if the copyright owner elects to monetize) prospectively.  Otherwise, it seems like a huge number of crimes are going on in a very planned and organized way dreamed up by YouTube and Google employees.  “Dreamed up” is also called a conspiracy, and if there’s an actual conspiracy it’s not a theory (which came up in an interesting trade secret misappropriation RICO case against Google they managed to wriggle out of, at least for the moment).

The law has another word for organized theft at scale–we sometimes call it “racketeering.”

racketeering

 

Guest Post: The Royal Scam: Content ID and Google’s Massive Profits From Piracy and Crime

By Chris Castle

Google and YouTube have managed to create a scam that has gone both largely undetected and largely unpunished for a decade–illicit activity that can be both seen and quantified through the sale of advertising and is also unseen and unquantified through data scraping in the background.  (I leave it to you to speculate which is more valuable.)

It is rare for Google to get caught like they were with the massive multi-agency sting operation and grand jury investigation by the then-U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island that led to the $500,000,000 punishment and non prosecution agreement in 2011.  (Which led to a very expensive shareholder lawsuit against Google’s board of directors and bizarre settlement.  We’ll come back to the board of directors issue here.)

If you had to put your finger on a moment in time that Google began buying Washington in earnest, it was this sting.  It was also the closest that Larry Page ever came to going to prison with all its earthly delights.  That evidently got his attention.

Google has also faced down civil RICO claims for racketeering through the theft of intellectual property.  The last reported RICO case against Google offers a checklist for how to make a civil RICO claim stick against the Leviathan of Mountain View.  I like the YouTube case a lot better than the inventor’s case they beat back.

But most of the time Google just keeps the money when they get caught.  A prime example is YouTube’s standard practice of refusing to pay a revenue share retroactively after you catch them infringing your work using Content ID.  That unjust enrichment creates an incentive to sharply limit the number of artists or songwriters who get access to Content ID in the first place.  I think this is why Google massively overreacted to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s Civil Investigate Demand and subpoena that they never did respond to.  Maybe they were covering up the same crimes that got them prosecuted in Rhode Island and they did not want to go through that again.

And therein lies the rub and our topic today:  If Google never gets caught, Google quietly keeps all the money.   For our world, this happens because they’ve artificially limited the tools that independent creators can use to catch the massive infringements.  And even if the majors and a handful of independents get the Content ID tool, YouTube still has the incentive to make Content ID just good enough that they can say it works, but not so good as to actually stop the infringement before it starts.

The majors using Content ID have to employ still other means to catch them, sometimes manually, at great cost.  In fact, you have to wonder if net-net the total costs of administering the YouTube deals actually exceeds the minimum guarantee and royalty payable.  Those tools are simply beyond the reach of the creators, even the few who YouTube grants access to Content ID.

And of course, any user of Content ID (big or small) has to sign up to the take-it or leave-it shakedown deal that limits what you can do about it when you catch them.  Which is just another form of the protection rackets.

This criminal enterprise comes in two flavors (at least):  Ad sales for illegal products (like the drugs, counterfeit tickets and the like), and selling legitimate advertising around content that Google knows or should have known was illegal (like YouTube’s monetization of infringing works).  And, of course, Google scrapes data in the background on all these criminal activities to its great–and secret–profit.

As we saw with the drugs case, Google knew exactly what it was doing, and I’m not willing to believe their rudderless ad sales teams don’t also know exactly what they are doing (remember Google’s ad sales team gave credit terms to infringers, and the drugs sting operation also shows that they brainstormed many criminal dodges to deceive Google’s own best practices team).

What little evidence we can lay hands on in the open source demonstrates that Google must know very well that it engages in criminal behavior–why else was Eric Schmidt advised by then-counsel David Drummond to refuse to answer Senator John Cornyn’s questions regarding the drugs case when Schmidt testified before a 2011 Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing?  (Also known as “taking the Fifth.”)  After engaging in a weak attempt at misdirection.  Did they think this question wouldn’t come up so didn’t prepare for it?  I doubt that very much.  (If they cooked up this story without the lawyers, this might well have been a conspiracy.  Attorneys take note:  Crime/fraud execution?)

schmidt senate
Eric Schmidt Takes the Fifth on drugs case to Senator John Cornyn: ” I have been advised — unfortunately, I’m not allowed to go into any of the details and I apologize, Senator”

Now that the U.S. Senate is investigating the effectiveness of the safe harbors under DMCA, this would be a good time for the Department of Justice to investigate Google’s business practices and potential criminal activities.  Smells like RICO to me.

As independent composer (and MTP guest poster) Kerry Muzzey highlighted in his recent testimony before the United States Senate regarding Content ID:

My name is Kerry Muzzey, and I am a film and television and modern classical composer.

I am one of the very few independent artists who has access to YouTube’s Content ID system; and most of my experience with notice and takedown has been on YouTube. Content ID has become a core piece of my licensing business: it is the x-ray that reveals the theft of my music to me. This is why I am also nervous about speaking out today – because I fear retaliation by YouTube and Google. I am concerned that they may take Content ID away from me for raising my concerns publicly. The technology behind Content ID is nothing short of brilliant, and I don’t want to lose access to it.

Growing up, my mom always said: “You’re not allowed to complain unless you’re gonna do something about it.” Senators, my being here today is my “doing something about it.” Today, I have the most unique opportunity I have ever had in my lifetime. I have the opportunity to ask Members of my United States Senate to fix a broken law.

Let’s also not forget the way Google is governed (as is Facebook, Spotify and many others).   Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Eric Schmidt hold a special class of  “supervoting” shares, what SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson has called “corporate royalty”.

These insiders get 10 votes for every one share they own of a special class of supervoting stock.  This means that the insiders control over 60% of the voting stock and win all shareholder votes—including votes to appoint the board of directors.

Supervoting shares give insiders absolute control of Google–one of the most successful public companies in commercial history.  Because they control every aspect of Google’s operations, Google truly is their “alter ego.”  One purpose of Google’s lobbying spend must be to keep the corporate royalty out of prison.

These supervoting Google Class B shares are not available to the public.  The public can buy two classes of stock:  GOOGL shares are Class A (one vote per share) and GOOG shares are Class C (no votes per share).  (GOOG shares were issued in a dividend to GOOGL holders.)  GOOGL shares typically trade slightly higher than GOOG which may demonstrate that the market has priced in a lack of meaningful voting rights in GOOGL.

It should not be surprising that Google shareholder meetings are a one-way communication event. The supervoting corporate royalty tell the other shareholders how things are going to be and vote down any move by GOOGL holders to change the status quo—like converting supervoting shares into one share one vote.  As Floyd Norris reported in his New York Times “Economix” column, “Rarely has a shareholder vote been less suspenseful.”

So Google’s profit from evil is not an accident.  If Congress wants to fix the DMCA, let’s fix all of it.  And as U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha discovered ten years ago, that requires a grand jury.

 

Guest Post: Who Owns The MLC Database of Songs?

[This is crossposted from MusicTech.Solutions and is adapted from the author’s comment to the Copyright Office in the MLC regulations.]

By Chris Castle

If you’ve been following the evolution of the “aircraft carrier” revision of the U.S. Copyright Act styled the “Music Modernization Act,” you will remember that America now has a blanket license for the mechanical reproduction of songs (or will have as of 1/1/21).  The “MMA” comes in three parts (or as I say three and one-half):

  • Title I which establishes the blanket license, a willing-buyer willing-seller standard for mechanical royalty rate setting, the Mechanical Licensing Collective (called the “MLC”), the all-important safe harbor for Big Tech’s massive infringement of songs, and authorized the creation of the “musical works database” which is the subject of this post;
  • Title I-1/2 which gives certain small benefits to ASCAP and BMI;
  • Title II which provides meaningful relief and largely fixes the pre-72 loophole that the Turtles sued over (formerly the CLASSICS Act); and
  • Title III which gives producers a statutory basis for SoundExchange royalties, another truly meaningful change.

I supported Title II and Title III, but I have lots of bones to pick with Title I, not the least of which has to do with the musical works database.  A lot of my issues have to do with what I perceive as sloppy drafting and a mad rush to “get a bill” at all costs which has led to a strong need to “fix” a lot of “glitches” in Title I itself (such as the failure to dovetail the major change in the compulsory mechanical from a per-song basis to a blanket basis. This in turn has an affect on other copyright provisions such as the termination right for songwriters which is now having to get solved–maybe–through the caulking of regulations to cover sloppy workmanship.  (Caulk cracks.)

For those of us who sweep up behind the elephants in the circus of life, I fear that the musical works database of other people’s things is an 11th Century solution to a 21st Century problem–a list of things that will be very difficult to get right and even more difficult to keep right, not unlike William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book.  Static lists of dynamic things necessarily are out of date the moment they are fixed.

Domesday-book-1804x972

Who Owns the Crowdsourced Musical Works Database?

We are going to discuss Title I musical works database today from a very simple threshold question:  Who owns it?

Spoiler alert:  The public owns it.  This is logical, but like so many things in the drafting of Title I, the drafting is glitchy, which is what you call it if you’re in a good mood.  I apocryphally attribute the term “glitch” when applied to massive Internet data breaches to the Fathers of the Internet who did not take care that the cracks were sealed (looking at you, Vint Cerf).

When you consider that the most valuable asset of the MLC is going to be the song database, ownership matters.  This database of other people’s things must be created by the efforts of potentially hundreds of thousands of songwriters given no choice in the matter.  It would be a bit much for the U.S. Congress to require all this only to enrich one U.S. corporation controlled by the U.S. publishers by leveraging a compulsory license to create a very valuable private asset.  Particularly a database paid for by still other people that might then get taken and given to a replacement MLC.  (There’s that “taken” word again.)  That’s typically not what Congress does.

Ownership matters to the Digital Licensee Coordinator, too.  Let’s also remember that on paper, the MLC does not pay a penny for the cost of its operations, including the creation of the database.  The entire cost of the MLC’s operations is borne by the users of the blanket license through an organization called the Digital Licensee Coordinator.  (If you’re thinking what’s with these names, I know, I know.  Forget it, Jake, it’s Washington.)

This database ownership issue has been raised to authorities a couple times, and no one has answered it.  I made it part of a recent comment I filed with the Copyright Office in the current rule making for regulations implementing Title I.  Maybe they’ll get around to answering the question this time.  After a while, you have to wonder why they have not.

The MLC’s Short Track Record on Ownership of Other People’s Things

A side note demonstrating both that ownership matters and that The MLC is thinking about ownership:  a service mark registration for “The MLC”.  (A service mark is a kind of trademark.)  There is a difference between “the MLC” and “The MLC”.  That’s because “the MLC” is the organization envisioned by the Congress that has to be redesignated (think “re-approved”) by the Copyright Office every five years.  On the other hand, “The MLC” refers to “The MLC, Inc.” which is the corporation created by the super popular proponents of Title I who were designated the first MLC and who style themselves “The MLC” using the definite article. But if I told you that there was a difference between “the MLC” and “The MLC” would you find that confusing?

The clear implication of the definite article seems to be that they don’t envision any future in which they will not be the MLC, i.e., will not be redesignated.  They also probably don’t envision a future where a different corporation would be designated the MLC and The MLC would be looking for something to do.  Maybe they know something we don’t, but there it is.

This also raises some interesting trademark questions should The MLC seek to prevent a successor from trading under the name “MLC”, interesting enough to stop The MLC from claiming a proprietary interest in the statutory description.  That mark is arguably descriptive and probably should be denied.  In fact it’s so descriptive it actually asserts a private intellectual property interest in the statutory language that describes the organization created by statute.  Sort of like asserting a trademark in “TVA” or “ICC” or “FOIA”.

MLC TM Registration

Should Songwriters Bust a Move to Create Value for The MLC?

Let’s be clear about who owns the Congressional database.  As you will see, the musical works database does not belong to either the MLC or The MLC.  If there is any confusion about that, the Copyright Office should clear it up right away (which would save having to go to other avenues to do the same thing).  There really isn’t a practical alternative to the Copyright Office jurisdiction.  Congress gave the Copyright Office broad regulatory powers over the MLC (and, therefore, The MLC).

The public “musical works database” that Congress envisioned in Title I of the Music Modernization Act is largely a crowdsourced asset.  Congress has asked the world’s songwriters or copyright owners to spend considerable time preparing their catalogs in whatever format The MLC and the DLC determine is good for The MLC (with the Office’s blessing through regulations).  There inevitably will be quality control and accuracy review costs invested by the world’s songwriters and copyright owners in making sure that their catalogs are correctly reflected in the musical works database.  “Copyright owners” may also include sound recording copyright owners asked to contribute their ISRCs or other data that they, too, have invested considerable expense in creating and maintaining.

Unfortunately, the transaction cost to the songwriter and copyright owner for participation in The MLC and crowdsourcing Congress’s database is an unfunded mandate at the moment.  From a commercial perspective, the dynamic evolution of data is a potentially limitless expense, yet we have both this unfunded mandate which will spike in the early years but continue on a rolling basis essentially forever.  Yet the MLC’s administrative assessment appears to be capped at a fixed increase by a settlement agreement.  Again, a “glitch.”  Still, The MLC’s executives seem positively giddy about their prospects with all the relief of someone who got tapped for lifetime employment with a pension (no doubt) while the songwriters these leaders are to serve are having the fight of their lives for survival.

What Did Congress Do?  Or Not Do?

Yet, it seems clear that at the time of passing Title I, Congress had no intention of using a public law to create a private asset.  Neither was their intention to use the law to leverage the creation of an asset for private ownership by whoever the head of the U.S. Copyright Office designated to be the MLC, regardless of how “popular” they might have been.

The creation of the musical works database is replete with hidden costs paid or incurred by songwriters and copyright owners.  Neither the Congress nor the Copyright Royalty Judges  were asked to directly address these hidden costs of creating the musical works database.   (The Copyright Royalty Judges (or “CRJs”) are relevant because they approve the DLC’s financial contribution to the MLC through the “Administrative Assessment.”  The assessment is intended to cover the “collective total costs” which includes broad categories of cost items related to the database.)  And as usual, these costs appear to have gone straight over the heads of the Congressional Budget Office in their mandated assessment of the costs of Title I.

Even so, the MMA Conference Report from Congress addresses the cost issue head on:

The [Congress] rejects statements that copyright owners benefit from paying for the costs of collectives to administer compulsory licenses in lieu of a free market. Therefore, the legislation directs that licensees should bear the reasonable costs of establishing and operating the new mechanical licensing collective. This transfer of costs is not unlimited, however, since it is strongly cabined by the term ‘‘reasonable.’’[1]

It will be impossible for the “new mechanical licensing collective” to fulfill its statutory duties or build the complete musical works database to which the United States aspires without songwriters and copyright owners around the world doing the intensive and costly spade work to prepare their data to be exported to The MLC.[2]  It is clear that the reasonable costs of preparing and exporting that data should be borne by The MLC[3] as part of the “Administrative Assessment.”[4]  This material cost clearly is covered by the definition of “collective total costs”[5] and so was, or should have been, included in the current Administrative Assessment,[6] unless the intention was to cover The MLC’s side of these costs and force songwriters and copyright owners to eat their side of the same transaction.  If that is the case, it would be helpful for the Copyright Office to clarify that intention in the name of transparency through their broad regulatory authority.

If there is another drafting glitch there, it is worth noting that the CRJs clearly contemplated revisiting the Administrative Assessment  on their own motion for good cause.[7]  If there were ever good cause, the staggering cost of registering potentially millions of songs would be it.[8]

It should be clear that no one’s intention was for the services to pay to create the musical works database and for the songwriters and copyright owners to labor to export their data to make the musical works database complete, only to have The MLC claim ownership of the musical works database, particularly if The MLC were not redesignated as the MLC following the five-year review by the Copyright Office.  That unhappy “take my ball and go home” arbitrage event is foreseeable and would entirely cut against the “continuity” contemplated by Congress.[9]

It is critical that the Copyright Office clarify in regulations that neither The MLC nor any other MLC owns the musical works database.  In fact, the MMA clearly states that “if a new entity is designated as the mechanical licensing collective, [the Office shall] adopt regulations to govern the transfer of licenses, funds, records, data, and administrative responsibilities from the existing mechanical licensing collective to the new entity.”[10]  Since The MLC will have to transfer the musical works database and the other statutory materials to the new MLC if they fail to be redesignated, there should be no misconceptions that The MLC “owns” the database and could withhold all or part of it.[11]  Because The MLC is just An MLC.

It should also be made clear that any MLC or DLC vendor does not obtain an ownership interest in any copy of all or part of the musical works database they may obtain for any reason.

Again, just like the termination right “glitch”, these are threshold questions that should have been answered in the statute itself.

Clarifying ownership of The MLC’s most important asset should be an easy ask of the Copyright Office.  Watch this space to find out if it is.

          * * * * * * * * *

[1] Report and Section-by-Section Analysis of H.R. 1551 by the Chairmen and Ranking Members of Senate and House Judiciary Committees, at 1 (2018) at 2 (emphasis added).

[2] This effort is referred to as “Play Your Part™” a business process trademarked by The MLC available at https://themlc.com/preparing-2021.

[3] I would point out that the way The MLC should work—and in the end probably will end up functioning as a practical matter–is that The MLC needs to be able to handle however songwriters ingest their data.  Instead, it appears that The MLC is trying to dictate to all the songwriters in the world how they should assemble their song data beforethey register with The MLC. If The MLC wants to shift that burden, they should expect to pay for it.  Otherwise, this is exactly backwards.

[4] 17 U.S.C. §115 (d)(7)(D).  The Administrative Assessment is what makes the MLC different from other PROs or CMOs where members bear their own cost of participation.  The Administrative Assessment is to cover the entire cost of creating the musical works database, not just The MLC’s startup or overhead costs.  If nothing else, another way to treat these out of pocket costs is as a contribution to the operating costs of The MLC by songwriters and copyright owners that should be offset against future Administrative Assessments.

[5] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (e)(6).

[6] Order Granting Participants’ Joint Motion to Adopt Proposed Regulations, In re Determination and Allocation of Initial Administrative Assessment to Fund Mechanical Licensing Collective (U.S. Copyright Royalty Judges Docket No. 19-CRB-0009-AA (Dec. 12, 2019)).

[7] The CRJs included this footnote in their ruling on the administrative assessment (emphasis added):  “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].”   Order Granting Participants’ Joint Motion to Adopt Proposed Regulations, In re Determination and Allocation of Initial Administrative Assessment to Fund Mechanical Licensing Collective (U.S. Copyright Royalty Judges Docket No. 19-CRB-0009-AA (Dec. 12, 2019) n.1 (emphasis added)).

[8] There is a simple solution to determining these costs to songwriters and copyright owners.  The Copyright Office could designate several metadata companies who could compete to handle the various steps of creating and exporting metadata to The MLC, such as in the CWR format, for example North Music Group and Crunch Digital have such tools.  To avoid picking winners and losers and to preserve competition, the Office could alternatively establish a benchmark of quality control or some other criteria for becoming an approved company.  The costs charged would likely vary depending on the size of the catalog, but The MLC need only pay the invoice of these companies which would be included in the Administrative Assessment.  Obviously, the entity performing such work should be independent of The MLC, the DLC or any of its members, or any of their respective vendors.  This would, of course, introduce the concept of competition into the monopoly which may interest no one but might benefit everyone.

[9] See H. Rep. 115-651 (115th Cong. 2nd Sess. April 25, 2018) at 6 (hereafter “House Report”); S. Rep. 115-339 (115thCong. 2ndSess. Sept. 17, 2018) at 5 (together with identical language, hereafter “legislative history”) (“Although there is no guarantee of a continued designation by the collective, the Committee believes that continuity in the collective would be beneficial to copyright owners so long as the entity previously chosen to be the collective has regularly demonstrated its efficient and fair administration of the collective in a manner that respects varying interests and concerns. In contrast, evidence of fraud, waste, or abuse, including the failure to follow the relevant regulations adopted by the Copyright Office, over the prior five years should raise serious concerns within the Copyright Office as to whether that same entity has the administrative capabilities necessary to perform the required functions of the collective.”)

[10] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(3)(B)(ii)(A)(II).

[11] It seems that if an incumbent MLC that was not redesignated and continued to operate, it would almost unavoidably compete with the newly designated MLC but with a substantial leg up.  I realize there have been some statements made about The MLC taking on work beyond the blanket license, such as voluntary licenses.  That additional work might require additional investment, or a sharing of the total collective costs by third parties.  I have not addressed that allocation as I for one would like to see The MLC stick to their knitting and succeed at the job they are obligated to do, and, frankly, paid to do, before worrying about expanding into profitable roles for the non-profit corporation.   It does seem that if The MLC is not redesignated, there would not be much for them to do once they transfer the public’s assets to the new MLC.

Guest Post: Pandemic: @Music_Canada COVID Study Sets the Gold Standard for Reopening Data-Driven Policy

By Chris Castle

[This post originally appeared on MusicTechPolicy.]

MusicCanada commissioned an outstanding survey by Abacus Data using serious data-driven methodology to credibly measure the Canadian public’s experience with the COVID shut down of live music and expectation for reopening.  Instead of glorified “Who’s Hot”-level casual polls you see cropping up here and there, The Locked-Down Blues: Canadians, Live Music and the Pandemic sets the gold standard for the kind of data-driven serious national opinion study that policy makers can actually use to plan how to get out of this corner.

The study measures many different factors, including the more intangible questions of what trust level fans will require before they come back to live music.  Regardless of what distancing or contamination standards are imposed, none of that matters much if the fans don’t trust it enough to come out to hear live music in cities like Toronto and Austin.

For example, the study found this reaction:

DESPITE WANTING TO GO, CANADIANS, EVEN THOSE WHO LOVE LIVE MUSIC, SAY THEY WILL BE RELUCTANT TO GO BACK TO LIVE MUSIC EVENTS BEFORE A VACCINE FOR COVID IS FOUND.

Even if they are permitted to go to live music events, many Canadians, including those who love live music the most, will be reluctant to return for some time.

We asked respondents how soon they will feel comfortable enough doing several activities, once physical distancing restrictions are lifted. In almost all cases, fewer than 40% said they would feel comfortable in a few months or less. For most, the time horizon was much longer with many saying they may never feel comfortable again.

For example, 43% said it would take six months or more before they would feel comfortable going to a music festival or a concert in a large venue. Another quarter said they may never feel comfortable going to those types of events again.

I find it hard to believe that there’s going to be an appreciable geographical distinction between Canada and any other country on these issues.  But this study provides a gold standard for other studies in other countries, all of which should be done and done using a robust and defendable methodology.

So let’s be clear–this study is giving you the hard truth.  It is not some Chamber of Commerce hoorah or conclusion-driven clap trap.  It also tells us that the idea that you can just turn the lights back on and people will flock to the clubs may be looking at the wrong ball.  It has serious implications for the entire music industry across all genres.

But–it especially has serious implications for cities like Austin that get significant economic benefit from music tourism.  Given that the City of Austin commissioned the Austin Music Census in 2015, another robust data-driven study that produced  unwelcome dire conclusions,  it is astonishing that the blinking red light in the Census was completely ignored.  Not only were Austin musicians poorer than the City seemed to think they were, the entire local ecosystem was essentially dependent on live music.  For example, streaming was a negligible source of revenue for Austin musicians–think maybe someone would have wanted to look into that issue as a matter of industrial strategy?  And is there anything about the “Live Music Capitol of the World” that gives you a clue that maybe you might want to start thinking about why all the eggs were in that basket?  As Mark Twain said, if you’re going put all your eggs in one basket, watch that basket.  Or at least don’t ignore it.

Since the City did such a thorough job of ignoring the Census for so long, I wonder if they’re going to be able to figure out how to solve the current crisis.  Or if maybe somebody actually would like Austin to turn into just another college town with a Google campus, self-driving cars busily scraping rider data while stacked up on I-35 and Uber Eats Your Soul.

We can be grateful to Music Canada for commissioning this study and getting it out at the perfect time for policy makers to have some meaningful data driven reality conducted in a manner that could stand up to peer review like the Austin Music Census.  And show the world the gold standard for how to develop policies that actually solve a problem because you better know what the problem is you want to solve.

Here’s the survey:

 

 

Click to access Music-Canada-National-Survey-Interview-Schedule_Release.pdf

@musictechsolve: Defiance or Collaboration? The Role of the Presidential Signing Statement in MLC Board Appointments

[Jem Aswad reports in Variety that Concord Music Publishing and Pulse Music Group have announced a joint venture with Concord acquiring a majority stake in Pulse.  Both Concord and Pulse have board seats on the Mechanical Licensing Collective.  This presumably means there will be an opening on the MLC board that will have to be filled.  There is a question as to whether the Librarian of Congress has to approve a new board member.  Chris Castle discusses this issue in this post from last year on MusicTech.Solutions.]

Even though they have a long history, Presidential Signing Statements are not exactly front and center in every civics class or constitutional public law class in America.  You may be hearing about them for the first time now.  But that doesn’t mean they have not been an important part of Constitutional law-making and jurisprudence.

Presidential Signing Statements were first used by President James Monroe in 1822 in the form of a “special message” to the Senate. Presidents Andrew Jackson, John Tyler and Ulysses Grant also issued signing statements, but they were used infrequently until the 20th Century.  Then their use picked up quite a bit starting with President Theodore Roosevelt and continuing to the present day.  So the use of Signing Statements is quite bipartisan.  While Signing Statements may not themselves have any actionable legal effect, they should not be ignored, either.

The MMA Presidential Signing Statement

Not surprisingly, there is a Presidential Signing Statement accompanying the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) specifically relating to Title I and at that specifically relating to the MLC board appointments.  The relevant language is:

One provision, section 102, authorizes the board of directors of the designated mechanical licensing collective to adopt bylaws for the selection of new directors subsequent to the initial designation of the collective and its directors by the Register of Copyrights and with the approval of the Librarian of Congress (Librarian). Because the directors are inferior officers under the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, the Librarian must approve each subsequent selection of a new director. I expect that the Register of Copyrights will work with the collective, once it has been designated, to ensure that the Librarian retains the ultimate authority, as required by the Constitution, to appoint and remove all directors.

Let’s explore why we should care about this guidance.

According to Digital Music News, there have been changes at the Mechanical Licensing Collective, Inc. (“MLCI”) the private non-profit permitted under Title I of the MMA [in addition to the potential opening due to the Concord/Pulse consolidation]:

[I]t appears that two separate MLC board members are jumping ship.  The details are just emerging and remain unconfirmed, though it appears that two members — one representing indie songwriters and the other on the publishing side — are out of the organization.

Because the board composition of MLCI is preemptively set by the U.S. Copyright Act along with many other aspects of MLCI’s operating mandate, the question of replacing board members may be arising sooner than anyone expected.  As MLCI is a creature of statute, it should not be controversial that law-makers play an ongoing role in its governance.

The Copyright Office Weighs In

The Copyright Office addressed board appointments for MLCI in its first request for information for the designation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective (83 CFR 65747, 65750 (December 21, 2018) available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2018-12-21/pdf/2018-27743.pdf):

The MLC board is authorized to adopt bylaws for the selection of new directors subsequent to the initial designation of the MLC. [If these bylaws have been adopted, we haven’t seen any announcements and as far as we know, they have not been posted.  If you know otherwise, please let us know.  The MLC website appears to be down.  UPDATE:  as of 1/13/20 the mechanicallicensingcollective.org now resolves to songconnect.org]

MCLI Down

The Presidential Signing Statement accompanying enactment of the MMA states that directors of the MLC are inferior officers under the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, and that the Librarian of Congress must approve each subsequent selection of a new director. It also suggests that the Register work with the MLC, once designated, to address issues related to board succession.

When you consider that MLCI is, for all practical purposes, a kind of hybrid quasi-governmental organization (or what the Brits might call a “quango”), the stated position of the President, the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office should not be surprising.

Why the Controversy?

As the Songwriters Guild of America notes in comments to the Copyright Office in part relating to the Presidential Signing Statement (my emphasis):

Further, it seems of particular importance that the Executive Branch also regards the careful, post-designation oversight of the Mechanical Collective board and committee members by the Librarian of Congress and the Register as a crucial prerequisite to ensuring that conflicts of interest and bias among such members not poison the ability of the Collective to fulfill its statutory obligations for fairness, transparency and accountability.

The Presidential Signing Statement, in fact, asserts unequivocally that “I expect that the Register of Copyrights will work with the collective, once it has been designated, to ensure that the Librarian retains the ultimate authority, as required by the Constitution, to appoint and remove all directors.”

SGA regards it as a significant red flag that the NMPA-MLC submission to the Copyright Office devotes the equivalent of ten full pages of text principally in attempting to refute this governmental oversight authority, and regards the expression of such a position by NMPA/MLC as arguably indicative of an organization more inclined towards opaque, insider management control than one devoted to fairness, transparency and accountability.

So the Presidential Signing Statement to the MMA is obviously of great import given the amount of ink that has been spilled on the subject.  Let’s spill some more.

How might this oversight be given effect and will it be in the public record or an informal process behind closed doors?  Presumably it should be done in the normal course by a cooperative and voluntary collaboration between the MLC and ultimately the Librarian.  Minutes of such collaboration could easily be placed in the Federal Register or some other public record on the Copyright Office website.  Failing that collaboration, it could be done by either the Department of Justice (unlikely) or by individuals (more likely) asking an Article III court to rule on the issue.

Of course, the issue should not delay the Copyright Royalty Judges from proceeding with their assessment determination to fund the MLC pursuant to the controversial voluntary settlement or otherwise [which was released after this original post].  One could imagine an oversight role for the CRJs given that Congress charged them with watching the purse strings and the quantitative implies the qualitative.  The CRJs have until until July 2020 to rule on the initial administrative assessment and appeal seems less likely today given the voluntary settlement and the elimination of any potential objectors.

Since the Title I proponents drafted the bill to require a certain number of board seats to be filled by certain categories of persons approved by Congress in a Madisonian balance of power, the Presidential Signing Statement seems well grounded and furthers the Congressional mandate.

Yet there is this conflict over the Presidential Signing Statement.  What are the implications?

A Page of History is Worth A Volume of Logic

The President’s relationship to legislation is binary—sign it or veto it.  Presidential Signing Statements are historically used as an alternative to the exercise of the President’s veto power and there’s the rub.

Signing Statements effectively give the President the last word on legislation as the President signs a bill into law.   Two competing policies are at work in Presidential Signing Statements—the veto power (set forth in the presentment clause, Article I, Sec. 7, clause 2), and the separation of powers. 

Unlike some governors, the President does not enjoy the “line item veto” which permits an executive to blue pencil the bits she doesn’t like in legislation presented for signature.  (But they tried–Line Item Veto Act ruled unconstitutional violation of presentment clause in Clinton v. City of New York, 524 U.S. 417 (1998).) The President can’t rewrite the laws passed by Congress, but must veto the bill altogether.  Attempting to both reject a provision of a new law as unconstitutional, announce the President’s intention not to enforce that provision AND sign the bill without vetoing it is where presidents typically run into trouble.

Broadly speaking, Presidential Signing Statements can either be a President’s controversial objection to a bill or prospective interpretive guidance.  Signing Statements that create controversy are usually a refusal by the President to enforce the law the President just signed because the President doesn’t like it but doesn’t want to veto it.  Or to declare that the President thinks the law is unconstitutional and will not enforce it for that reason—but signed it anyway.

The President can also use the Signing Statement to define or interpret a key term in legislation in a particular way that benefits the President’s policy goals or political allies.  President Truman, for example, interpreted a statutory definition in a way that benefited organized labor which was later enforced by courts in line with the Signing Statement.  President Carter used funds for the benefit of Vietnam resisters in defiance of Congress, but courts later upheld the practice—in cases defended by the Carter Justice Department.  The practice of using Presidential Signing Statements is now routine and has been criticized to no avail for every administration in the 21st Century including Bush II, Obama and now Trump.

Since the 1980s, it has become common for Presidents to issue dozens if not hundreds of Presidential Signing Statements during their Administration.  So it should come as no surprise if the Department of Justice drafted up the statement for the MMA prior to it being presented to the President to be signed into law.  (See the American Presidency Project archives https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/presidential-documents-archive-guidebook/presidential-signing-statements-hoover-1929-obama)

Defiance or Collaboration?

What does this mean for the MMA?  The President certainly did not call out the statutorily required board membership of the MLC as an unconstitutional overreach that he would not enforce.  To the contrary, the MMA Signing Statement expresses the President’s desire that the legislation comply with the requirements of the Constitution.

Moreover,  the MMA Presidential Signing Statement is not a declaration about what the President will or won’t enforce but rather interprets a particular section of a long and winding piece of legislation.  (Title I principally amended Section 115 of the Copyright Act—now longer than the entire 1909 Copyright Act.)  This kind of interpretation seems to be consistent with the practices of prior Presidents of both parties, not an end-run around either the veto power or separation of powers.

Failing to acknowledge the admonition of the signing statement would seem an unnecessary collision both with long-standing jurisprudence and with a sensible recommendation from the President of how the Librarian, the Copyright Office and the Justice Department expect to approach the issue in collaboration with the MLCI.  That’s possibly why the Copyright Office restated the Signing Statement in the RFP.

Title I of the MMA is a highly technical amendment to a highly technical statute.  A little interpretive guidance is probably a good thing.  Collaboration certainly makes more sense than defiance.

Guest Post @musictechpolicy: Another Bad Artist Relations Week for Spotify

By Chris Castle

Spotify released one of their groovy ad campaigns last week.  This time celebrating their freebie subscription campaign.

D_SMUJEW4AAwd6c

You really do have to wonder where they find the people who come up with these things.

Blake Morgan, David Lowery and David Poe all laid into Spotify with their own tweets.  Just like Lowery’s seminal “Letter to Emily” post, but much faster, social media began driving traditional media with the story.

Billboard, Newsweek, Variety and New Music Express all picked up the story in 24 hours, and many others are also picking up the story.  I did a short post that Hypebot connecting the dots from the giveaway campaigns to user-centric royalties.

But the capper was the Godwin’s Law moment when Spotify’s lawyer and NYU professor Christopher Sprigman went after both Blake and David Lowery on Twitter for reasons that are frankly lost on me.  Professor Sprigman had something of a bizarre moment when he compared Lowery to Alex Jones which culminated in this exchange (recall that Alex Jones was deplatformed):

Sprigman 1

It should not be lost on anyone that Professor Sprigman supported Professor Lessig’s losing argument in the Eldred v. Ashcroftcase and apparently was co-counsel with Lessig in another losing argument in the Kahle v. Gonzalescase.  It also must be said that David Lowery and Melissa Ferrick’s class action against Sprigman client Spotify and Lowery’s case against Rhapsody were probably among the most consequential copyright cases (along with BMG v. Cox)  in the last five years.  Some would say that the Lowery cases set the table for the Music Modernization Act (and it should come as no surprise that David was asked to serve on one of the committees).

So while Professor Sprigman may find that Lowery “isn’t important”, there is a crucial difference between Professor Sprigman’s big copyright cases and David’s.  Want to guess what it is?

Some are speculating that Sprigman is retaliating on Blake and David Lowery for their successful commentary on his client Spotify–but I’d want to see a lot more proof.  Until then, you’d have to say Charlie has a point when he says that Sprigman is kind of an academic Bob Lefsetz.

Sprigman 2

And Spotify stumbles across the finish line of another bad media week of dissing artists.  Whew. Thank God it’s Monday, right?