Will the Copyright Royalty Board Leave Songwriters In the Deep Freeze?

snakeoil-cover-700x400-1

In case you haven’t noticed, songwriter mechanical royalty rates are about to be set again at a faraway Congressional operation called the Copyright Royalty Board. You may say, hold on–I thought that mechanical royalties were being appealed?! True, but that’s just for the ha’penny streaming rates. The rate for physical, permanent downloads, ringtones and bundles are separate rates that were set as part of the last rate hearing.

Well…those rates were not really “set” in the traditional sense. There were no hearings, no evidence was presented, none of the usual back and forth that you see when a handful of the little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol try to divine what a market rate should be for mechanical royalties–for which there has not been a free market in over 100 years. And you can take this to the bank–all that bluster about songwriters just want a free market that you hear from the lobbyists is a load of crap. Children have been put through years of prep school, college and law schools on what it costs to set these rates.

So when the anointed decide not to present any evidence and burn up legal fees by freezing a mechanical rate, you have to wonder what the motivation is.

The statutory rate for physical and permanent downloads have been frozen at 9.1¢ since 2006 because of these side deals that extended the 2006 rates. And they are about to do it again.

Frozen Mechanicals

The way it works is that the publishers and the record companies get in a back room and decide to freeze the rate. Then they submit their settlement to the Copyright Royalty Board (who, unlike the judicial branch, ultimately work for Congress). The CRB then announces that “the parties” having agreed, the judges will adopt the rate without hearing any evidence. And presto changeo, as if by magic every songwriter in the world whose songs are exploited under the U.S. compulsory license are subject to a deal they had no part in deciding and probably didn’t even know was on offer.

It must also be said that U.S. songwriter rates ordered by the government cast a long shadow around the world, so it’s actually worse than that.

And guess what? It’s all happening again, and it’s happening in plain sight if you happen to be someone who reads through the CRB public docket which the smart money says you are not. Possibly because you trust the lobbyists who you made rich to do it for you.

Why is this important? For one thing, if this deep freeze is allowed to go into law, the rate will have been the same for 20 years. Remember that the mechanical rate in the U.S. was frozen at 2¢ for 70 years and this is exactly how it happened. Nobody came in back in 1909 and said, “hey, let’s freeze those rates for 70 years, OK?” Nope, it just creeped and creeped and creeped until one day a songwriter named Hoyt Axton of a predecessor of the Songwriters Guild of America had enough. He lobbied and lobbied and lobbied and finally got the rate increased and eventually got it indexed to inflation.

Mechanical License Royalty Rates 1

Mechanical License Royalty Rates 2

In the words of Alan Shepard, why are they doing this to us? There’s no easy answer. The first thing they often say is that they extend the rate because they are concerned it might go down. There is no CRB in history that has lowered a previously set rate. So that’s bullshit for starters.

Then they say it is because of declining sales in these configurations. Well that wasn’t true in 2006 when CDs made up 80% of US revenues. It wasn’t true in 2009 when CDs were 55%, and it wasn’t true in 2018 when these physical and digital formats were about 20% of revenue. It’s also not true today when these formats are about 15% of billing. Is there a label out there that would say 15% of billing is trivial? So that is also bullshit.

And yet, we are told there is a proposed settlement between NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Universal and Warner that extend the deep freeze another five years if it becomes law. We don’t have the detail, but it should be coming any day now. You can read it here.

US Revenue by Source 2020

The proposed settlement also includes this rather mysterious sentence at the bottom of page 1:

NMPA, UMG, WMG and SME have also reached an agreement in principle concerning a separate memorandum of understanding addressing certain related issues.

Big reveal to follow.

So what is that all about? It couldn’t possibly be a commissionable pending and unmatched settlement for those unimportant physical and download mechanicals? You don’t think it might have something to do with cash changing hands doya?

Ya think?

And it’s all legal.

Guest Post: Honesty In Our Favor: HFA Loses Attempt To Exit Eight Mile Style Case–What Implications For MLC?

Guest post by Chris Castle

The Uniform Commercial Code defines “good faith” as “honesty in fact and the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.”

Spotify was sued by Eight Mile Style and Martin Affiliated, two publishers that control rights in some of the early Eminem repertoire, including Lose Yourself. Remember that earlier this year, Spotify announced with great fanfare that Lose Yourself was streamed over 1 billion times on the platform. That’s just one measurement of Eminem’s dominance on Spotify. Turns out that Spotify had failed to license a good chunk of Eminem’s catalog.

The publishers eventually joined the Harry Fox Agency to the lawsuit as participating in the situation, adding claims of vicarious and contributory copyright infringement against the long-time publishing administrator to the industry. In fact, the Harry Fox Agency gave some people the impression that when it came to Section 115 of the Copyright Act, HFA thought they were the government. What ever is this venerable organization doing getting sued for copyright infringement instead of leading the charge against the infringer?

At one point a few years ago, quite a few years ago now, HFA decided to jump up on top of the wall. They started working for tech companies like Spotify and also administering publishing rights. That’s right–both sides. What could possibly go wrong?

Let me illustrate with an anecdote (one that does not involve HFA, or MRI for that matter). A highly ethical licensing administrator interviewed for a job handling music licensing for a big tech company. After several rounds of interviews, the administrator was told they weren’t getting the job. Asking for a reason, the tech company told the administrator that the company thought the administrator were likely going to flag and at least try to fix any problems they found in the tech company’s reporting. The administrator didn’t find this remarkable as this was the honest thing to do. The company said, we don’t want honesty when it’s not in our favor. The company hired someone else because they did not want “honesty in fact”.

There are serious allegations against the Harry Fox Agency in the Eight Mile Case. Remember, this is a defense motion to dismiss, so the plaintiff largely gets the benefit of the doubt in their favor. You may ask yourself what possible motivation could Spotify have for engaging in such risky behavior. In her order denying in part and granting in part HFA’s motion to dismiss, Judge Trauger puts her finger right on the most plausible explanation:

[I]t is undisputed that [Eminem, aka Marshall] Mathers is an artist who has enjoyed extraordinary commercial success and has built a large, dedicated fanbase, such that his omission from a major streaming platform might discourage some meaningful number of potential users from subscribing

In other words, they did it for the subscribers, they did it for the growth and they did it for the money.

While Eight Mile alleged both vicarious and contributory infringement, Judge Trauger dismissed the claim for vicarious infringement on technical grounds (with leave to amend). Not so with the claim for contributory infringement, however:

HFA objects that it was under no obligation to police Spotify’s in-house decisions regarding infringement. Whether that is true or not, the plaintiffs have not merely alleged that HFA failed to affirmatively police Spotify’s conduct; they have alleged both that HFA knew and, through the ordinary fulfillment of its duties, should have known that the infringement was occurring and that HFA was helping to conceal it.…There is little doubt, moreover, that those allegations of knowledge were pleaded sufficiently. Even when a claim is governed by the heightened pleading requirements of Rule 9(b), “[m]alice, intent, knowledge, and other conditions of a person’s mind may be alleged generally.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). The Supreme Court, moreover, has recognized a party’s “aiming to satisfy a known source of demand for copyright infringement” as evidence of an improper purpose in the contributory infringement analysis. Grokster, 545 U.S. at 939. That circumstantial evidence is only heightened when the defendant, knowing of the capacity for infringement, fails to take steps to avoid it. See id. (citing Groskter’s lack of “attempt[s] to develop filtering tools or other mechanisms to diminish the infringing activity using their software”).

The plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that HFA became aware of Spotify’s licensing predicament and offered services that directly filled its need to maintain an illusion of lawfulness while continuing to infringe. 

If these allegations turn out to be proven true, songwriters (and the Copyright Office for that matter) may well ask themselves if there are implications for HFA’s continued role as a vendor for The MLC, if not why they were selected in the first place.

This post first appeared in MusicTechPolicy

The MLC Announces the Inception to Date Black Box Payments: $424 million

According to an MLC press release, the MLC has $424,384,787 from digital music services:

The Mechanical Licensing Collective (The MLC) announced today that it has received a total of $424,384,787 in accrued historical unmatched royalties from digital service providers (DSPs), together with corresponding data reports that identify the usage related to these royalties.  

A total of 20 DSPs separately transferred accrued historical unmatched royalties to The MLC as required in order for them to seek the MMA’s limitation on liability for past infringement. In addition to the accrued unmatched royalties transferred to The MLC, the DSPs concerned also delivered more than 1,800 data files, which contain in excess of 1.3 terabytes and nine billion lines of data. 

This is a lot of money, but you do have to ask if this is what they admit to, now much is really there? Time will tell. You also have to ask whether they would have paid the money at all if it weren’t for the lawsuit brought against Spotify and the Harry Fox Agency by Eminem publishers Eight Mile Style and Martin Affiliated. Once the services got it through their heads that moving the goalposts wasn’t going to get them off of the front pages of the class action lawyer magazines (with a map that said “X MARKS THE SPOT”), the money was forthcoming.

Here’s the list of services that the MLC says paid the headline number:

MLC Payments

Note that the top five payments are from Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Google and Pandora. It is simply laughable that of this group, the two biggest offenders are Apple and Spotify for different reasons. Apple tries to position itself as a friend to artists and songwriters and is the worst offender. Spotify has literally no excuse as they have been sued multiple times and as we now see for good reason. Amazon and Google are two of the biggest technology companies in commercial history, but they can’t find songwriters.

The moral of the story is that you can’t find what you don’t look for. And of course the one sided drafting of the Music Modernization Act basically gives the services a pass on whether this payment was even accurate. You have to think that if the accounting was so sloppy that these paragons of technology missed the target by 100s of millions, there very easily could be 100s of millions more that we’ll never get. Do not let anyone tell you that this is some great victory by the lobbyists–this is a great victory by the lobbyists for Big Tech. They are paying us with our own money through a pig in a poke. If our lobbyists are going to celebrate anything, they need to celebrate when every penny is accounted for and paid to the right person. And there should be no cost-benefit analysis because as we were told many times, the services are paying for it. So they should pay for all of it, including the distribution to the long tail. In other words, our lobbyists should celebrate only if the market share distribution is zero. Surely they thought of this.

But now the hot potato is at the MLC which is financed by all these same offenders. We need to ask if the money reported by the MLC is the exact sum that they received from the participating DSPs or if there were any “fees” that disappeared from view before it was reported. We also need to ask if the monies received by the MLC is the exact same dollars that were paid by the DSPs and whether any “fees” disappeared before the money got to the MLC.

But all in all, a potentially good day provided that money immediately begins flowing to songwriters. There’s a long way between here and there, but keeping pressure on will keep attention on that juicy target.

Guest Post: Good News for Music Tech Startups: DLC Changes Fee Structure for Using Blanket Compulsory License

by Chris Castle

(This post first appeared on the Music Tech Solutions blog)

Title I of the Music Modernization Act established a blanket mechanical royalty license, the mechanical licensing collective to create the musical works database and collect royalties, the Digital Licensee Coordinator (which represents the music users under the blanket license) and a system where the services pay for the millions evidently required to operate the MLC and create the musical works database (which may happen eventually but which currently is the Harry Fox Agency accessed via API).

Title I also established another first (to my knowledge):  The United States became the first country in the world to charge music users a fee for availing themselves of a compulsory license.  The way that works is that all users of the blanket license have to bear a share of the costs of operating the MLC and eventually establishing the musical works database (and whatever else is in the MLC’s budget like legal fees, executive pension contributions, bonuses, etc.).  This is called the “administrative assessment” and is established by the Copyright Royalty Judges through a hearing that only the DLC and the MLC were (and probably are) allowed to attend, yet sets the rates for music users not present.

The initial administrative assessment is divided into two parts: The startup costs for developing the HFA API and the operating costs of the MLC.  The startup costs for the API, vendor payments, etc., were assessed to be $33,500,000; that’s a pricey API.  The first year MLC operating costs were assessed to be $28,500,000.  Because it’s always groundhog day when it comes to music publishing proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Judges, the method of allocating these costs are a mind-numbing calculation that will require lawyers to interpret.  With all respect, the poor CRJs must wonder how anything ever actually happens in the music business based on the distorted view that parades before them.  You do have to ask yourself is this really the best we can do?  Imagine that the industry elected to solve its startup problems by single combat with one songwriter and one entrepreneur staying in a room until they made a deal.  Do you think that the best they could come up with is the system of compulsory licensing as it exists in the US?  Maybe.  Or maybe they’d come up with something simpler and less costly to administer in the absence of experts , lobbyists and lawyers.

My feeling is that the entire administrative assessment process is fraught with conflicts of interest, a view I made known in an op-ed and to the Senate Judiciary Committee staff at their request when the MMA was being drafted.  The staff actually agreed, but said their hands were tied because of “the parties”–which of course means “the lobbyists” because the MMA looked like what they call a “Two Lexus” lobbying contract.  Not for songwriters, of course.

Yet, the DLC appears to have reconsidered some of this tom foolery and should be praised for doing so.  The good news is that the market’s gravitational pull has caused the allocation of the assessment on startups to come back to earth in a much more realistic methodology.  Markets are funny that way, even markets for compulsory licenses.  While still out of step with the rest of the world, at least the US precedent appears much less likely to have the counterproductive effects that were obvious before MMA was signed into law due to the statute’s anticompetitive lock in.  And the DLC should be commended for having the courage and the energy to make the fairness-making changes.  That’s a wow moment.

Hats off to the DLC for getting out ahead of the issue.  I recommend reading the DLC filing supporting the revisions (technically a joint filing with MLC but it reads like it came from DLC with MLC signing off).  It’s clearly written and I think the narrative will be understandable and informative to a layperson (once you get past the bizarre structure of the entire thing).  The DLC tells us the reasons for revisiting the allocation:

Since the Judges adopted the initial administrative assessment regulations, the Parties [i.e., the DLC and MLC since no one else was allowed to participate even if they had a stake in the outcome] have gained a better understanding of the overall usage of sound recordings within the digital audio service industry, as well as the relative usage of various categories of services. This information has led the Parties to conclude that the allocation methodology could have significant impacts on smaller Licensees, and that the allocation methodology should be modified to better accommodate these Licensees, and that such is reasonable and appropriate. This is particularly the case as these Licensees transition to the new mechanical licensing system set forth in the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) and navigate new reporting requirements, and further as the country continues to generally struggle through the economic and health effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the cost, reporting requirements, and impacts of the pandemic are experienced by all Licensees, the Parties believe that it is reasonable and appropriate to modify the administrative assessment to better address the situations of smaller Licensees.

The “old” allocation resulted in this payment structure for services buying into the blanket license (setting aside download stores for the moment):

Old Assessment Alloction

It was that $60,000 plus an indeterminate share of operating costs that was the killer.  The new allocation is more precise applicable to other than download stores:

New Assessment Alloction

This makes a lot more sense and one can believe that some startups actually were asked what they think. Remember, David Lowery sent an open letter to the CRJs in 2019 raising this exact point reacting to the bizarre initial administrative assessment hearings:

The Judges should take into account that no startup has been present or able to negotiate the many burdens placed on them by this settlement. In particular, they have not been able to be heard by the Judges on the scope of these financial burdens that their competitors—some of the richest multinational corporations in history—have unilaterally decided to place on them with no push back.

This isn’t to say that any would be brave enough to come forward and challenge their betters if given a chance. But they should at least be given a chance.

There are some twists and turns to the new rule which was adopted by the CRJs as a final rule on January 8, 2021, and any startup should obviously get smart about the rules. But–these latest amendments have established two really great things: First, the DLC is paying attention. That is very good for the reasons David raises. The other is that the DLC is apparently actually talking to someone other than Google and Spotify and coming up with reasonable compromises. This is very, very good. Let’s hope it continues.

We’ll be watching.

Results and Recommendations of the Artist Rights Watch MLC Awareness Survey

Guest post by Chris Castle

Our sister site Artist Rights Watch fielded a Mechanical Licensing Collective Awareness Questionnaire during January targeting songwriters attending our MLC webinar.  (MLC Awareness Questionnaire 1/31/21 n=120.)  The purpose of the questionnaire was to give the panelists some idea of the awareness level of attendees about the issues we intended to discussed based on early responses to the survey.  You can read the analysis of the responses here, but I’m going to discuss them briefly.

Of the 120 people who responded, responses suggest that approximately 70% of respondents personally handled the business and administration of their song catalogs, 50% were self-administered, and 50% administered song catalogs of 100 songs or fewer.  In other words, the majority of respondents were exactly the kind of self-administered songwriters or administrators we sought to connect with and who are eligible to stand for the MLC board seats devoted to self-administered songwriters if the right insiders nominate them .  We are still analyzing the geographic data, but about 16% were from California zip codes with the rest distributed across Texas, Georgia and other fly-over states predictably not represented on the MLC’s board of directors.

The basic questions about the MLC awareness we were trying to better understand were whether respondents even knew what we were asking about, and if so, how did they know.  This will help understand the success of the information efforts to date by the MLC, the DLC, and the Copyright Office.  We also wanted to know if respondents felt that they knew enough about the MLC to advocate for themselves with the MLC as an effectiveness metric for other educational efforts to date.

An encouraging 63% of respondents had heard of the MLC, but 22% had not.  Less encouraging was 6.67% who had both heard of the MLC and successfully registered and 4.17% who had heard of it but had not been able to register.

When asked how they had heard of the MLC, respondents were asked to respond to a list of potential sources, including “other”.  The largest source of information was “news media” at 27.35% and the next largest was “other”, which included a variety of sources including The Trichordist, Artist Rights Watch and MTP.  

However, given the other answers, the education efforts of the MLC (including HFA), the DLC and the Copyright Office did not seem to be making much penetration into these respondents, although the Copyright Office led the pack, sometimes by a lot.  This is curious because it’s not really the Copyright Office’s job and they are not being paid millions to do it.

MLC Quesion Source

As a measurement of the cumulative effectiveness of the educational outreach by the MLC, DLC and Copyright Office, we asked whether respondents felt they could advocate for themselves with the MLC.  60.83% answered “no” or that they “could use some help.”  This was surprising, and I would have preferred to see that number down in the single digits.

Of those who tried to register with the MLC, 15.38% of respondents successfully registered, 12.5% were told to use HFA, but 32% were “not sure” what they were told to do by the MLC.  I think that it’s safe to explore whether the data indicate that the educational outreach has resulted in an abysmally low registration rate.

For whatever reason, this language has appeared on the MLC’s website in recent days:

Prior to January 1, 2021, DSPs operating under a compulsory license were required by law to account to rightsholders on a monthly basis, within 20 days after the end of each month. Starting on January 1, 2021, DSPs operating under the new blanket license will have 45 days after the end of each month to send their usage reports and royalty payments to The MLC. The MLC will then take 30 days to perform its matching functions and calculate the royalties due to each of its Members. That means that The MLC will send out royalty payments and statements to Members roughly 75 days after the end of each monthly period. Because the total duration of the new distribution process will be longer than the old process, there will be a two month gap at the beginning of 2021 between the time rightsholders receive their last monthly statements and payments from DSPs under the old process and the time when they receive their first monthly statements and payments from The MLC under the new process. 

12% of respondents said that they were paid monthly and 60% of respondents were paid quarterly or “other” than monthly or quarterly.

We will be studying the responses over the coming weeks, but I had a few thought on the responses and a couple recommendations.  

  1. I’m going to ask if ARW can field the same questionnaire periodically to see how responses vary over time. UPDATE: ARW will be fielding a new survey with a few additional questions, you can participate at this link.
  2. It appears that of all the media the experts are using to get their messaging out, the one making the greatest penetration for mere awareness is news media.  However, respondent’s lack of confidence in their ability to register with the MLC as well as the low level of successful registrations hasn’t yet supported a conclusion that the experts’ well-funded efforts are producing greater MLC registrations or a greater understanding of how to register, or, and most importantly, actual registrations.
  3. There seems to be considerable confusion for whatever reason about someone else doing the registration for songwriters, be it administrator or publisher.  Outside of the survey, we have anecdotal evidence that songwriters are finding that their songs are not registered with the MLC after having been assured they would be by their publishers.  Because of the announced songwriter payment gap that the MLC anticipates in the first few months of its operations, songwriters may only find out they are not registered when their payments stop.

    Recommendation:  One technique I observed with a  SoundExchange information session was that artists were able to bring their laptops to a seminar where they were literally walked through the SoundExchange registration process step by step after the informational Q&A session concluded.  Even during COVID this could be accomplished using screen share.  

    By using this technique, the MLC could make sure that the end result of their webinars, etc., was that songwriters or publishers registered works and learned how to do so for the remainder of their catalog.  Plus they knew who to call if they had any problems or further questions.  This takes time, but the whole process takes time and you’re only fooling yourself if you think otherwise, to be blunt. I would say that it matters less how these people managed to waste two years in which they could have been doing this than it does to fix the problem right here, right now.  Do not let them tell you that the need only arose on the License Availability Date of 1/1/21 because that is just a CYA lie.

    Recommendation:  The experts should make a focus of their messaging a very clear statement that if you don’t register you will not get paid.  That is the harsh reality.  By hiding that ball, they do everyone a disservice.  Maybe an unregistered songwriter will eventually be able to claw their royalty back from the black box at some point in the future, but in the time of COVID, that claw back comes with a mortality rate.

    Recommendation:  No accrued but unpaid royalties for the first two or three years of the MLC’s operations should be able to be placed in the black box.  Not that they wait to pay out black box for 3 years, but they cannot use any of this money for black box–ever.  Like state unclaimed property offices, they hold the money forever.  The reason is that there is a greater than 50% chance that the reason funds are unmatched is because of the MLC’s startup missteps, not anything the songwriter did.  

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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is https%3A%2F%2Fcdn.evbuc.com%2Fimages%2F122288515%2F87998774455%2F1%2Foriginal.20210105-173522

By Chris Castle

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

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

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

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

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

Please take our Mechanical Licensing Collective Survey

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

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

Thanks!

Curiouser and Curiouser: Strange Loose Ends with Apple Music and The MLC

[Guest post by Chris Castle. This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy. This is interesting because songwriters don’t often see shenanigans from Apple Music but it is probably due to the overpowering litigation magnet of the MMA. Put this in The MLC redesignation file]

Here’s an update on the bizarre saga of Apple Music and The MLC. Remember that HFA sent to its publishers this termination notice from Apple Music on Apple’s lyric and cloud services licenses (and assume for the moment it was also sent to other non-HFA publishers):

Apple Termination

This is remarkable because the Music Modernization Act limits the kind of licenses that the MLC can administer because the blanket license only applies to a limited number of activities (on demand streaming, limited downloads and permanent downloads). It does not apply to lyric licenses or cloud services because the blanket license is not available for those rights. Those rights would still need to be licensed under the very type of agreements that Apple is terminating.

This question came up during a recent MLC webinar moderated by MLC executives Kris Ahrend (CEO) and Serona Elton (Head of Educational Partnerships). These two executives were asked the obvious question, how can The MLC do lyric licensing for Apple. An eagle eyed MTP reader sent this screen capture from the chat:

MLC Apple Answer

So you have to ask, if The MLC can’t license lyrics, why did Apple terminate their lyric licenses and transfer to The MLC?  And what does “separately from us” mean?  The answer is not really responsive to the question.

Separately from us could easily mean that while The MLC is not licensing lyrics, some other entity is. (Presumably the lyrics are from songs that are subject to the blanket license so the MLC would play a role.)   Remember that the termination notice came from HFA.  Could it be that “separately from us” means HFA would be issuing a side by side lyric license on behalf of its publishers?

And remember that the notice from Apple includes this language:

[W]e intend to move our licensing and royalty administration for Apple Music to the MLC starting from January 1, 2021.

Congress did not intend that The MLC offer licensing and royalty administration for DMPs like Apple.  That would mean that The MLC would be paying itself for Apple’s blanket activities.  That is what HFA does through a rather porous ethical wall (and for which they have been at the center of two class actions and numerous copyright infringement lawsuits and are currently a co-defendant with Spotify in another post-MMA lawsuit).

It has long been assumed that somehow some way The MLC intends to offer bundled licensing which is currently prohibited.  Bundled licensing could take the form of performances, ex-US rights, sync, even general licensing.

It seems like that effort is quietly underway.  What is an alternative explanation for Apple terminating a large number of agreements and transferring its licensing and royalty administration functions to The MLC?  Is the plan that The MLC gets the business and HFA does the work that The MLC is prohibited by statute from performing (at least until they move the goalposts again)?

This does help to explain why there is no MLC database and all The MLC’s “data quality initiative” corrections and improvements are being performed on the HFA database (which HFA owns and will use for work not limited to the blanket license).

Curiouser and curiouser.

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.

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

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

EX PARTE MEETING SUMMARY WITH

THE UNITED STATES COPYIGHT OFFICE

Docket Number 2020-12

November 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully submitted,

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

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

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

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

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