The US Copyright Office solicited comments from the public about the operations of the Mechanical Licensing Collective. The first round of those comments (called “initial comments”) were due in November and the second round of those comments (which are called “reply comments” because they essentially comment on the initial comments) were due December 20.
All the comments focus on some central themes that seem to be on everyone’s mind which can be boiled down to oversight, oversight and more oversight. While the DLC controls the MLC’s purse strings, the MLC has been given largely uncontrolled power over songwriters that needs to be checked by the government on behalf of the governed.
David Lowery did not file initial comments but as he notes, developments made him feel compelled to speak up in the reply comments. We’re going to post his reply comments in four parts, and then we’ll post other commenters who we think made really good points (like CISAC and BIEM among others). (If you want to skip ahead and read the entire comment, you can download it here.) This is Part 3 of four parts.
Comments of David C. Lowery, Notice of Inquiry for Blanket License Implementation Regulations Issued by the United States Copyright Office Concerning the Orrin G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act of 2018
MLC’s Reporting and Failure to Account
This section responds to the Office’s question regarding MLC’s Payments and Statements of Account.
As an overall comment, the MLC should be required to publicly post at least an aggregated version of all information it receives from DMPs supporting the calculation of royalties (transactions, TCC, deductions from gross, etc.). It will be impossible for songwriters to conduct a desktop audit of their statements with their accountants if key elements of the calculations are missing. Respectfully, the Copyright Office really needs to understand how many times we have seen this movie and how we definitely know how it ends.
This is the old hide the ball trick where royalty statements include everything except the one key piece of information needed to duplicate the reported calculations. Again, let’s not have meet the new boss, worse than the old boss. The Copyright Office has a golden opportunity to get this right—so please, please take heed. It will save a lot of time and litigation.
For example, the MLC is already saying things like this:
Accordingly, the MLC believes that any regulations obligating the MLC to distribute royalty reports and payments to copyright owners on a monthly basis should not require that such reports and payments be for a particular royalty period, which is at least in part outside of the MLC’s control.
Actually, this is wrong. If the MLC reports do not designate which period the payment corresponds to, there will be no way for songwriters to know what they are being paid for. This boils down to receiving a statement that says, here’s some money, or worse, no money for you. If there is no explanation of when the royalties were earned or last paid on a service-by-service basis, there is no way for songwriters to know if any service is current.
Plus, the Congress gave the MLC fearsome powers over DMPs and songwriters. If services are late, we expect MLC to chase them and chase them hard. They wanted this job, and now they have it. If songwriters have to wait until MLC get around to auditing trillions of transactions to know a service is late paying, unpaid money is as good as gone even for matched works.
As drafted, Title I places great emphasis on the user of the blanket license’s obligations to account and pay royalties but there is no corollary obligation for MLC. Indeed, it seems that the MLC is already backtracking on timely payments by lowering expectations of timely DMP payments. The DMP has a lot to lose if they are not timely with payments and statements.
There is virtually no downside for the MLC. I respectfully suggest that there be some teeth put into the MLC’s failure to account, for both the “known knowns” and the “known unknowns,” that tracks the penalties on the license user.
It does not appear that sufficient attention has been paid to the MMA’s major change in the compulsory licensing structure—the insertion of another gatekeeper into the stream of payments, a gatekeeper that has selected the former affiliate of one of its principal promoters with a known and well litigated history of failures for the very functions it is to take on with a Congressional mandate.
Incredibly, no one has included language addressing what happens if the MLC defaults. Auditing years after the fact is not going to get it done. In fact, the audit language in Title I is so antiquated that it could easily have come from a 1980s record deal. (Not to mention the meaningless and expensive requirement of a CPA to conduct royalty audits.) The audit language is simply not fit for purpose in a world of trillions of individual transactions rather than hundreds of millions of CDs. Songwriters forced to use the compulsory license need a much more immediate and much toothier remedy against the government’s MLC monopoly. In other words, the Music Modernization Act already needs to be modernized and the Copyright Office has a chance to do it—but the clock is ticking.
Language could be adopted in regulations that mirrors the statutory language for default by users of the blanket license, substituting the copyright owner for the MLC and the MLC for the digital music provider. For example:
“If the copyright owner does not receive the monthly payment and the monthly and annual statements of account from the MLC when due for reasons within the control of the MLC, the owner may give written notice to the MLC, unless the default is remedied not later than 30 days after the date on which the notice is sent, the MLC’s ability to administer the compulsory license for such copyright owner will be automatically terminated. “
Because the Copyright Office is charged with implementing regulations under a broad statutory grant, it seems that this loose end could be remedied in regulations without need of an amendment to Title I, particularly because the failure to include such a provision benefits those who controlled the pen for the drafting of Title I.
The Copyright Office should also take into account any failures to account when reviewing the re-designation of MLCI at the five year review mark.
Additional MLC Oversight: FOIA
Continuing the theme of sunlight as the best remedy, please consider the relationship of the Freedom of Information Act and the MLC. The Copyright Office complies with Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA). The public interest would be served in having access to all correspondence and internal materials not subject to a FOIA exemption that relate to Title I of the Music Modernization Act as well as the “address unknown” NOI process that preceded and contributed to it.
Availability of these materials is particularly relevant given the lack of transparency required of MLC and the DLC (odd redactions in CRB filings for the administrative assessment is but one example) and the general mystery of why HFA was selected by MLC given the history of HFA with NMPA and the legislative process.
Rather than wait for a FOIA request for these materials, the Copyright Office should voluntarily make these materials available on Copyright.gov. I would recommend this process be repeated annually if not more frequently.
To be continued in Part 4