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

Will the @CommonsDCMS Committee Ask How Apple and Spotify Got Away With Hundreds of Millions in Black Box for So Many Years?

One of the questions that immediately comes to mind with the announcement of the MLC’s $424 million black box payment is how did they get away with owing so much money to so many people for so long? Tough question to get an answer to for the average songwriter, but good news: The UK Parliament’s inqiury into the economics of streaming is meeting on February 23 and will have before it senior representatives of Amazon, Apple and Spotify! Great timing! These three companies alone account for $350,000,000 in black box, or 82% of the total.

MLC Payments

So not only can the Committee inquire into how long the companies got away with it and the justification for holding onto so much of other people’s money for so long, but the Committee could also inquire as to whether there are any UK songwriters included in the respective companies black box payments for exploitations in the US during the worst pandemic in living memory.

Remember, these services are required by law to obtain a license to exploit all these songs. This was always the deal and they knew going into business what was expected of them. The law requires them to find the songwriter or not use the song. It doesn’t require them to not find the songwriter but use the song anyway.

MediaNet Trying to Cut Off Black Box Payments

You can’t say these people aren’t cagey. Remember that one of the big selling points for the Music Modernization Act was that in return for the under-reported reach back safe harbor, songwriters would get paid on “black box” income by each digital music service dating back to the inception of each service. This is what the Copyright Office wants, too, unsurprisingly since that was the deal.

The reach back safe harbor was used as a scare tactic to keep songwriters from filing infringement lawsuits against these services and the MMA’s promoters went right along with it.

But–now that the bill is about to come due, guess who wants to change the deal? Services are beginning to threaten to decline the reach back safe harbor (and with it the blanket license, presumably) if they have to treat songwriters fairly on the black box. Instead of the MMA free ride that was handed to them on a silver platter, they now want to leverage the scare tactic and run out the clock on the statute of limitations that they will no doubt say had been running. That way they’d create their own safe harbor and never pay the black box but still try to use the blanket license.

So everyone should sue all of these loathsome people today and toll that statute. If enough of these services want to play hardball, there’s a real question of why bother having the blanket license at all.

Here’s an excerpt from MediaNet’s “ex parte” letter posted today:

We understand that the Office is contemplating that the cumulative report will provide data on unmatched usage back to the launch of the service. MediaNet, however, launched its service nearly 20 years ago. In light of that, and the change in vendors, we are requesting the Office adopt a narrow exception in the cumulative reporting regulations. We think such a regulation would be consistent with the overall statutory scheme. Notably, the statute references reporting pursuant to the “applicable regulations,” when discussing the information that must be provided to the MLC. That is a reference to the pre-existing reporting regulations. Significantly, those regulations provided that documentation related to royalties and usage for a particular period of time needed to be preserved only for a period of five years.

To be clear, MediaNet is not asking the Office adopt a regulation that allows a digital music provider to exclude all data from periods of time more than five years prior to license availability date (though such a rule would be consistent with the statute). Instead it is seeking a narrower provision that will provides all available data to the MLC. This would be in the form of a new paragraph in 37 C.F.R. § 210.20(c)(4) of the proposed rule:

(iii) The digital music provider shall be excused from providing the information set forth in paragraphs (i) and (ii) where the usage is from a period of time more than five years prior to license availability date, and the digital music provider certifies the following: that the information was solely held by a vendor with whom the digital music provider no longer has a business relationship, the digital music provider has requested that information from such vendor, and the vendor has informed the digital music provider that it cannot or will not provide that information.

Absent this narrow exception, MediaNet may decline to take advantage of the limitation on liability, which may deprive copyright owners of additional accrued royalties.