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.

SoundExchange Comment on The MLC’s Public Database

[One of the problems that The MLC will encounter is matching songs to transaction data from the “safe harbor services” using the blanket licenses and enjoying the reach back safe harbor giveaway in the Music Modernization Act. There are different ways to do this, but it appears that The MLC wants to gather sound recording metadata (like the ISRC unique identifiers) and then map the songs to the sound recordings based on sound recording information from the services. This is hardly an authoritative basis to determine sound recordings, but that appears to be what The MLC intends to do. SoundExchange is the authoritative source for this information and they’ve been assembling that data for many, many years. This except from SoundExchange’s comment to the Copyright Office sheds light on the issues. Again, you’ll rarely find any of the issues in these Copyright Office comments discussed in the trade press unless someone like The MLC issues a press release. It’s also worth noting that The MLC has merely stated that The MLC “agrees that the data in the public MLC musical
works database is not owned by the MLC or its vendor.” First, “data” is not the same as a “database”. We want to find out if there is any difference between disclaiming ownership of individual data and claiming ownership of the database as a whole. But second, there’s no proof yet that The MLC’s current “data quality initiative” does not simply update the database of The MLC’s vendor, HFA.]

Read the entire SoundExchange comment here.

SoundExchange appreciates the inclusion in Section 210.31(h) of the Office’s proposed regulations the requirement that MLC Database include a “conspicuous” disclaimer that states that the database is not an authoritative source for sound recording information. It appears that the
MLC has decided to populate the MLC Database with sound recording identifying information sourced from usage data provided by digital music providers (rather than authoritative sources such as rights owners). SoundExchange believes this decision will result in the MLC Database being chock-full of redundant records variously misidentifying a large number of sound recordings.

Nonetheless, SoundExchange also recognizes that the MLC needs to launch its business on a tight timetable, and that the Office has sought to mitigate the issue through other provisions such as the requirement to provide data provenance. However, the MLC’s decision makes it critically important the MLC’s disclaimer concerning sound recording information be clear and prominent, and perhaps linked to a more detailed explanation of the issue, because this design decision carries a significant risk of confusing the public, which needs to understand what the MLC Database is and what it is not….

[I]t is critical that the MLC Database be easily accessible to all other
industry participants, so others can build on the MLC Database to create value-added resources for the industry. For example, while the MLC’s reluctance to include and organize its data around authoritative sound recording information may make sense given practical constraints, it represents a missed opportunity to develop a resource with authoritative linkages between sound recordings and musical works that would be of significantly greater value for participants in the ecosystem. Fortunately, the statutory requirement that the MLC make its data available to others provides an opportunity for third parties to fill that void. This kind of function depends on API access to the MLC Database.

@CISACnews and BIEM’s Copyright Office Comments on the MLC

[Songwriters outside the United States should pay close attention to the disconnect between their CMOs and the MLC. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that The MLC is very US-centric and at that very Anglo-American centric in its myopia. We haven’t done a point by point comparison, but we have posted CISAC and BIEM’s comments in the past and we can’t help noticing that their current comment has a few references to prior comments that seem to have been largely ignored. They are very polite about it (maybe too polite about it) but the consequences of ignoring the CMOs is that any ex-US songwriter whose songs are exploited in the US and who relies on their CMO to collect their US earnings may find their streaming mechanicals reduced to zero after 1/1/21 if the HFA database that The MLC is using is not properly mapped.

The MLC’s continued disregard for CMOs is puzzling unless you think perhaps that The MLC doesn’t think CMOs will continue to play a role in the international copyright system. Whatever The MLC’s long-term goals, it is clear that the Music Modernization Act was drafted from an entirely US-centric point of view and that the concerns of our international partners were never taken into account while at the same time forcing them to accept the MMA’s terms. Another example of the haphazard approach that is rapidly becoming the hallmark of the MMA.]

Read the entire comment here.

The International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (“CISAC”) and the International Organisation representing Mechanical Rights Societies (“BIEM”) would like to thank the U.S. Copyright Office (“the Office”) for the opportunity to provide comments on the Proposed Rulemaking on the Public Musical Works Database (“Database”) and Transparency of the Mechanical Licensing Collective (“MLC”). This submission follows our previous comments to the Office, in particular on the Notifications of Inquiry from September 2019 and April 2020 (SG19-1116; SG19-1284; SG20-0614).

As already explained in previous submissions, CISAC and BIEM are international organisations representing Collective Management Organisations (“CMOs”) worldwide that are entrusted with the management of creators’ rights and, as such, have a direct interest in the Regulations governing the functioning of the Database and the transparency of MLC’s operations. CISAC and BIEM would like to thank the Office for highlighting the existence and particularity of entities such as CMOs that are not referred to in the MMA (page 58175 of the Proposed Rulemaking1) and should be treated equally.

CISAC and BIEM are grateful that some of their comments were taken into account by the Office in the Proposed Rulemaking, but would like to reiterate their concerns on certain provisions which, if not adequately addressed, may affect the administration of rights of foreign rightsholders in the US, as follows…

A/ Copyright ownership information and shares

As part of the list of mandatory information for matched works, the Office lists “the copyright owner of the musical work (or share thereof), and the ownership percentage of that owner” (for unmatched works, it is the same as long as the owner has been identified but not located).

For the sake of clarity, we reiterate the need to have CMOs clearly recognized as “copyright owners” under the provisions of the Proposed Rulemaking. Indeed, as already explained in several of our previous submissions, outside the U.S., the “copyright ownership” of the work is attributed to the CMOs managing the mechanical rights of the so-called BIEM repertoire. This would mean that the “copyright owner” share as defined in the Proposed Rulemaking should refer specifically to the share controlled by the CMO as administrator of the work, as opposed to the actual composer/songwriter share.

This clarification also has direct consequences with respect to the determination of sensitive and confidential information which cannot be made publicly accessible through the Database, as further argued in CISAC and BIEM’s comments to the Proposed Rulemaking on Treatment of Confidential Information (see SG20-0562).

If, however, it is considered indispensable for the DMPs and the MLC to have creators’ information and percentage shares for identification and distribution purposes, such data should not be disclosed to third-party entities or made publicly accessible in the Database for the reasons stated in our previous submission. In particular, in the 28 May 2020 comments to the Proposed Rulemaking on Treatment of Confidential Information submitted to the Office,2 CISAC and BIEM explained that there seemed to be no business need to include the creator percentage shares in the musical works, as this information was not required to license or distribute musical works, and constitutes particularly sensitive and confidential financial and business information for creators and their representatives.

Personal identifiable information

CISAC and BIEM fully agrees with the Office with regards to the withdrawal of the date of birth from the list of mandatory public information to be included in the Database. However, CISAC and BIEM continue to be very much concerned with the general compliance of MLC’s operations, including the Database, with data protection laws. As for now, the Proposed Rulemakings are silent on this, although this is a key issue for CMOs worldwide and probably also for other rightsholders.

CISAC and BIEM thus respectfully suggest that the Regulations include clear language on the MLC’s full compliance with data protection laws, and in particular with the European General Data Protection Regulation, as the MLC will process personal data of EU creators. This means that the Database shall be construed in compliance with the GDPR requirements from the building-up of the system (i.e. privacy by design) until the processing operations, providing the requisite security guarantees.

Point of contact for inquiries and Complaints

CISAC and BIEM welcome the inclusion of the need for the MLC to provide a point of contact for inquiries or Complaints. However, as requested in our submission SG20-0614, the Proposed Rulemaking should go further and also make mandatory the publication of the rules that will be applied by the MLC’s dispute resolution committee. This will help to streamline and give more transparency to the dispute resolution process, which will benefit both copyright owners and DMPs.

Future of Music Coalition Warns Against Vendor Lock-in in Copyright Office Comments

[The Future of Music Coalition joins the chorus of concern about shenanigans at The MLC, Inc. with special access and treatment of its vendors regarding the “public” database. As others have pointed out, there’s a real question as to whether The MLC, Inc. is actually building its own database or is just building up the data muscle of its vendor the Harry Fox Agency (formerly owned by MLC promoter and nonvoting board member NMPA. The MLC is prohibited by law from licensing other than the narrow window of streaming mechanicals, but HFA is not.]

[I]t’s important that MLC’s chosen vendors not be able to leverage their
status with the MLC to advantage themselves in other business activities not covered under the MMA. If a vendor was able to leverage its status with MLC to the detriment of competitors in other kinds of licensing activity (even informally), that wouldn’t serve competition, consumers, or creators. Additionally, the Office needs to ensure that provisions about database vendors being replaceable are meaningful.

We see no reason to expect that the MLC’s chosen vendors aren’t up to the task, but songwriters and composers need assurance that if a vendor ends up having problems and a change is necessary, that change will really be possible.

The Office can require the MLC to disclose what it is doing to prevent any vendor from being too operationally enmeshed with the MLC that it either enjoys an unfair advantage through that relationship, or that it would be practically impossible for another vendor to step in.

Read the entire post here.

Songwriters Guild and Society of Composers & Lyricists Copyright Office Comments on Database Ownership and Songwriter Credit in Public Database

[The Songwriters Guild of America and the Society of Composers & Lyricists filed a joint comment with the Copyright Office on proposed rules implementing the public database that The MLC, Inc. is charged with stewarding. They raise a host of issues, but also focus on the ownership issue raised by the Alliance of Recorded Music and the songwriter credit issue raised by Kerry Muzzey.]

Ownership of the Musical Works Database

As to the issue of “ownership” of the Musical Works Database, SGA and SCL were gratified by the USCO’s clear statement quoting the MMA that:
[w]hile the mechanical licensing collective must ‘establish and maintain a database containing information relating to musical works,’ the statute and legislative history emphasize that the database is meant to benefit the music industry overall and is not ‘owned’ by the collective itself. Under the statute, if the Copyright Office designates a new entity to be the mechanical licensing collective, the Office must ‘adopt regulations to govern the transfer of licenses, funds, records, data, and administrative responsibilities from the existing mechanical licensing collective to the public, either for free or at marginal cost, pursuant to the MMA.’

Nevertheless, we feel compelled to repeat once again the admonitions voiced by attorney Christian Castle in his recent submission to the USCO concerning practical issues, problems and anomalies that have arisen even prior to the commencement date of MLC public operations concerning the construction of the Musical Works Database:

I believe that The MLC is encouraging songwriters to correct their song data in the HFA database and that no data from HFA has been transferred to The MLC as yet, and may never be. If The MLC is having data corrected and filled out in the HFA database, then the rules applicable to vendor access to the database may not apply because the Congress’s musical works database is not actually being created at The MLC, it’s being created at HFA. Time will tell if I am correct about this, but it does seem that if I am correct, then The MLC and HFA are working together to exploit an imagined loophole in Title I that violates Congressional intent and certainly the spirit of MMA. Respectfully, the Office should find out what is going on.3

SGA and SCL believe that these are important questions of fact that require answers to ensure that data ownership issues are as clearly defined as possible in advance of any conflicts that may arise. Clarifying that (i) all data and corrections made through HFA will be mirrored in the Musical Works Database in real time, and (ii) that being compelled to provide data to HFA under color of authority from Title I does not constitute a license to HFA for any other purpose, will be important steps forward.

As we have also previously stated, the contractual role and authority of HFA (or any other vendor) should be subject to transparent scrutiny by all interested parties, includingthe music creators whose works are the subject of all information that resides in the database. That includes examination of the contractual rights of the vendor in regard to the data flowing through its own systems and/or those of the MLC, the ancillary vendor use rights (if any) of such data during both the pendency and post-expiration/termination periods of such contract(s), and the clarity of rights ownership of data by the MLC and successor iterations of the MLC (including as regards the Musical Works Database). We respectfully call on the USCO to address more robustly these important issues of transparency and data ownership, and ignore unsupported assertions that transparency and scrutiny of vendor relationships will invite inefficiencies as opposed to clarity and competition.

Songwriter and Composer Names in the Public Musical Works Database

As the USCO is aware and has recognized, SGA and SCL have been consistently outspoken concerning the fact that out of all pertinent identifiers for musical compositions, the names of the music creators of a work are among the only constant and unique data points. In all but the rarest of circumstances, such information is never subject to change, and therefore one of the most important and reliable elements necessary for accurate identification and matching of works.

Moreover, the extension of proper credit to human creators as part of this crucially important Musical Works Database –rather than simply limiting identifiers to the names of corporate assignees of rights which are frequently subject to change and termination– is both appropriate and essential to the fulfillment of the ideals and underpinnings of the MMA set forth in Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution. As that section makes clear, copyright protections are first and foremost meant to serve the interests of the creators and the public, not the corporate entities that serve in an instrumental but secondary role as rights administrators.

We have therefore remained completely at a loss to understand why this crucial category of information was omitted from the MMA as a specifically required identifier (and why the music publishing community for some reason failed to support our efforts to correct that oversight), and are especially thankful that the USCO has put forth a proposed rule

that requires the MLC to include songwriter and composer information in the database. SGA and SCL continue to remain disquieted, however, with the additional qualifier added by the USCO concerning the standard to be applied by the MLC in seeking music creator data: “to the extent reasonably available to the collective.” Such a limited standard serves to diminish the requisite and explicit value of songwriter/composer identifying information.

We respectfully believe that music creator information should be more clearly defined as a mandatory data point required to be pursued for inclusion in the database by the MLC with vigor, and suggest once again that the rulemaking more specifically reflect the imperative nature of this duty. A more appropriate standard would be, in our view: “to the extent available to the collective through its best efforts to secure such data.” The avoidance of creating loopholes that may permit music publishers to omit music creator information from the data they voluntarily provide to the MLC is essential, and the independent community of songwriters and composers continues to seek the assistance of the USCO in this regard.

In respect to the foregoing, we desire to make clear that SGA and SCL also continue to support the rights of those music creators who may wish not to be publicly associated with certain musical works. That is and must continue to be right of any songwriter or composer. We therefore support the proposed rule put forth by the USCO that grants the MLC discretion to allow music creators the option of having songwriter/composer information listed anonymously or pseudonymously. We would, however, prefer that such a regulation be extended into a mandatory direction to the MLC to accept such direction from a music creator.

Read the whole comment here.

Copyright Office Comments by Composer @KerryMuzzey: Include Songwriter Credits in MLC Database

[Kerry Muzzey is an independent classical and film composer and artist rights advocate. In his comment to the Copyright Office on the MLC regulations he asks why songwriter names are not required to be included in the public database currently being stewarded by The MLC, Inc. Including songwriter names in the database seems like a fundamental building block of identifying a song–assuming that’s what you want to do. It would be like SoundExchange reporting not including an artist name in the transaction data. It makes no sense. Yet, it’s an issue as we will see.]

My name is Kerry Muzzey. I am an independent classical and film composer, and am self-published. It is crucial that the MLC database be searchable and completely public-facing, not only by song title but by writer’s name and publishing entity name or by ISWC or BMI/ASCAP IPI/CAE. Independent artists and music publishers must have the ability to search the “black box” of royalty collection, not only for unpaid royalties, but for accrued royalties that appear under a misspelling of an individual’s name, publishing entity, or in the event that a similar song title has resulted in the misattribution of the writer/publisher credit to another writer/publisher or artist. This transparency is essential not only for accurate accounting of royalties for an individual, but also for any works that are co-written, have multiple publishers, and/or whose performance rights are represented by multiple PROs. Any composer, songwriter or music publisher should have the ability to “disambiguate” their works from any other similar- or matching-title works or similar or identical writer names, by a simple error submission/correction process (after completing any necessary verification of identity). 

Read the entire comment here.

The MLC Posts its By Laws

The MLC finally posted its “by-laws” that gives some insight into its operations. For a non-profit like The MLC, Inc., the by laws are essentially the operating rules of the corporation.

Typically, a non profit’s by laws cover issues like the purpose of the organization, the location of offices, the general governing structure, the number of governing members (like the board of directors) and the process for the selection, election and removal of members, terms of service for governing members, qualifications for those serving to govern the organization, methods of conducting business and organizational policy statements, meeting times and dates (usually a minimum of annually), limitations of the organization and its governing body and its fiscal year (for accounting and reporting this has to be a twelve month period).

The MLC’s by laws have all these typical components, but also have an acknowledgement of the oversight role of the Copyright Office and the Librarian of Congress as required by Title I of the Music Modernization Act.

One thing is a bit unusual about The MLC’s by laws given that it was sold to songwriters by the NMPA on the basis that “the services pay for everything” is the broad indemnification clause in Article VIII of the by laws. What this means is that The MLC is going to cover the costs if any “Person” gets sued or criminally prosecuted:

Neither the Members nor any Director of the Collective shall be personally responsible for monetary damages for any action taken, or any failure to take any action, provided however, that this provision shall not eliminate or limit the liability of any Member or Director to the extent that such elimination or limitation of liability is expressly prohibited by applicable law, as in effect at the time of the alleged action or failure to take action by such Member or Director.

The Collective shall indemnify any Person who was or is a party or is threatened to be made a party to any threatened, pending or completed action, suit or proceeding, whether civil, criminal, administrative or investigative by reason of the fact that such Person is or was a Director or Officer of the Collective, or is or was serving any other corporation or any partnership, joint venture, trust or other enterprise, in any capacity at the request of the Collective, [that means HFA] to the fullest extent and in the manner set forth in and permitted by the DGCL, as from time to time in effect. Such right of indemnification shall not be deemed exclusive of any other rights to which such Director or Officer may be entitled apart from the foregoing provisions.

(b) The Collective shall pay expenses (including attorneys’ fees) incurred by a Director or Officer of the Collective referred to in Section 8.4(a) of this Article VIII in defending or appearing as a witness in any civil or criminal action, suit or proceeding described in Section 8.4(a) of this Article VIII in advance of the final disposition of such action, suit or proceeding. The expenses incurred by such Director or Officer shall be paid by the Collective in advance of the final disposition of such action, suit or proceeding only upon receipt of an undertaking by or on behalf of such Director or Officer to repay all amounts advanced if it shall ultimately be determined that the Director or Officer is not entitled to be indemnified by the Collective (which undertaking need not be further secured).

Wonder where that money is going to come from?

#ShowUsTheMoney: Guest Post: @CopyrightOffice Regulates the @MLC_US: Selected Public Comments on MLC Transparency: Chris Castle

[This is an except from Chris Castle‘s June 7 comment to the Copyright Office regarding the transparency of The MLC. You can read the entire comment here. Although The MLC has launched its “Data Quality Initiative” to great fanfare, that DQI process merely confirms how bad the HFA database is since there still is no MLC database as required by law. Since there’s no indication of when The MLC is going to launch and there is a strong indication that nobody in power is doing anything about it (looking at you, Copyright Office), this is a particularly timely excerpt. Remember you heard it here first if your mechanical royalty statements drop to zero once The MLC takes over on January 1. That is 113 days from today and we have yet to seen a thing from The MLC and we have no promise of when we will see anything. Given that there has been zero investigative journalism on this topic from industry outlets aside from “how does The MLC withstand its own awesomeness” the comments that we are serializing are about all you’re going to get in the way of transparency.]

Quality Control of The MLC’s Operations and Platforms

There is an immediate need for The MLC to demonstrate that its systems actually work.  That need will be ongoing, so it would be well for the Office to promulgate regulations requiring a periodic public demonstration of the operability of The MLCs systems, a frequent public disclosure of bugs and bug fixes, and a frequent public disclosure of any missed payments or other glitches.  These matters are appropriate for the transparency of The MLC because if either The MLC or another MLC are not required to disclose these items, no one may ever know there was a problem (but see the discussion of whistleblowers below).

In considering the timing, I would caution the Office against thinking in years rather than weeks.  There is a tendency to think about these things in annual or more time periods.  This will prove to be a mistake given the scale and volume of transactions.  Would you tell Visa it only need to confirm the integrity of its fraud detection systems once every three years?  Or should it be more frequently?  Financial services is a good corollary for streaming mechanicals, with the exception that the royalty payable for each stream starts several decimal places to the right unlike credit card transactions.

There is an immediate need for this transparency.  Recall that MLC executive Richard Thompson said at the Copyright Office panel on unclaimed royalties last December, “[A] lot of the time since July has been spent working very closely with the staff at HFA and ConsenSys, really starting to nail down how all of this is going to work at the, you know, lowest operational level, all of the things that we need to work out.”  (Referencing the July 8, 2019 designation of The MLC as the MLC.) [1]   

Of course, The MLC didn’t announce the selection of HFA and ConsenSys until November 26, 2019[2] and was evidently still interviewing vendors up to that date.  Even so, I’m sure The MLC has been hard at work on developing their platform.

Mr. Thompson also stated at the December 2019 panel:

So our current timeline has the first version of the portal going live late Q2, early Q3, of next year [i.e., 2020]. I emphasize again that is the first version. That will not be functionally complete. It will have the, you know, the first set of functionality that we want to make available to the rightsholder community. So in particular, sort of, being able to look at your catalog, manage your catalog.[3]

Late Q2 to early Q3 is now.  [As of this post, it is the end of Q3 and we still have nothing but Mr. Thompson still has a job.] To my knowledge, The MLC has made nothing available for songwriters to know what is going on at The MLC or how to start registering works. 

Mr. Thompson also stated:

“You know, the first version of the portal doesn’t have statementing on it, because we won’t need statementing until 2021, you know, the first quarter of 2021.”[4]

I would respectfully ask the Office to determine what happens if The MLC is not able to render statements on time.  Presumably the income from streaming mechanicals that had been paid by the services directly to songwriters or music publishers would be transferred over to The MLC as of the License Availability Date (currently January 1, 2021).  If that transfer occurs and The MLC is not then ready for “statementing” (or, presumably, its corollary, “paymenting”) for the billions if not trillions of streaming transactions for all the world’s music in less than a year’s time from today, then streaming mechanical royalties could drop to zero until The MLC could handle both statementing and paymenting.[5]

While Mr. Thompson seems to be focused on the Q1 2021 distribution date for royalties payable in the normal course, the other significant statementing and paymenting date is July 1, 2021 when the first unmatched distribution is to be paid under Title I.  There are also the obvious and expressly stated “public notice of unclaimed royalties” reporting requirements for The MLC’s public facing website listing all unmatched songs (or shares of songs) and publicity efforts for the unmatched.[6]  This provision, too, is glitchy, but  presumably will come into effect soon.  I realize there may be some side deals cut regarding extending that statutory payment date, but it would at least be a confidence building exercise to know that The MLC could make the unmatched payment as of the statutory date if called upon to do so. 

Songwriters have very little visibility into The MLC’s operations except what came out at the Copyright Office panels, for which I am grateful, and also various interviews.  There is little substantive information in the press, and even less on The MLC’s website.  Therefore, it would be very helpful if the Office could require The MLC to demonstrate to the public how its platform is to function.  Such a demonstration might bring helpful suggestions from their peers or the ex-US CMOs that have been operating for decades.

It would also be helpful if the Office promulgated a bright line regulation that told songwriters around the world if the July 1, 2021 goal posts have moved and if so where they have been moved to.  I must say I have somewhat lost the page on this, given former Register Temple’s last testimony to the House Judiciary Committee about who has agreed what on delaying distribution.  This rulemaking would be a great opportunity to tell the world if and how the insiders have decided to change the law.

As the House Judiciary Committee stated:

Testimony provided by Jim Griffin at the June 10, 2014 Committee hearing highlighted the need for more robust metadata to accompany the payment and distribution of music royalties….In an era in which Americans can buy millions of products via an app on their phone based upon the UPC code on the product, the failure of the music industry to develop and maintain a master database has led to significant litigation and underpaid royalties for decades. The Committee believes that this must end so that all artists are paid for their creations and that so-called ‘‘black box’’ revenue is not a drain on the success of the entire industry.[7]

Having accomplished their goal through compulsory legislation, we are all watching the database cadre get to work and looking forward to learning how it is done from their teaching.

Alternatively, as is widely suspected among some songwriters I have spoken to, The MLC might rely on HFA’s statementing and paymenting functionality to limp along by sending necessary but not sufficient statements to HFA publishers or publishers that HFA can match.  This would be, essentially, the same process that got a couple of HFA’s licensing clients sued repeatedly, and ironically led to the Title I safe harbor in the first place. 

Absent proper transparency in the runup to the License Availability Date, any sudden drop in revenue would catch songwriters by surprise.  In the time of the pandemic, such a sudden contraction of income could be even more devastating than usual.[8]

Transparency would help shine sunlight on that problem.  While The MLC may give interviews and appear on panels describing their activities, we should remember the words of the great Bruin John Wooden who cautioned that we should not mistake activity for achievement.  If you practice free throws by yourself all weekend, it doesn’t mean you’ll be a better player with the team at Monday practice—or that the team is any more likely to win when it is game time at Pauley on Saturday.


[1] Transcript, United States Copyright Office Unclaimed Royalties Study Kickoff Symposium (Dec. 6, 2019) at 28 ln 15 hereafter “Kickoff Transcript”.

[2] Tatania Cirisano, Mechanical Licensing Collective Selects Leadership, Partners for Copyright Database, Billboard (November 26, 2019).

[3] Kickoff Transcript at 40 ln 2.

[4] Kickoff Transcript at 40-41.

[5] It is well to note that such a contraction probably would not affect direct licenses or HFA’s modified compulsory licenses.

[6] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(3)(J)(iii).

[7] House Report at 8.

[8] Songwriters are already expecting lower royalties in January 2021 according to BMI’s President and CEO Mike O’Neil: “[We] anticipate an impact in January 2021, when today’s performances and corresponding licensing dollars (2nd quarter 2020) will be reflected in your royalty distributions. While you may see a lower distribution that quarter than you might typically receive under ordinary circumstances, given BMI’s business model, we have the time and ability to plan for this outcome.” A Message from Mike O’Neil, BMI.com (April 7, 2020) available at https://www.bmi.com/news/entry/a-message-from-bmi-president-ceo-mike-oneill-regarding-royalty-payments

Copyright Office Regulates The MLC: Selected Public Comments on the Copyright Office Black Box Study: The DLC Spills the Beans, Part 3

[Read Part 2 here.  This is the last of 3 parts]

The services tell us in their Copyright Office comment that the whole point of the Music Modernization Act was this (largely secret) deal to get them a new retroactive safe harbor so their massive infringement couldn’t be stopped by songwriters.  (That’s their third statutory safe harbor counting DMCA and Section 230.)  What do you think that MMA safe harbor is worth to them to avoid what they call “ruinous litigation”?

Let’s use Spotify’s market cap as a proxy for the value of the safe harbor–imperfect, yes, but at least it is transparent unlike anything else having to do with Title I of the MMA.

SPOT Safe Harbor Value

Around October of 2018 when the MMA was signed into law, Spotify traded at $189.  A recent closing price for SPOT is $268.  Is it fair to say that the MMA was the rocket fuel that made Daniel Ek a billionaire?  Not entirely.  You can see from the graph that Spotify actually broke through a $190 per share support level to the downside right after the MMA was signed and bounced around below that price for a year or more.

The clear driver of Spotify CEO for Life Daniel Ek’s wealth and profiteering is the COVID virus.  Make no mistake, human misery–not the MMA safe harbor–is what provided the rocket fuel for Spotify’s 2020 growth.  In fact, the same rocket fuel of misery seems to have benefited each of the exploitative cohort as this graph shows using Live Nation as a proxy for the collapse of touring:

COVID MISERY INDEX 8-22-20

So it could be said that the entire “ruinous litigation” argument from the DLC is simply so much bullshit that these companies fed to the MMA negotiators by the plateful.  What is not bullshit, however, is that the one thing the negotiators could have scored that they didn’t is a waiver of the services appeal rights in the Phonorecords III rate setting decision.  This is the appeal that the services recently won when the appeals court handed the negotiators heads to them.  There could also have been a settlement since they seem to like those so much.  The negotiators didn’t do either.  We’ll see how the do-over turns out, but one thing we know is that there will be millions in legal fees that songwriters will have to eat one way or another that could easily have been avoided.

What is also not bullshit is the other side of the MMA transaction:  The loss to songwriters of this heretofore secret deal.

You will note that none of the music services appear to have paid out jack in the way of newly matching the previously “unmatched” in the years since the signing of the MMA. Why?  Because the MMA negotiators did not require any interim payments of matched funds or any public reconciliation of black box to matching efforts.  No, no, the first time the black box gets disclosed publicly is when those funds are paid to the MLC, not to the songwriters who earned the money.  Round and round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.

If you believe as we do that the services have not lifted a finger to increase their matching efforts (and based on the DLC’s disclosures seem to have already paid out pre-MMA black box on a market share basis), you will better understand why we think this was a colossally terrible deal for songwriters.  You will also understand why this part of it was largely kept secret or downplayed.

The Eight Mile Style complaint against Spotify and the Harry Fox Agency (which is the same Harry Fox Agency that is now going to be handing your royalties for The MLC, how curious) has an informative passage about the timing of this retroactive safe harbor:

In addition, the retroactive elimination of the right to profits attributable to infringement, statutory damages, and attorneys’ fees under the MMA is an unconstitutional denial of substantive and procedural due process, and an unconstitutional taking of Eight Mile’s vested property right, and this Court should so declare.

It is settled law that an infringement claim is a property right that vests in a plaintiff the moment the infringement occurs. The Bill that ultimately became the MMA, written by the NMPA, with input from Spotify, became law in October 2018, but provides retroactively that a plaintiff who did not file an action by December 31, 2017, could lose any right to profits attributable to infringement, statutory damages, and attorneys’ fees if successful in a case against Spotify or other DMPs of interactive streams. On information and belief, the MMA, according to the NMPA’s own announcements, lobbyist spending, and congressional testimony on Capitol Hill, was jointly crafted by members of the NMPA (whose three top markets shares and dues-paying affiliated companies own equity in Spotify) and Spotify, DiMA, and other interactive streaming companies.

They knew what they were doing….

[W]ith the removal of these remedies, it cleared the last hurdle for Spotify to go public, thereby reaping tens of billions of dollars for its equity owners, including the major music companies as mentioned above. The unconstitutional taking of Eight Mile’s and others’ vested property right was not for public use but instead for the private gain of private companies.

The reference to timing on Spotify “going public” means Spotify filing their “DPO” to sell stock on the public markets–the really big money.  That’s relevant to the MMA negotiation because the MMA bill was introduced on December 21, 2017.  Spotify filed a confidential paper with the Securities and Exhange Commission on January 3, 2018 and Spotify’s stock started trading on April 3, 2018.  The MMA allowed them to show the markets that they were doing something about their systemic copyright infringement problem and gave fuel to the specious argument that lawsuits against them were merely opportunistic gotcha lawsuits and not a bellweather for their utter incompetence and cavalier treatment of songwriters.

Why is this timing important?  Because the MMA was filed on December 21.  What happened on December 22?  Congress closed for the holidays and would not reopen until after January 1, 2018.  That meant there would not be an official version of the bill until after January 1, 2018, the deadline to sue before the retroactive safe harbor would eventually take effect.  Various copies leaked, but since the entire music industry was also shut down for the holidays, it was unlikely that any songwriters would see it, particularly because we can’t find that their so-called “representatives” ever brought it up in any public messaging before the January 1 deadline had passed.

Do you think that timing is a coincidence?

As Eight Mile Style tells us:

The proof is in the pudding: Spotify was sued many times prior to December 31, 2017, for similar acts of copyright infringement as alleged herein, but not once since December 31, 2017. This is because the Bill that ultimately became the MMA first publicly leaked shortly before December, 2017, leaving music publishers with little or no time to investigate or file a lawsuit for infringement, even if they somehow became aware of the Bill at that time.

It just happened that Wixen Music Publishing was already on a war footing from opposing the various Spotify settlements and was able to easily pivot to filing its own lawsuit against Spotify before the December 31, 2017 deadline in a move worthy of General Patton at Bastogne.  But Wixen was alone.  No one else probably even knew the deadline was passing or what it meant.

The value of what the “negotiators” gave away cannot realistically be measured for the reason that Eight Mile Style clearly states, which is also the same reason that the retroactive safe harbor is unconstitutional:

The only practical or realistic remedies in these cases is the statutory damage remedy, and profits attributable, together with the ability to receive attorneys’ fees, and the drafters of the MMA knew it. The elimination of these remedies takes away from Eight Mile and others who may be similarly situated any practical or realistic remedy, immunizes complying DMP’s from suit, and should be declared an unconstitutional deprivation of due process and a taking of a vested property right.

So what’s the value that songwriters gave up in the MMA?  Wixen sued for $1.6 billion.  You figure it out.

Copyright Office Regulates The MLC: Selected Public Comments on the Copyright Office Black Box Study: The DLC Spills the Beans, Part I

We once had a mechanical licensing system in the U.S. that worked well enough for songwriters for 100 years.  The problem with the mechanical licensing system wasn’t so much the licensing function it was the royalty rate.  The government held down songwriters for 70 years to a 1909-based royalty rate that for some reason was frozen in time (more on frozen mechanicals here).  But if users failed to license, songwriters could at least sue for statutory damages.

After the Music Modernization Act passed in 2018, they managed to even give away songwriters’ rights to sue.  The songwriter part of the three-part MMA is called “Title I” and that’s the part that gave away the one hammer that songwriters had to be heard when their rights were infringed.  They called it the “limitation on liability” and it was retroactive to January 1, 2018—before the bill was actually passed by Congress and signed into law.

It’s entirely possible that even if you knew about the MMA, you didn’t know about this new safe harbor created by the same uber-rich companies that wrote themselves the DMCA safe harbor that has created the value gap and plagued artists for years and the “Section 230” safe harbor in the “Communications Decency Act” that services use to profit from human trafficking and revenge porn stalkers.  And now there’s the MMA safe harbor.

Only a handful of insiders got to be at the table when they gave away your rights in Title I without your even knowing what they were up to.  Don’t get us wrong, there are great things in the other parts of MMA dealing with closing the pre-72 loophole, some important changes to the rules for ASCAP and BMI with rate courts, and the fix for producers getting a fair share of SoundExchange royalties.  These are all good things.

The part that sucks is Title I that created this new safe harbor give away that will bedevil songwriters for generations to come.

So you may be asking how do we know this?  Since the so-called “negotiations” for the Title I give away happened behind closed doors, how do we even know what happened?  The answer is that we didn’t have the proof because anyone who tried to offer constructive criticism to the “negotiators” for songwriters was menaced, threatened and stabbed in the back.  Nobody was talking about the safe harbor give away.

But now we do have the proof courtesy of the music services representative at the “Digital Licensee Coordinator” who opened the kimono in their recent comments to the Copyright Office about the black box.  (Read the entire DLC comment here.)  Their comments make for quite a read, not only about the so-called “negotiations” by the unrepresentatives of songwriters but also about the run-up to the MMA in the private settlements that nobody sees.

The first issue is that the Copyright Office has proposed some well-meaning regulations to increase the likelihood that the black box will actually get paid to the songwriters who earned the money.  The services seem to be all in a huff about rules applying retroactively when they’ve been using old rules to organize their data.  You know, they don’t like this retroactive thing unless it’s a retroactive expansion of their safe harbor.  Then they like it just fine.

“The DLC emphatically opposes the Office’s proposal to retroactively expand the required reporting of sound recording and musical work information beyond that which is required by the existing regulations in 37 C.F.R. § 210.20. Those regulations were issued in interim form in December 2018, and finalized in March 2019, and unambiguously required collection of reporting information under the existing monthly statement of account regulations in 37 C.F.R. § 210.16. The Office has now proposed, in paragraph (e) of the proposed rule, to change the required reporting elements for the individual tracks, nearly two years after the MMA’s enactment and months before cumulative statements of account are due to be served.”

Sorry, but we think that the richest companies in commercial history, with trillions and trillions of dollars in market capitalization and the most advanced data mining capability in the known universe, can manage to figure out how to pay songwriters in a way that will actually result in songwriters getting paid. The truth is that they are so used to screwing songwriters that they are not going to lift a finger to help beyond the absolute minimum they have to do.

They got their retroactive safe harbor to give away, so don’t come whinging about retroactivity if it makes the distributions more likely to get to the right person, something the services have uniformly failed to do from their founding.

But now it gets interesting.

“It is well-known that—prior to enactment of the MMA—a number of DMPs entered into industry-wide royalty distribution agreements under the auspices of the NMPA, structured to allow all unmatched works to be claimed by their owners and all accrued royalties to be paid out, in what became the model for the MMA. These agreements were designed to, and did, put tens of millions of dollars in statutory royalties in the hands of copyright owners—money that they had been unable to access due to the broken pre-MMA statutory royalty system.”

First of all—“money that they had been unable to access due to the broken pre-MMA statutory royalty system” is utter crap.  The reason that services didn’t pay out is because they didn’t clear the songs but exploited them anyway.  For example, that’s also why Spotify got sued so many times and is still getting sued.  It’s not that the system was broken, it’s that the services didn’t care and handled licensing in an incompetent manner. In case you missed it, that’s what they want to keep doing by extending into the future the same sloppy practices they got sued for in the past.  The only thing new and improved about it is their absurd and undeserved safe harbor.

We don’t know what these “industry-wide royalty distribution agreements” were all about, but one thing we know for sure is that they weren’t “industry-wide” and the NMPA wouldn’t have had the authority to make those deals “industry-wide” in the first place.  “Industry-wide” seems to mean “with the major publishers” or with NMPA members or just plain insiders.  The implication is that “industry-wide” means everyone, which it clearly does not and cannot if you think about it for 30 seconds.

And if the copyright owners were owed a payment with their own money, the only reason that they couldn’t “access” the funds is that the services wouldn’t let them.  When you owe somebody money, you should pay them because you owe them, not act like you’re doing them a favor.

But here it comes:

Congress in the MMA’s limitation on liability provision enacted a compromise among stakeholders’ interests: elimination of the uncertainty of litigation facing DMPs in exchange for the transfer of accrued royalties to the MLC.

In other words, the services sat on the money and refused to pay until they got the MMA safe harbor.  That was the “trade”—do something the services were already required to do in return for something the songwriters were never obligated to do.  The songwriters paid for the safe harbor with their own money.

“As set forth in the relevant statutory provision, in exchange for payment of accrued royalties from “unmatched” usage prior to license availability date (and related reporting), DMPs are protected from the full brunt of copyright damages in any infringement lawsuits based on alleged failures to comply with the requirements of the prior mechanical licensing regime. The provision provides a clean slate for any past failures under the prior licensing regime for those DMPs who pay those back royalties and provide associated reporting. It provides requirements for DMPs that seek to take advantage of the limitation on liability, ensuring that DMPs that pay accrued royalties to the MLC can do so without having to second-guess whether the payment was worth it—that is, whether they qualify for the limitation.

This was the heart of the deal struck by the stakeholders in crafting the MMA: to provide legal certainty for DMPs, through a limitation on liability, in exchange for the transfer of accrued royalties.

Which “stakeholders” were these?  Did they include any of the plaintiffs who were then suing the services?  No.  Did they include anyone who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid?  No.

So let’s be clear—the reason that the services deigned to actually pay money they owed for failing to license properly is because they didn’t want to be sued for screwing up.  They wanted a vig of a new safe harbor, and as the DLC tells us very, very clearly this issue was at the core of the deal you didn’t make for Title I.

More in Part II