Why So Secretive? Copyright Office’s Public Consultation on Setting Rules for MLC’s Operation: Future of Music Coalition

[The Copyright Office is bravely trying to regulate The MLC to keep the MMA from becoming a feeding frenzy for the data lords.  As Chris Castle said in his comment on what should be stamped “Confidential” and kept away from songwriters: “The premise of confidential information under Title I is that there is in rock and roll certain information deserving of government-mandated secrecy.”  Or as Otis said, too hot to handle.  Keep that in mind–when they say “confidential information” they mean information they can keep away from you.

We are going to excerpt some of the good comments that support independents in the other Copyright Office “rulemaking” consultation that just closed devoted to confidential treatment of data by The MLC and the DLC.  You can read them all here.]

The Future of Music Coalition made some great points in their filing, read the whole thing here.

Restrictions on use by MLC and DLC Vendors and Consultants FMC shares concerns expressed by other commenters about the possibility of vendors using confidential data for competitive advantage or purposes beyond what the MLC was created to do. There should be no provision for HFA to use confidential data for “general use”, even on an opt-in basis. The risk of anti-competitive harm is too great.

Copyright Office Regulates @MLC_US: Selected Public Comments on MLC Transparency: @KerryMuzzey

[Editor Charlie sez: The U.S. Copyright Office is proposing many different ways to regulate The MLC, which is the government approved mechanical licensing collective under MMA authorized to collect and pay out “all streaming mechanicals for every song ever written or that ever may be written by any songwriter in the world that is exploited in the United States under the blanket license.”  The Copyright Office is submitting these regulations to the public to comment on.  The way it works is that the Copyright Office publishes a notice on the copyright.gov website that describes the rule they propose making and then they ask for public comments on that proposed rule.  They then redraft that proposed rule into a final rule and tell you if they took your comments into account. They do read them all!

The Copyright Office has a boatload of new rules to make in order to regulate The MLC.  (That’s not a typo by the way, the MLC styles itself as The MLC.)  The comments are starting to be posted by the Copyright Office on the Regulations.gov website.  “Comments” in this world are just your suggestions to the Copyright Office about how to make the rule better.  We’re going to post a selection of the more interesting comments.

There is still an opportunity to comment on how the Copyright Office is to regulate The MLC’s handling of the “black box” or the “unclaimed” revenue.  You can read about it here and also the description of the Copyright Office Unclaimed Royalties Study here.  It’s a great thing that the Copyright Office is doing about the black box, but they need your participation!]

Read the comment by Kerry Muzzey

The launch of iTunes in 2001 began the democratization of music distribution: suddenly independent artists had a way to reach their fans without having to go through the traditional major label gatekeepers. Unfortunately most of those independent artists didn’t have a music business background to inform them about all of the various (and very arcane) royalty types and registrations that were required: and even if they did, Harry Fox didn’t let individual artists register for mechanicals until only recently.

The result? 19 years’ worth of unclaimed royalties by so many independent artists who have no idea how to access them.

We had hoped that the MMA would fix this, but the “black box” of unclaimed royalties is going to be distributed to the major publishers based on market share. We independent artists don’t have “market share” – but we do have sales and streams that are significant enough to make a difference to our own personal economies. A $500 unclaimed royalty check is to an independent musician what a $100,000 unclaimed royalty check is to a major publisher: it matters. Those smaller unclaimed royalty amounts are pocket change or just an inconsequential math error to the majors but they’re the world to an independent writer/publisher. And that aside, these royalties don’t belong to the majors: they belong to the creators whose work generated them.

Please, please, please: you have to make that database publicly accessible and searchable like Soundexchange does. There needs to be a destination where all of us can point our friends and social media followers to, to say “you may have unclaimed royalties here: go search your name.” They can’t remain in the black box and they can’t go to the major publishers. These royalties must remain in escrow and all means necessary should be used to contact the writers and publishers whose royalties are in that black box: absolute transparency is required here, as is a concentrated press push by the MLC to all of the music trades and music blogs (Digital Music News, Hypebot, et al) and social media platforms encouraging independent artists to go to the public-facing database and search their name, their publisher name, their band name, and by song title, for possible unclaimed royalties.

Please: the NMPA can’t be allowed to hijack royalties that do not belong to them. Publishers are fully aware of how complex royalty types and royalty collections are: they and the NMPA must make every effort here to ensure that unclaimed royalties reach their rightful legal and moral recipients.

Copyright Office Regulates @MLC_US: Selected Public Comments on MLC Transparency: @JonathanCoulton

[Editor Charlie sez: The U.S. Copyright Office is proposing many different ways to regulate The MLC, which is the government approved mechanical licensing collective under MMA authorized to collect and pay out “all streaming mechanicals for every song ever written or that ever may be written by any songwriter in the world that is exploited in the United States under the blanket license.”  The Copyright Office is submitting these regulations to the public to comment on.  The way it works is that the Copyright Office publishes a notice on the copyright.gov website that describes the rule they propose making and then they ask for public comments on that proposed rule.  They then redraft that proposed rule into a final rule and tell you if they took your comments into account. They do read them all!

The Copyright Office has a boatload of new rules to make in order to regulate The MLC.  (That’s not a typo by the way, the MLC styles itself as The MLC.)  The comments are starting to be posted by the Copyright Office on the Regulations.gov website.  “Comments” in this world are just your suggestions to the Copyright Office about how to make the rule better.  We’re going to post a selection of the more interesting comments.

There is still an opportunity to comment on how the Copyright Office is to regulate The MLC’s handling of the “black box” or the “unclaimed” revenue.  You can read about it here and also the description of the Copyright Office Unclaimed Royalties Study here.  It’s a great thing that the Copyright Office is doing about the black box, but they need your participation!]

Read the comment by Jonathan Coulton

I am an independent musician, and I make my living full time as such. I have spent years dealing with the wide array of entities who collect royalties on my behalf. Errors happen all the time – songs are misattributed, missing, publisher information is wrong, royalty splits are wrong. This is to be expected when the dataset is this vast and complicated, and coming from many disparate sources. This is why for me, absolute transparency is essential. I need to be able to search for my name and my song titles so that I can look for errors like these and make sure I am getting paid all the royalties I am due. As an independent, my slice of the pie is very small on the scale of the entire industry, but it is essential to me and my ability to make a living. I have nobody but myself representing me in this process. Even with the best intentions, an entity like the MLC cannot possibly look out for all of us, so I hope that this structure provides us the tools with which we can look out for ourselves.

I very strongly encourage maximum transparency, granularity, and searchability be provided to rightsholder with regards to this data.

Copyright Office Regulates @MLC_US: Selected Public Comments on MLC Transparency: @zoecello — Artist Rights Watch

[Editor Charlie sez: The U.S. Copyright Office is proposing many different ways to regulate The MLC, which is the government approved mechanical licensing collective under MMA authorized to collect and pay out “all streaming mechanicals for every song ever written or that ever may be written by any songwriter in the world that is exploited in the United States under the blanket license.”  The Copyright Office is submitting these regulations to the public to comment on.  The way it works is that the Copyright Office publishes a notice on the copyright.gov website that describes the rule they propose making and then they ask for public comments on that proposed rule.  They then redraft that proposed rule into a final rule and tell you if they took your comments into account. They do read them all!

The Copyright Office has a boatload of new rules to make in order to regulate The MLC.  (That’s not a typo by the way, the MLC styles itself as The MLC.)  The comments are starting to be posted by the Copyright Office on the Regulations.gov website.  “Comments” in this world are just your suggestions to the Copyright Office about how to make the rule better.  We’re going to post a selection of the more interesting comments.

There is still an opportunity to comment on how the Copyright Office is to regulate The MLC’s handling of the “black box” or the “unclaimed” revenue.  You can read about it here and also the description of the Copyright Office Unclaimed Royalties Study here.  It’s a great thing that the Copyright Office is doing about the black box, but they need your participation!]

Comment by Zoë Keating:

Some version of the usage data that the DSPs report to the MLC should be easily accessible to the public so that songwriters do not need to hire a legal team in order to independently verify if their statements from the MLC are correct. Major publishers can and will continue to get usage reports directly from music services. Self-published songwriters must rely on the MLC to collect and administer royalties on their behalf. Given that the major publishers of the NMPA are directing the design of the MLC, transparency of the reported data from DSPs will help eliminate any conflicts of interest.

Related to this, given the past occurrence of and future likelihood of metadata reporting errors*, usage data for compositions that are unmatched to any owner should be publicly searchable. Songwriters and other entities should be able to search for likely misspellings and errors, thereby offering crowd-sourced assistance to the persistent problem of unmatched royalties. (*Anecdotally I have heard of metadata errors preventing the collection of mechanicals and it happened to me. The mechanical royalties for my songs went unclaimed for 10 years until 2019 until I was able to raise an employee of HFA via twitter who then “found” $5000 that had been unmatched due to an unspecified metadata error.)

via Copyright Office Regulates the MLC: Selected Public Comments on MLC Transparency: @zoecello — Artist Rights Watch–News for the Artist Rights Advocacy Community

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

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

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

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

The MMA Presidential Signing Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Copyright Office Weighs In

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

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

MCLI Down

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

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

Why the Controversy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Page of History is Worth A Volume of Logic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defiance or Collaboration?

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

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

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

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

Monica Corton Consulting Suggestions to the Copyright Office for MMA Regulations

Monica Corton’s comment in the Copyright Office’s request for comments makes some excellent points (you can read the entire comment here), particularly about educating songwriters about the necessity of complying with the formalities of registering with the Mechanical Licensing Collective in order to get paid.  This question is important and again raises the question of who bears the direct transaction cost on songwriters for that registration which was not addressed in the Music Modernization Act.

Ms. Corton comes to a similar issue also raised by others regarding the black box, but has a great point that a helpful way to reduce the black box would be by requiring the copyright owners to pay for third party services to assist MLC in cleaning up the data.  That’s a great idea, although it does seem that the cost of MLC registration should be paid by the services  as part of the assessment (which would be more consistent with what was promised).  It would be simple to require the MLC to pay the third party vendors on an ongoing basis (and of course would not be able to write itself a loan from the black box to pay for those costs as David has pointed out).

We have bolded some of the language in Ms. Corton’s post to help connect the dots:

The [Music Modernization Act] does not require publishers to provide data to the MLC. This is a problem because it could mean that smaller independent publishers or self-published songwriters may not know that they have to submit their data to the MLC in order to get paid from the digital services. They may not understand that they will not get paid without submitting data and that their money will go into an unallocated account that gets liquidated by to publishers based on their market share.

This is why there was so much time devoted to the education piece of the MMA during the recent symposium at the Copyright Office on December 6, 2019. I attended the symposium and in the following week, I had conversations with John Raso of HFA and Bill Colitre at MRI. I spoke to them both about my concern for the education piece and told them I thought the MLC was missing an education committee which I would be happy to help put together. It should include music publishers, digital representatives and educators.

We need a year to promote and educate people about the MMA, the MLC, why it’s important to register, how to obtain all their necessary data (i.e. ISWCs, ISRCs, publisher splits etc.) and the steps required to submit an accurate registration. John Raso urged me to write to Alisa Coleman making this suggestion regarding adding an education committee to the MLC. I emailed Alisa Coleman on Monday, December 9, but I have not heard back from her.

It is the feeling among many independent publishers, songwriters and even some DSP representatives that there is no real will to educate the masses about the MLC and registration. The reason is a majority of the members of the MLC board stand to gain millions of dollars from unallocated royalties if the MLC does not locate the publishers/songwriters of these unclaimed works.

There is evidence for this. When the NMPA negotiated a $30 million dollar settlement with Spotify, Spotify offered up their unclaimed works files to the settlement group. Every publisher that participated in the NMPA Spotify Settlement was given the chance to claim those works. When David Israelite visited the AIMP in NYC to discuss the matter after the process was well underway, he informed the AIMP membership that something like 15-20% of the unclaimed works were eventually claimed. However, this means that 80-85% of those works still need to be matched to their rightful owners. These works are also most probably part of the NOIs that have been sitting at the Copyright Office and were filed by the DSPs to avoid liability. It is a massive undertaking to try to match these unclaimed works, however, a well thought out education initiative that is strategically based could probably solve at least 50-60% of the unclaimed works identification. I’m suggesting an “edutainment” approach where we utilize celebrity songwriter/artists to get our message out over YouTube and other social media sites. We raise awareness about the reasons why registration to the MLC is so important. We give great tutoring videos on how to locate your appropriate registration information and we assist in getting them to submit spread sheets with all of their data laid out in the best way that the MLC can ingest it.

Without the education piece fully in place, I fear that a majority of the unclaimed works are going to be put in this unallocated fund and distributed by market share to the biggest publishers in the business. This has been the practice of every single NMPA settlement since the distribution of the NMPA Late Fee Settlement, and the major publishers, as well as the large independent publishers have benefited greatly from this practice.

In order to avoid this happening, I would like to support MRI’s suggestion that “the MLC make the raw data from the DSPs available to qualified, third party data processors, hired by such copyright owners, in order that they may verify the completeness and accuracy of such records and potentially claim ownership of musical works associated with the sound recordings listed in such records. Such efforts, to take place no less than six months prior to any liquidation event, would be meant to supplement, not replace, the MLC’s own efforts to identify the copyright owners of “unclaimed” musical works. In addition to promoting greater transparency in such matching efforts, these supplemental efforts will give music publishers-the parties best placed to identify their own works-a seat at the table as the MLC prepares for this critical initial distribution of unclaimed royalty funds. They will also reduce the burden on the MLC’s nascent claiming system and assist the MLC in bringing greater accuracy to the musical works database it will have established by such time.”

In light of the suggestions…for a third party representative to assist in claiming works, there needs to be an approved list of such “qualified third-party data processors” available on the MLC website. Many DIY songwriters will not know who these companies are and could get taken in by people who are not qualified. The Copyright Office should be the arbiter of providing the list of qualified third-party data processors. Certainly, MRI should be on this list.

 

Future of Music Coalition Suggestions to US Copyright Office on MLC Oversight Regulations

In our continuing review of comments on the Mechanical Licensing Collective, the Future of Music Coalition’s filing is an instructive read.  FOMC has put its finger on two core issues for Copyright Office regulations–the importance of trust in the MLC and the cost to independent publishers and songwriters of handing over all their data to the MLC for the celestial database.

The question of who will pay for these data costs is one of the issues that’s most confusing about the MLC’s messaging as well as the messaging from many groups who encouraged songwriters to support both the blanket compulsory and the “industry consensus” MLC now in control.  Originally, we were all told that “the services will pay for it,” and indeed the services are paying millions for something.  So far, however, we have not seen any budget allocated to compensating the songwriters who will be contributing data at their own expense to MLC’s core asset.

Although FOMC didn’t bring this up directly, they certainly got that thought process going.  If a publisher already has invested substantial resources in cleaning and normalizing their data, participating in MLC may not be a high cost of admission.  But if a publisher has invested in data that is sufficient for them to operate before MMA (say Excel spreadsheets), but is not reasonably exportable to MLC, then the publisher’s choice is find the money to cover these transaction costs or don’t participate. And not participating leads to the black box.

In a streaming economy where per-stream royalties start three or four decimal places to the right if  you’re lucky, the cost of the ticket may well exceed the revenue.  That will weaken the system, so those who benefit from the millions invested in MLC should arguably pay for those transaction costs.

We should also all be mindful of the CISAC and BIEM comment and remember that non-US songwriters could be in a similar position or may simply not be aware that they have to comply with the formalities of registering with the MLC (possibly separately from their own home country collecting society) or even separate from registering for copyright in the US (which will be some but not all non-US songwriters by any stretch).  Even if songwriters don’t register for copyright with the Copyright Office they will still have to register their works with the MLC unless there’s some reliable work around that presents itself in the future.

With that in mind, this passage from the FOMC comment is particularly illuminating:

The success of the new mechanical royalty system created by MMA is dependent on broad participation, and participation is dependent on trust. Unfortunately, cultivating trust can be challenging in the music industries, where old stories of exploitation and bureaucratic failure are plentiful. Different stakeholders may have vastly different levels of legal sophistication, technical skill, and access to resources.  The Copyright Office’s task in its rulemakings is to optimize for trust and accountability for all parties, and should give special consideration to the needs of creators who might otherwise lack leverage. This outcome would not be to the sole benefit of creators, but would benefit all stakeholders. The more accountability, detailed guidance, and ongoing oversight the Office empowers itself to offer the MLC, the more successful the entire endeavor will be.

You should really spend a little time reading the FOMC submission.  It’s not that long but filled with nuggets.

What comes from the Copyright Office in the regulations governing the MLC may be the most important part of this entire process given the flawed parts and omissions from MMA.

CISAC and BIEM Suggestions to US Copyright Office on MLC Oversight Regulations

We often overlook the international dimension to the Mechanical Licensing Collective created by Congress in the Music Modernization Act.  We’re not the only ones.

One of the most insightful comments in the Copyright Office’s public request for suggestions for regulations to govern the MLC came from CISAC and BIEM.

CISAC stands for Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Auteurs et Compositeurs.  Founded in 1928, CISAC has been working on the data exchanges and standard identifiers for songs and other non-recorded works since 1994.  CISAC created the much discussed abd widely adopted International Standard Work Code (“ISWC”) for songs.

BIEM stands for Bureau International des Sociétés Gérant les Droits d’Enregistrement et de Reproduction Mécanique.  Founded in 1929, BIEM represents mechanical collecting societies in some 58 countries.

You may not recognize those acronyms, so here is how the two organizations describe themselves in their comment:

The International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), and the International Organisation representing Mechanical Rights Societies (BIEM) are international organisations representing Collective Management Organisations (“CMOs”) worldwide1. CISAC and BIEM members are entrusted with the management of creators’ rights and, as such, have a direct interest in the regulations governing the new blanket licensing system for digital uses as well as the activities of the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC).

Another way to say it is that the MLC was to a large extent modeled on these mechanical rights societies with some important differences, starting with governance.  The president of CISAC is Jean-Michel Jarre, the composer.  That’s right, a composer is the president.  Just sayin’.  You may remember Jean-Michel from the #irespectmusic campaign when he was all-in early:

jean michael jarre IRM 1

Photo by Helienne Lindvall

Here’s an excerpt from the CISAC/BIEM filing that we though was important, but you should take a few minutes and read the entire thing.  It’s not very long and it includes vitally important concepts that were never mentioned in Title I of the Music Modernization Act.  The comment is spelled out very politely from people who actually know what they’re doing.  Let’s just say that independent songwriters are not the only ones who may end up in the dreaded black box.

Remember that MLC is accountable (no pun intended) for identifying and paying potentially on all songs ever written or that may ever be written that are exploited in the US under the new blanket compulsory license in Title I of MMA.  This doesn’t mean that all songs will be exploited all the time, but it does mean that MLC has chosen to be responsible for identifying every song and paying royalties to every songwriter as and when exploited–so to speak.  All with the authorization of the U.S. Congress.  Starting next January.

Good times.

Comments on Section B: Data Collection and Delivery Efforts

The correct identification of copyright owners shall be a key objective of the MLC. Regulations shall ensure the appropriate onward distribution of royalties to copyright owners, whether national or foreign, and therefore that non-US [Collective Management Organizations (“CMOs”)] are entitled to make registrations and thus, claim royalties with the MLC.

 Support the Non-Discriminatory Treatment of Foreign Rightholders

In compliance with article 5.1 of the Berne Convention guaranteeing non-discriminatory treatment between national and non-national creators, the Office should promulgate regulations that ensure rightholders of “US works”
and “non-US works” enjoy the same rights and are equally treated when their works are exploited in the US territory.

 Provide adequate means for CMOs to submit rightsholder information
Outside the US and in particular in Europe, it is common practice for creators to entrust the administration of both performing and mechanical rights to CMOs. As the history of mechanical rights collective management in Europe shows, CMOs are indispensable in the process of establishing the correct ownership of musical works (and shares of such works) on behalf of individual right holders. Oftentimes non-US CMOs are also responsible for the registration of works information licensed in the U.S. that are only sub-published, or not published at all, in the U.S. In this regard, it is essential that non-US CMOs are also entitled to make registrations and, thus, claim royalties with the MLC. Importantly, non-US CMOs (in particular BIEM Members) are normally able to contribute data in relation to work identification and to the registration of work information in the MLC’s Database with a high degree of reliability; in many cases their contributions would be necessary to supplement data submitted by DMPs.

Therefore, the role of non-US CMOs in the identification of works should be expressly foreseen by the regulations. Likewise, the role of CMOs should also be expressly foreseen by the Regulations with regards tothe proper use and implementation of data standards such as ISWC that will ultimately support the proper identification of rightsholders.

David Lowery’s Suggestions to the Copyright Office for Regulation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective Part 4

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 4 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

Additional MLC Oversight: Transparency and Financial Disclosure

There is little financial disclosure required of the MLC or the DLC. As far as DLC is concerned, I expect they will represent the interests of the services. They are also paying the money for MLC which in a way is itself an inherent conflict but is under the oversight of the Copyright Royalty Judges. For the moment, DLC does not appear to be involved in the MLC operations or decision-making. Time may reveal a need to examine this relationship more closely for financial disclosures.

However, the MLC is mandated to engage in many operations fraught with moral hazard, not the least of which is matching and the black box distributions. The MLC has already demonstrated that it has the ability to pick the least appropriate vendors for inexplicable reasons other than the past ownership of HFA by the National Music Publishers Association.

This past ownership creates a special disclosure situation regarding the selection of HFA as a vendor given how long Title I had been in the works (the rumored “SIRA II”). Was the sale of HFA conditioned on HFA becoming the principle vendor of the MLC (like HFA was to be the “General Designated Agent” in SIRA I)? Was Blackstone’s withdrawal of opposition to MMA in the Senate conditioned upon some benefit flowing to HFA? Has the vendor selection process been the kabuki dance it appears to be? As my friend and co-amici Guy Forsyth wrote, “Americans are freedom loving people and nothing says freedom like getting away with it.” Did they get away with it? If the Copyright Office doesn’t force disclosure, we’ll never know unless the issue gets litigated in one of the pending lawsuits against Spotify—and isn’t redacted.

It only seems reasonable that the MLC should disclose any incentives, payments or other benefits received by its board members, non-voting members (DiMA, NMPA, NSAI or SONA for example), officers and other key employees from any person or entity MLC does business with. These benefits should include payments of the administrative assessment, real estate transactions paid for by the assessment, or shares of stock or units of Ether granted to anyone in the supply chain. This kind of anti-payola affidavit is required of various consultants in the music business already so there seems to be no reason why it should not be required for persons of influence at the MLC. And, of course, all such affidavits or disclosures should be part of the public record so that everyone from songwriters to Members of Congress should be able to have a clear picture of who is involved with MLC.

This will be particularly applicable to any payments from the black box which is truly other people’s money. Any proposed payments of the black box should be itemized, published online in an easy to read format prior to being distributed and certified by an independent CPA that is not related to MLC or any board member or vendor. This disclosure may help reduce the inevitable lawsuits. In fact, it would be best if any CPA undertaking certification work for MLC should agree in advance that they would do no other work for the MLC related parties for a significant period of time, say five years.

The “interim application of accrued royalties” is another clause that is fraught with conflicts of interest. Respectfully, the Copyright Office should clarify that MLC board members act as fiduciaries in their decisions to take money from the black box to meet the MLC’s expenses in the case of a shortfall from the administrative assessment. If they’re not fiduciaries, an explanation would be helpful.

In fact, the entire clause relating to the “interim application of accrued royalties” is itself vague and ambiguous. Consider the language:

In the event that the administrative assessment, together with any funding from voluntary contributions as provided in subparagraphs (A) and (B), is inadequate to cover current collective total costs, the collective, with approval of its board of directors, may apply unclaimed accrued royalties on an interim basis to defray such costs, subject to future reimbursement of such royalties from future collections of the assessment.

This paragraph is, in my judgment, one of the most important yet least discussed clauses in the entirety of Title I. Absent implementing rules to the contrary, the clause allows MLC to effectively write itself interest free and nonrecourse loans from other people’s money to cover the costs of a budget that MLC itself determines at a burn rate solely in the control of MLC—currently with no oversight by anyone.

The clause raises a number of questions about the meaning of the statutory language which the Congress likely intended to be clarified in regulations regarding the spending of other people’s money by the MLC. In particular. terms in the statutory language that must be known in order to determine what sums are the “costs” concerned, when are they determined, and what happens if the loan once taken is never repaid. (Which raises income tax issues if nothing else.)

The statutory language also leaves to regulations what happens if the songwriters whose monies are taken from the black box and spent by MLC are later identified because they come forward or due to matching efforts of the DLC or the MLC.

Are those songwriters supposed to wait to be paid from “future collections of the assessment,” if ever? Which future collections? The next assessment after those songwriters are identified? Or another one some time in the future?

Are they to be paid in the normal course at the next accounting period after becoming identified? Immediately upon being identified?

And most importantly perhaps, how will anyone outside of the MLC know this loan is occurring? The mere fact that a board of directors thinks it’s a good idea to avoid themselves having to make voluntary contributions to the MLC’s operations by writing themselves an interest free non-recourse loan from monies they hold in trust (or should hold in trust) is a terrible position to put on board members voting against the loan.

I would respectfully suggest that this entire clause has no place in legislation that was sold as a great boon for songwriters. If it must be in the law, then the Copyright Office has a golden opportunity to shed sunlight on another mysterious operation of the MLC.
I suggest several areas of mandatory disclosure. First, the balance of the black box should be public and prominently posted on a monthly basis to the MLC’s website. Songwriters should be able to search for their titles and determine how much is being held. SoundExchange currently has this feature for the public as do other societies around the world.

The black box should be held in a true escrow account by an escrow agent (such as an unrelated bank) that has clear instructions in regulations as to how and when such funds are to be disbursed, either as a loan or royalty payment.

If the board of MLC decides to write itself a loan from these funds, they should not be able to use the black box as a piggy bank, but rather should borrow against identified funds based on available metadata so that repayment can be accomplished efficiently.
For example, if Songwriter X can look up on the MLC’s website that the MLC board borrowed money for songs A, B and C that were unmatched at the time of the loan, then if Songwriter X is later identified, she can demand payment of her royalties from MLC which the MLC should be required to pay from its current accounts and not take from future black box payments.

Failing to require payment from fresh cash will create an endlessly iterative process by which MLC borrows from Peter to pay Paul, using old money to pay new obligations.
Finally, all these transactions should be well documented and those documents should be published on the MLC website. For example, the statute requires board “approval” to initiate the loan. That approval should take the form of a recorded board vote with minutes to be published on the MLC website, or better yet in the Federal Register. The loan should be documented in the form of a promissory note to the escrow agent. It should also be clear that the MLC board has a fiduciary duty to the songwriters and publishers whose money it is borrowing that is separate from the board’s safe harbor elsewhere in Title I.

Having just gone through the PledgeMusic debacle, I am sensitized more than ever to companies that go insolvent while handling the money of artists with the result that the artists never get paid. If the MLC cannot meet its obligations and requires “interim” loans from the black box, how is that not the case of a company operating while insolvent? Why should the officers and directors of MLC enjoy any lower standard of care or responsibility than they would if they were operating any other company while insolvent?

Surely this was not the intent of Congress.

Finally, I note that the budget proposed by the MLC to the DLC was less than the administrative assessment agreed to in the CRB settlement. Respectfully, the Copyright Office ought to make clear that this shortfall does not trigger the MLC’s ability to take an “interim” loan in the amount of the shortfall. This issue highlights another point requiring clarification—at what point is a shortfall determined? It seems that it should be at a time the shortfall occurs following investigation into why it occurred by an inspector general-type person (such as the Inspector General of the Library of Congress).

The MLC knows how much it’s got in its rather rich kitty to spend on all its various activities. If it also knows that if it goes over budget it can write itself interest free loans from the black box based on its own internal decision and authority, what incentive is there to stay on budget?

Additional MLC Oversight: Transparency and Songwriter Ombudsman

While Congress and the Copyright Office theoretically retain oversight over the MLC, this is of cold comfort to songwriters who are run over by MLC, its policies and its vendors. The vast unmatched problem is the most obvious foreseeable outcome where songwriters need a safety valve, but there are other possibilities.

For example, if the MLC continues HFA’s sad history of simply failing to pay songwriters, it’s just not adequate to say that songwriters can audit MLC or sue. Songwriters should not have to incur even more costs or engage in the labyrinthine process of individual or class action lawsuits against an entity funded by the largest corporations in the world.

The only real leverage that songwriters have over MLC is to persuade the Copyright Office not to re-designate the incumbent. In order for that to be a realistic threat, the Copyright Office regulations should provide for a feedback loop that songwriters can avail themselves of that the Copyright Office must take into account when determining its re-designation. Such complaints must be included in the Copyright Office’s oversight report to Congress. As such a practice is essentially the Copyright Office setting a policy or regulating itself, I see no reason why that practice cannot be set forth in regulations.

However, the Copyright Office is in an ideal position to create an ombudsman-type position with oversight of the entire MLC/DLC process. Such a role would allow the world’s songwriters an immediate outlet for surfacing negligence by MLC. By preserving anonymity of those complaining, any songwriter—whether or not affiliated with MLC—could have an outlet to report any objectionable behavior while being protected along the lines of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

The ombudsman should be completely unrelated to the incestuous practices of MLC and HFA, should be a paid position deducted from the millions in MLC’s rich operating budget, and should be meaningfully consulted in any re-designation.

Creating an ombudsman role would benefit the entire system by maintaining a watchdog and whistleblower role that would help keep the system honest.

Additional MLC Oversight: MLC and DLC Database Conflict of Interest Policy

I would also respectfully call the Copyright Office’s attention to the inherent conflicts between MLC and its vendor HFA in terms of reselling data HFA acquires by virtue of its role as MLCvendor. If the Copyright Office does not prohibit HFA from selling for other commercial purposes the data it acquires through its engagement by MLC to facilitate the compulsory blanket license, the Congress will have just handed HFA a near insurmountable advantage over its competitors. Remember there are other licenses like “micro sync” licenses that are outside of the compulsory mechanical license. Currently there is robust competition and innovation in this market segment, but without this prohibition HFA would crush its young competitors.

The same could be said of ConsenSys, which seems to be desperately seeking use cases for its Ether cryptocurrency. This creates an odd set of incentives for an MLC vendor, not to mention a need for disclosure by the MLC of any stock grants or Ether transfers.

Songwriters are compelled to do business with MLC despite bitter complaints about the imbalance in favor of major publishers in its governance. Songwriters are also compelled to do business with MLC despite bitter complaints about HFA due to what can be described as a bait and switch where the MLC pushed out a lot of hope only to go back to business as usual with long-time cronies.

This cannot be what Congress had in mind, and is even greater evidence for why the Copyright Office should require MLC candidates to fully disclose their vendors and their relationship with their vendors before designation.

Respectfully, any data vendor of the MLC should not be allowed to leverage their privileged role to private benefit after being paid absurd amounts of money to fail upwards.

As Madison said, we’re not angels. But songwriters rely on the Copyright Office to be our better angels.

Thank you for providing this opportunity to discuss these important issues.

Sincerely,
David C. Lowery