Know Your MLC: “Highest Compensated” Employees

The Mechanical Licensing Collective, Inc. published its tax return for 2021 so you could have a look at the salaries of all those people who can’t manage to pay out the hundreds of millions in black box money to songwriters. Did the Copyright Office approve these nauseatingly rich salaries? We’re not going to point out the disparities in this little list but…. We can’t help but wonder how many songwriters make anything like these salaries?

Comment to Copyright Office on Termination, the Black Box and Lawlessness at MLC


January 5, 2023

By Regulations.gov

Suzanne Wilson
General Counsel and Associate Register of Copyrights
U.S. Copyright Office
101 Independence Avenue S.E.
Washington D.C. 20559

Re:   Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Termination Rights and the Music Modernization Act’s Blanket License 
         Docket No. 2022-5 Comment

Dear General Counsel Wilson:

Thank you for the opportunity to make this comment on the docket referenced above.[i]    

I am a music lawyer in Austin, Texas and write this comment on my own behalf only and not on behalf of anyone else.  

Others will address the substantive termination issues that are well-described and assayed in the Notice, so I will focus on the procedural tension between The Mechanical Licensing Collective, Inc. (“The MLC, Inc.”) currently designated as the mechanical licensing collective (“MLC”), its officers and directors, and the law as described in the Notice.  

I argue that the need for this Notice is symptomatic of a larger problem in the relationship between Congress and The MLC, Inc. I hope the Office will consider resolving this tension as it has been authorized to do under the Music Modernization Act[ii] such as through regulations establishing the type of code of conduct that is common for other federal contractors.  

This tension is alarming.  The Notice states the MLC “does not follow the Office’s rulemaking guidance”[iii] regarding terminations, and that The MLC, Inc. “declin[es] to heed the Office’s warning….”[iv]  These disclosures are diametrically at odds with the clear intent of Congress in crafting the MLC’s role.[v]

The disclosures confirm clearly that there are governance and oversight controversies at The MLC, Inc. that in my view need to be conclusively disposed of, and quickly.[vi]  These governance issues are symptomatic of what may be much greater problems with the administrative capabilities of The MLC, Inc. that may be metastasizing but have not yet risen to the level of a public inquiry.

The recklessness that gives rise to the Notice also highlights The MLC, Inc.’s general lack of accountability and suggests a conscious disregard for the Copyright Office’s oversight role on a significant matter of law that is not capable of proper resolution through any “business rules.”[vii]  

I also note this troubling statement in the Notice:

But, having reviewed the MLC’s policy, the Office is concerned that it conflicts with the MMA, which requires that the MLC’s dispute policies ‘‘shall not affect any legal or equitable rights or remedies available to any copyright owner or songwriter concerning ownership of, and entitlement to royalties for, a musical work.’’[viii]

It seems clear that The MLC, Inc.’s conscious failure to comply with Congressional intent as well as the Office’s guidance is, or ought to be, a decision of some import that surely must have been taken by someone—that is, one or more persons—employed or appointed by the MLC.  It seems likely to be a subject that would have been reviewed both by its General Counsel and as part of the millions in outside counsel fees[ix] spent by The MLC, Inc.  

The fact that the decision-making process is not readily known is itself of concern and leads one to further consider developing a code of conduct for The MLC, Inc. to assure the Office, the Congress and the public of its administrative capabilities.

Respectfully, I request that you determine how this decision was arrived at and what internal controls The MLC, Inc. has put in place to assure the Congress, the Office and interested parties that these mistakes will not happen again.  This should not be an “oh well” moment and should be taken seriously by The MLC, Inc.

If The MLC, Inc. fails to disclose what it is doing by establishing opaque “business rules”, it is essentially creating de facto regulations that have the practical effect of law or regulations made behind closed doors unless the Office or other oversight agency happens to catch them out.  The public will never know that the business rule was established, how the “business rule” was arrived at, or have a meaningful opportunity to comment such as in response to this Notice.

For example, do the minutes of The MLC, Inc.’s board of directors or statutory committees reflect a discussion or vote on the adoption of the MLC’s policies on termination treatment? Did such a vote implicate any conflicts of interest?  Who determined that there was or was not a conflict of interest in the MLC’s decision to adopt the termination policy, however it was taken?  Were there any dissenting votes recorded?  Did an officer or director of The MLC, Inc. certify the completeness of the record in these findings in the corporate minute book?

This leads to other concerns under public discussion regarding the hundreds of millions of “black box” monies being held by The MLC, Inc. Given that the public has very little information available to it regarding the results and implications of the MLC’s operational decisions, I respectfully request that you determine what, if any, financial implications have arisen as a result of The MLC, Inc.’s reckless failure to comply with the law and the guidance of the Office in implementing its termination policy.  Such determination should likely include any funds[x] that The MLC, Inc. is apparently trading in the market for its own account.[xi]  Any curative action required by the Office should, of course, be retroactive in scope which will require considerable before-and-after accounting disclosures.

It must be asked whether the “business rule” established for terminations increases or decreases the enormous black box which was of considerable interest to Chairman Leahy at the recent Copyright Office oversight hearing at which the Register testified.[xii]  This is particularly true if the implementation of the business rule results in financial harm to interested parties who rely on The MLC, Inc. to get it right.  

The subject of black box came up in the Questions for the Record from Chairman Leahy.  The Copyright Office’s response to Chairman Leahy’s inquiry about the hundreds of millions in black box held by the MLC directed the Chairman to the MLC’s annual report for answers.  

Respectfully, I find this odd.  Chairman Leahy did not ask what the MLC told the world in its annual report; rather he asked, “What can the Copyright Office do to help ensure that the MLC is working to make sure that rightful owners of music works are identified and paid?”[xiii]The question is transitive:  We have oversight of you, you have oversight of The MLC, Inc., therefore we have oversight of the MLC.  

Surely no one is surprised by this.  The question many have is why The MLC, Inc. itself—a quasigovernmental organization operated by inferior officers[xiv] of the United States–is not the subject of an oversight hearing at Senate Judiciary regarding the hundreds of millions it is sitting on.  Maybe next time.

It must also be said that the answer to Chairman Leahy goes on:

Notably, the MLC plans to wait to process historical unmatched royalties from the Phonorecords III rate period [2018-2022] until the Copyright Royalty Judges finalize those rates in the ongoing remand proceeding and digital music providers provide adjusted reports of usage and royalty payments. It is the Office’s understanding that the bulk of historical unmatched royalties come from that period.[xv]

Without getting into the timeline of what came when, how is it exactly that The MLC, Inc. took the decision in February 2021—nearly two years ago–to sit on top of hundreds of millions of other peoples’ money that they were somehow investing under their undisclosed “Investment Policy”?  Was anyone asked?  Who gave the MLC the permission to do this?  Do they not hold the black box corpus in trust for songwriters and copyright owners yet to be identified?  Does this not compound the already painful series of failures that resulted in the black box in the first place, the delay in accounting to songwriters (or their families) under Phonorecords III remand, and still more delay while legions of lobbyists and lawyers argue over the post-remand true up accountings?

The MLC reported $2,529,910 investment income on its 2021 US Federal tax return 990

Respectfully, there is also, of course, a larger question that the Office may consider answering:  If The MLC, Inc. adopts a policy or takes some action outside of the law or its remit, is that policy binding on any future entities designated by the Office as the MLC?  

These are all questions that I would expect to have answers that are readily available to the public given that The MLC, Inc. is in a position of public trust administering a compulsory license on behalf of the United States and has been given great privileges under the MMA.[xvi]

Thank you again for the opportunity to comment.

Very truly yours,

Christian L. Castle

CLC/ko


[i] U.S. Copyright Office, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Termination Rights and the Music Modernization Act’s Blanket License 87 FR 64405 (Oct. 25, 2022) (Doc. No. 2022-5) (hereafter “Notice”).

[ii] Orrin G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act, Public Law 115–264, 132 Stat. 3676 (2018) (“MMA”) and specifically Title I thereof.

[iii] Notice at 64407.

[iv] Id.

[v] See S. Rep. 115-339 (115th Cong. 2nd Sess. Sept. 17, 2018) at 7 (“Senate Report”).  (“The collective is expected to operate in a transparent and accountable manner.”) 

[vi] I would hope that this failure will be weighed and measured by the Copyright Office as part of The MLC, Inc.’s quinquennial review as is required under the legislative history.  See, e.g., Senate Report at 5 (“[E]vidence of fraud, waste, or abuse, including the failure to follow the relevant regulations adopted by the Copyright Office, over the prior five years should raise serious concerns within the Copyright Office as to whether that same entity has the administrative capabilities necessary to perform the required functions of the collective.”)(emphasis added).

[vii] It must be said that the MLC’s disregard for this particular matter may present a moral hazard (at best) for the publishers represented by at least some of its board members.

[viii] Notice at 64407 (emphasis added).

[ix] Annual Report at 16.

[x] See the MLC’s annual report stating that the MLC invests the black box according to its internal “Investment Policy” established by its board of directors but not made public.  MLC 2021 Annual Report at p. 4 available at https://www.themlc.com/hubfs/Marketing/23856%20The%20MLC%20AR2021%206-30%20REFRESH%20COMBINED.pdf(“Annual Report”) (“Investment Policy: This policy covers the investment of royalty and assessment funds, respectively, and sets forth The MLC’s goals and objectives in establishing policies to implement The MLC’s investment strategy. The anti-comingling policy required by 17 U.S.C. § 115(d)(3)(D)(ix)(I)(cc) is contained in [The MLC, Inc.’s] Investment Policy. The Investment Policy was approved by the Board in January 2021.”) (emphasis added).

[xi] Realize that every CMO is confronted with the decision about what to do with the royalty float and black box, but not every CMO decides to invest these funds in the market. If they do invest the funds, it is generally the case that any trading profits, dividends or interest goes to offset the CMO’s administrative costs that otherwise would be deducted from collected royalties.  However, the MLC, Inc.’s administrative costs are paid by the users of the blanket license (making the United States, I believe, the only country in history or the world that charges for the use of a statutory license). Therefore, the return on the MLC’s investment of the songwriters’ money would not be used for the same purpose as all the world’s CMOs that follow a similar practice.  The continuity in ownership for profits derived from The MLC, Inc.’s trading is also unclear;  if The MLC, Inc.’s existing designation is not continued but securities are being held or profits generated, what happens? 

[xii] Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Oversight of the U.S. Copyright Office, Responses to Questions for the Record by Shira Perlmutter, Register of Copyrights and Director of the Copyright Office (Sept. 7, 2022), available at https://artistrightswatchdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2022/10/qfr-responses-perlmutter-2022-09-07.pdf. (“Questions for the Record”) (“With respect to the historical, pre-2021, unmatched royalties, which were reported to be about $426 million, the annual report says that the MLC recently started distributing those that it has been able to match. It also says that the MLC has begun making associated usage data for historical unmatched royalties available to copyright owners, which will facilitate further claiming and matching.”) 

[xiii] Id. at 4.

[xiv] President Donald J. Trump, Statement on Signing the Orrin G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act (October 11, 2018) available athttps://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/DCPD-201800692/pdf/DCPD-201800692.pdf (“Because the directors are inferior officers under the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, the Librarian must approve each subsequent selection of a new director.”)

[xv] Questions for the Record at 4.

[xvi] See, e.g., Senate Report at 5 (emphasis added).  “For the responsibilities described in subparagraphs (J) [distribution of unclaimed royalties] and (K) [dispute resolution] of paragraph (3), the collective is only liable to a party for its actions if the collective is grossly negligent in carrying out the policies and procedures adopted by the Board of Directors pursuant to section 115(d)(11)(D). Since the Register has broad regulatory authority under paragraph (12) of subsection (d), it is expected that such policies and procedures will be thoroughly reviewed by the Register to ensure the fair treatment of interested parties in such proceedings given the high bar in seeking redress.” 

@northmusicgroup Calls Out The MLC’s Ability to Make “Law” Through Business Rules that Hurt Songwriters and Skew the Black Box to Benefit Majors — Artist Rights Watch/Music Technology Policy

In this comment to the Copyright Office, Abby North (independent publisher and Artist Rights Symposium III Moderator) calls on the Copyright Office to stop the MLC quango from unilaterally establishing “business rules” that hurt songwriters and their heirs and protect working families from these arbitrary actions of The MLC. The passing of Jeff Beck reminds us once again that we must take care to protect the heirs of creators.

Read the original comment here on Regulations.gov

January 5, 2023

Via Electronic Delivery

Comments of Abby North

Docket No. 2022-5

Re: Termination Rights and the Music Modernization Act’s Blanket License

To the United States Copyright Office:

My name is Abby North. I am a music publishing administrator based in Los Angeles. My views expressed in this letter are solely my own. 

With my husband, I am a copyright owner of the classic song “Unchained Melody,” among other copyrights. I also administer musical works and sound recordings on behalf of songwriters, their families and heirs. In many instances, I assist my clients in identifying their termination windows, assist in the research required, and interface with the attorneys who process termination filings.

Abby North, Helienne Lindvall, Erin McAnaly, Melanie Santa Rosa speaking at UGA Artist Rights Symposium III (Nov. 15, 2022 in Athens, GA)

I’m thankful for the opportunity to submit comments in support of the Copyright Office’s proposed rule.

The ability to recapture rights via the United States copyright termination system truly provides composers, songwriters and recording artists and their heirs, a “second bite of the apple.” Many of my clients exercise this right, and in doing so grow their family’s revenue, which, given today’s inflation and very high interest rates, coupled with a depleted stock market, is absolutely necessary.

Allyn Ferguson was a successful composer of film/television scores including “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Les Miserables,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “Barney Miller.” According to Variety in its June 27, 2010 obituary, Ferguson was “among the most prolific composers of TV in the past 40 years.” My company North Music Group administers works controlled by Ferguson’s family.

In addition to his scores, Ferguson wrote songs performed by artists including Johnny Mathis, Count Basie Band and Freddie Hubbard. While the bulk of his film and television scores were created on a work for hire basis, and therefore are not eligible for termination under US copyright law, Ferguson’s commercial compositions and songs were not created as works for hire. Ferguson’s family has been able to exercise its termination rights in various musical works,

thereby increasing its earnings as it now collects the publisher share of United States royalties generated by the terminated works. Individual songwriters and composers and their heirs are not copyright aggregators. Every musical work, and every penny generated is very necessary to these families.

The Music Modernization Act created the blanket digital mechanical license. This move from one-off copyright licenses to a blanket license was a dramatic improvement in US mechanical licensing. However, the suggestion that rights held at the inception of this blanket license might remain, in perpetuity, with the original copyright grantee was frightening. I concur with the Office’s proposed rule and legal analysis of the relevant statutes and authorities.

I appreciate the Office requesting comments on the mechanics of solving the payment issues, because for the independent publishers I speak with and for me personally, many operational questions arise regularly regarding The MLC’s uncharted territories.

As one of The MLC’s statutory goals is to provide transparency to songwriters and copyrightowners, I would ask that the Office require The MLC to notify copyright owners (1) if The MLC’s unilateral termination policy has already been imposed on payments previously paid or that are being held in the historical or current black box, and (2) when the adjusting payment required by the proposed rule had been made.

To be clear, this rule must absolutely be retroactive to inception date of The MLC. Beyond the simple, clarifying amendment to the MMA, I believe there are additional, related issues that must be resolved:

1) What is The MLC’s “business rule” regarding the MLC/HFA Song Code for the terminated work? Prior to the inception of The MLC, the Harry Fox Agency would assign one HFA Song Code fr the work and its pre-termination parties, and a different HFA Song Code for the work with the post-termination parties.

What happens now? Do these multiple HFA Song Codes remain in The MLC’s database? Will there continue to be two separate MLC/HFA Song Codes, particularly given the Harry Fox Agency continues to license physical and download mechanicals on behalf of many publishers? Is it reasonable for the HFA Song Code to be the same as The MLC Song Code, when there is no derivative works exception in Section 115?

2) Which party is entitled to the Unmatched (Black Box) royalties, the related interest fees and to The MLC’s investment proceeds for a terminated work?

Finally, it should be noted that the initial concept proposed by The MLC Board (that the server fixation date should impact termination dates) most likely would have served large publishers, not songwriters.

It is crucial that the Copyright Office exercise vigilant oversight and governance of The MLC’s reporting regarding any payment obligations to copyright owners. Specifically, composers, songwriters and their heirs must have as significant a voice as the largest publishers and copyright aggregators.

Additionally, in the spirit of full transparency, I request full disclosure of board or committee votes, minutes of meetings or other documentation of process. For me and others like me, this would tremendously enhance our understanding of The MLC.

Decisions are being made by The MLC’s board and committee members, while the general MLC member or songwriters have no mechanism to gain information regarding the discussions, the decisions and the implementations thereof. Access to minutes and notes would provide valuable insights to the general membership.

I applaud the Copyright Office for moving swiftly to create this rule and clarify and codify how The MLC must treat copyright terminations. It is important that this rule be dictated by the Office as it is absolutely not The MLC’s job todecide who controls rights and is entitled to collect royalties. 

That said, a “business rule” established by The MLC could have the effect of law absent vigilance by the Copyright Office.

On behalf of my family and clients, I wholeheartedly support this proposed regulation, and I truly appreciate the Copyright Office’s consideration of my comments.

Sincerely,

Abby North

North Music Group LLC

@northmusicgroup Calls Out The MLC’s Ability to Make “Law” Through Business Rules that Hurt Songwriters and Skew the Black Box to Benefit Majors — Artist Rights Watch–News for the Artist Rights Advocacy Community — Music Technology Policy

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers To the Right: When Will the MLC Show Us the Money?

If you’ve received one of these emails from the MLC about having to recast their monthly statement inside of a single month, when you’re eying that $500,000,000 of supposedly unmatched money that’s sitting in the MLC, Inc.’s bank account (maybe?), or if you’re trying to figure out when they are launching the vastly overdue claiming portal, you’re probably wondering–who’s in the clown car today? Bozo or Pennywise?

But maybe they’re smarter than they look. Because all they have to do to distribute that $500,000,000 on a market share basis is keep you looking at the bright and shiny object while they run out the clock.

And if you’re waiting for the Copyright Office to save you because they have “oversight”, you’re going to be waiting for a long time. Here’s the reality–nobody is minding the store. There’s a difference between “oversight” and “overwatch.” In Washington, “oversight” means finding someone else to blame and from the very beginning it has been clear who the MLC intends to blame–you. Because you didn’t “play your part” or sufficiently “connect to collect”.

The Copyright Office has done a couple things while under the supervision of the current head lobbyist for Spotify. They’re good at studies, terrible at oversight, so let’s give credit where it’s due. But also realize that’s where it stops because they have about as much moxie as a starfish. (And if you think the NMPA is going to save you, take a look at the frozen mechanicals debacle and ask yourself if a rational person could really take that seriously.)

At the core of the MLC’s business model is the ability to match. Matching is kind of a “See Spot run” building block. If you can’t match, it’s very close to saying you can’t count. Because it depends on what the definition of “match” is.

So what is a match? Or as the Bard might say, how can I screw thee? Let me count the ways. The Copyright Office produced the Unclaimed Royalties Best Practices study partly on this very topic. Notice the difference between “best practices” and “rules.” “Best practices” is not the same as “rule”. If you violate a best practice, nothing happens to you, so therefore perfect for Washington. If you violate a rule, bad things happen to you. The connective tissue is enforcement. If you violate a rule at the Securities and Exchange Commission, you wear stripes. If you violate a rule at the Environmental Protection Agency, you will pay a fine, for sure. If you violate a rule at the MLC? There really aren’t any so it can’t happen. In other words, it’s just like the Harry Fox Agency.

But that’s what we have so let’s look at one passage in particular from the Best Practice Study because that’s the closest we have to a rule book.

The Office recommends that the MLC make all [matching] metrics publicly available, except to the extent it would cause confidential or business sensitive information to be improperly disclosed. [God forbid.] Specifically regarding match rates, the Office acknowledges the MLC’s point that “vendors can easily increase their claimed ‘match percentage’ by simply dropping the confidence level at which they call something a match.” For that reason, the Office recommends that the MLC provide appropriate context for its metrics, including information surrounding how it defines a match, relevant confidence levels, and how confidence levels are tuned. Additionally, so that they are clear and precise, and to avoid possible confusion, the Office recommends that all royalty figures be provided both with and without accrued interest. [How about a best practice of how they are practicing complying with best practices best?

The Office recommends that in addition to providing annual statistics in its annual report, the MLC also have a dedicated public webpage displaying all of these metrics in a clear, well-organized, user-friendly, and accessible manner. The webpage should be interactive and allow users to search, sort, and break down the data so it may be more easily reviewed and analyzed. The webpage should also have an export or download feature, including bulk exporting/downloading, to aid public consumption and dissemination. The Office recommends that the webpage be updated monthly after each batch of new reports of usage arrive and go through initial matching processes. All metrics should be retained and made available online indefinitely (though the MLC could distinguish between current and historic metrics in the future) so long-term trends can be assessed and to ensure the public and the Office have access to them in connection with the review of the MLC’s designation every five years. The MLC should also be very clear about how applicable metrics may change in response to DMP reporting adjustments and the reconciliation of any related royalty underpayments or overpayments permitted by the Office’s regulations. Relatedly, the Office also recommends that the MLC make publicly available relevant metrics about DMP reported usage that the MLC determines is not subject to blanket licenses (e.g., where it is subject to a voluntary license instead, public domain musical works, etc.), such that any related paid royalties have been credited or refunded back to the DMP.

What would also be nice is to tell you how much of your money they are holding and how you get it back. Maybe they could practice the best out of that.

There’s nothing particularly insightful about any of that, right? It’s the kind of thing that any songwriter giving the subject a moment or two of thought could have figured out at any point in the last 100 years. It’s also the kind of thing that you would have expected to have been built into the MLC’s system–which is essentially the HFA system–from the beginning.

It doesn’t matter what they say they aspire to do. Naturally they have to say they aspire to get it 100% correct–because otherwise that raises some interesting questions about intent, right?

Will they ever be called to account for their failures? Doubtful. The only business in the world where you can get the government to let you hold $500,000,000 of other people’s money and then keep it because paying it out was just too hard for you.

Do you think this mess is what Congress had in mind after they were fed a bunch of crap by the know-nothing lobbyists?

So let’s ask again–Bozo or Pennywise?

Songwriters and Publishers Ask the MLC: Where’s my money?–MusicTechPolicy

By Chris Castle

If anyone connected to The Mechanical Licensing Collective, Inc. quango brings up the $424,000,000 black box payment that the MLC received in February as part of services claiming their safe harbor under the Music Modernization Act Title I giveaway, it’s usually in the context of claiming credit for the payment as in “Aren’t we great, we got the services to pay $424,000,000 of black box money owed to songwriters.” (Followed shortly by so where’s my bonus?)

Notice what’s not mentioned in that sentence? True, some services paid some money to the MLC which was required by Title I in order for the major infringers like Spotify to enjoy yet another safe harbor. But the payment was not made to songwriters or publishers–it was made to the MLC quango, which is where it sits today, seven months later

How could this be, you say? Very simple. Nobody made sure that the MLC was in a position to pay the money out before they took the money in. This is the kind of thing that you would make sure is tied down in the two-plus years the MLC was operational before they got the money. You know, like when did Noah build the Ark?  Before the rain.

This is the kind of thing you might expect to be mentioned in the MLC’s annual report which was due June 30 but seems to have been delayed. What should have happened, of course, is that the Copyright Office in its supposed oversight role for the MLC quango should be closely reviewing MLC’s progress with paying out a half billion of other people’s money. This is what you would expect from a bit-in-the mouth hard-driving approach to oversight of hundreds of millions that Congress tasked to the Copyright Office. 

Ask yourself (or maybe the Library of Congress Inspector General) whether you think that a pre-New Deal federal agency that has never had enforcement powers is culturally suited to the kind of rigorous prosecution that the oversight role requires? Having created the MLC self-licking ice cream cone, does anyone seriously think that the Copyright Office will rock the boat, particularly when the lawyers seem very interested in landing a job at Spotify (regulated by the Copyright Office) or the National Association of Broadcasters both of which have an ontologically hostile relationship with songwriters? Do you think anyone at the MLC is looking over their shoulder because they’re afraid of the Copyright Office? And if they don’t fear the oversight, what incentive do they have? Nobody else will be twisting their arms.

So should it come as a surprise to anyone that people are asking “where’s my money?” Or that no one is answering?

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

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

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

Apple Termination

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

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

MLC Apple Answer

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

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

And remember that the notice from Apple includes this language:

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

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

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

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

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

Curiouser and curiouser.