More Bizarre Goings On At the Copyright Royalty Board, this time with additional Google, fava beans and a fine Chianti

[This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

by Chris Castle

One of the main beefs I’ve had with the Copyright Royalty Board is the secrecy in plain sight. Very few people follow what’s going on there, yet every time you move a rock, another toad hops out. Now that we are turning our attention to the streaming mechanical proceeding–which as we were told ad nauseam is the important one, don’t you know–the first thing we find is the shameful antics of Google on full display.

Remember–the Copyright Royalty Board split the rate proceedings in two. One was for the physical and download mechanical (paid by record companies) and one for the streaming mechanical (paid by digital music services), all under the compulsory license which was adopted for the huge benefit of each music user. And of course if it’s compulsory it takes (there’s that word again) away the rights of songwriters to bargain and set their own price without government intervention. (There are alternative ways to do this such as the Nordic model of extended collective licensing that David Lowery discussed in an important blog post a few years ago.)

The Copyright Royalty Judges are given the unenviable task of divining what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller in the open market. Of course that willing/willing rate is a complete legal fiction because in the novella of statutory rates there hasn’t been an open market for over 100 years which for rate setting purposes means there has never been an open market for songwriters. Why? Not sure, really, but there must have been an original sin, the novella tells us so. We can only assume that when that writer room door closes, those pesky songwriters just naturally start colluding, unlike Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Spotify and especially Google. Google who have never been prosecuted for violating the Controlled Substances Act for which they paid a $500,000,000 fine and who we let take over our children like they were a trustworthy television network or something.

So since there’s never been an open market because the government took the songwriters’ rights back in 1909 in this case (and 1941 in the case of the ASCAP consent decree), you can well imagine that a cottage industry of executives, lawyers and lobbyists have grown up to service the bizarre rate setting process that has totally lost their way in my view. It’s hard to believe when we read the shenanigans going on in front of the Judges that this is all designed to determine the value of songs. There are 38 lawyers billing time in the streaming proceeding which will raise the transaction cost of the proceeding to an absurd and Kafka-esque level, but it does help you understand why the lobbyists think that proceeding is so important–it’s definitely more important to them.

Which leads us to the extremely Googley discovery request that Google has filed and the Judges appear to have approved. In a nutshell, Google has said that they only way that the rates can be set is if the Judges force the National Music Publishers Association and the Nashville Songwriters Association International to turn over all to Google of your accounting statements and licenses so Google can determine if the past earnings back up the NMPA and NSAI royalty claims made by their many Lecterian lawyers.

But don’t feel bad–it’s not like they will be turning over the data to the public, just to Google. What a relief, right?

Here’s what the order actually says:

That’s right–Google wants “Music Publishers” to produce all the royalty statements for the most successful songwriters in the world to “test” whether songwriters are struggling financially. Given that this will involve many, many statements which probably have to have personally identifiable information redacted, it’s going to take many hours which is great for those who get paid by the hour but not so great for those who get paid by the song.

Is there no other way to determine whether mechanical royalties have declined to subsistence levels? Surely there must be, and you know what else? There’s also a way to test whether mechanical royalties have declined to below subsistence levels which is really the point here, right?

Yes, I got your test right here, soulless Google lawyers.

But wait, there’s more. Google also wants to raise transaction costs on songwriters by forcing the production of all “free market” licenses. (“Free market” benchmarks are themselves a laughable concept in a hugely distorted market that still suffers from the governments negligent wage and price control of a 2ยข rate from 1909 to 1978).

And given the parameters of the Copyright Royalty Board, the Judges seem to have granted Google’s request in part for the statements and entirely for the licenses.

You do have to ask whether there’s anything songwriters can do to keep their confidential royalty statements and license agreements out of the hands of the Leviathan of Mountain View. It does seem that there could be a process to intervene in the Phonorecords IV case to stop this from happening. Just because Google is trying to prove that songwriter income has not been decimated when we all know it has been does not seem to require the humiliation of having your royalty statements put on display. This is definitely something to speak about to your lawyer and your publisher.

This entire exchange is exceptionally bizarre because the “Copyright Owners” are the NMPA and NSAI, neither of whom own copyrights, send statements or enter licenses. And yet there seems to be an assumption that some group of publishers are bound by the order. I can only assume that the publishers who are on the receiving end of this order are the music publisher affiliates of the CRB participants at the group level of Sony, Universal and Warner, although the order doesn’t really demonstrate that connective tissue because…well, it doesn’t. Publisher affiliates are not participating and if the principle and policy is that every stand alone affiliate of a corporate parent is participating and subject to discovery because the corporate parent is…well, that’s an interesting proposition.

Before you heave a sigh of relieve that only the songwriters signed to a major will have their privacy invaded by the greatest privacy invader of all time, that would be Google hands down, just realize the cost of what can happen if you were to have the temerity to think you could participate in the Copyright Royalty Board. 

You can have one of the biggest corporations in commercial history that rips you off every minute of every day and essentially prints money in the public market that they use to destroy your rights and creations sick their army of soul-crushing lawyers on you to prove that songwriters are dying penniless because of Google’s income transfer. And still pay you a number that starts many decimal places to the right and laugh about it over steaks at The Palm with fava beans and a fine Chianti.