Guest Post: Follow the Money: YouTube’s Failure to Pay Retroactively Gives “Conversion Rate” a Whole New Meaning

[Cross-posted from MusicTechPolicy]

by Chris Castle

Conversion

A performance metric one hears from the digerati is the term “conversion rate.”   “Conversion rate” for a streaming service usually means the rate at which users of an ad-supported free service are “converted” to paying users.  That motivation is usually because they are so fed up with the advertising they are willing to pay.  (This was one of the many failed pitches from Spotify before people stopped trying to justify hanging on until the IPO riches flowed in.)

YouTube, of course, has never been too terribly interested in anything that moves users away from advertising.  That resistance (and potential internal competition between the massive ad sales team and the ever changing YouTube managers), may explain the many failed efforts at launching a YouTube subscription service by a company that knows more about user behavior than anyone in history.  They just couldn’t seem to get it right for the longest time.  You don’t suppose that YouTube’s apparent lack of interest in getting large numbers of users to substitute away from free to subscription was because YouTube made a lot more money from the ads than they ever would from the subscriptions?

One of the ways that YouTube (and Google) makes money from advertising is by taking money that is not theirs to take (sometimes called “monetizing” content).  The civil law calls that act a claim of “conversion” and   the criminal law calls it the crime of “theft”.  Conversion and theft are two sides of the same coin and often one implies the other, albeit with different burdens of proof.

theft

YouTube’s Content ID tool is a way for copyright owners to block or permit advertising on user-generated content that includes their copyrights, often music.  Users of Content ID will tell you that it works just well enough that Google can say it is an effective tool, but even with Content ID music still gets through (and is often monetized by YouTube) for a variety of reasons.  This requires time consuming and costly manual searches.  Companies like AdRev make it a bit easier, but are essentially third party Content ID users.  These companies are compensated with a commission on infringing works they find on YouTube that they convert–there’s that word again–from infringing to monetized, which means that YouTube now splits the advertising revenue with the copyright owners who in turn split their share with an AdRev.

But see what happened there?  If you have Content ID, you can block on the upload some of the time, or you can do a search.  If you don’t have Content ID (see Maria Schneider’s class action) then you can’t block on the upload only chase the infringements manually.  But quite rightly from an economic perspective, companies like AdRev are not that interested in doing that work on a rev share basis if there’s no rev share when you block.

Here’s the point–you have a property right in your copyright.  You have a property right to license that copyright.  Any revenue derived from exploitations of that copyright is your money.  YouTube uses its monopoly power to impose a deal to monetize your copyright (under duress, of course, due to whack a mole DMCA).  That deal involves a revenue share.  (Let’s just assume you decide to take the King’s shilling and accept Google’s deal under duress which you shouldn’t have to do and which may not even be enforceable.)

The question is, when should that revenue share attach–when they start exploiting your copyright in violation of your property rights or when you catch them doing it.  And if (1) you catch them violating your property rights and (2) agree to monetize, when should they pay you your agreed upon share of the revenue from monetizing?  Should they pay retroactively to the first exploitation?  Or only prospectively after you catch them?

The correct answer is they should pay retroactively.  But they don’t.  They just keep the money.  For millions of infringements.  And they get away with it because of their monopoly power, which leaves one choice most artists won’t make, which is to sue them like Maria has.

Remember–Content ID operates largely like any other fingerprinting tool.  (Psychoacoustic fingerprinting is old technology–remember Jonesy in “The Hunt for Red October”?  That’s fingerprinting.  A “fingerprint” is simply a mathematical rendering of the waveform of an audio file.)

There is a reference databases of recordings that are “known knowns” (which is why it is important to be included in the Content ID database as Maria Schneider correctly points out in her class action.)  The fingerprinting tool encounters a new file, takes a fingerprint, then looks for a match in the reference database and reports a result that triggers an action.  Typically, fingerprinting tools are binary:  match or no match.  What happens after the tool finds a match is entirely in the control of the operator.  (So while the tool could have a match rate of 90%, the operator could report a random number of matches or a fixed number of matches, like one every ten, or one every 1000.  That means 90% accuracy could turn into a much lesser percentage of reported matches.  It’s important to know how many matches trigger an action.)

Having had some experience with audio fingerprints, I think you will find that once a fingerprint is in the reference database, the recognition tool (Content ID in this case) will spot the reference fingerprint a very, very high percentage of the time.  The fingerprinting tool I’m most aware of caught matches over 90% of the time.  I can’t imagine that a tool developed by the biggest technology company in commercial history would do less–unless they wanted it to.  Remember, this is not taking into account re-records unless the re-record is itself in the database, or pitch bends.  This is an exact match which is very common use of Content ID.  (See Maria’s class action complaint, and Kerry Muzzey has a great description of this in his recent Senate testimony.)

If Content ID is actually missing matches to known knowns on the upload (assuming exact matching is possible), I find it very odd that Content ID is missing much.  Maybe it’s not, but one way to find out is to force Google to reveal the inner workings through discovery in the class action case.

But if Content ID does miss exact matches, it would be interesting to know what percentage of those misses end up being monetized, and of those, what percentage end up getting caught later by a subsequent use of Content ID or a manual investigative process.  This will give an idea of the scale of the retroactive payment issue.

As Maria rightly points out, it is virtually impossible for an artist or film maker without Content ID to catch YouTube monetizing infringing works.  But I think the analysis has to go a step further–even if you have Content ID, at the moment you catch YouTube monetizing illegal versions, you are in no different position than the artist who lacks access to the Content ID tool.

Both have the same problem–YouTube is profiting from illegal copies.  If when you catch them you then elect to monetize, YouTube will pay you going forward, i.e., prospectively.  But I do not believe they will pay you retroactivelyfor the illegal use.  (There is a rumor that some music publishers do get paid retroactively under some settlement, but that needs to be confirmed.)

That means that YouTube is directly profiting from piracy for the retroactive views which could total into the hundreds of millions per day given the massive number of daily views on YouTube.  If you elect to monetize due to YouTube’s monopoly power, you are essentially releasing them from liability under duress.  If you catch them.

So YouTube takes your property, monetizes it, and refuses to pay you for how much they made before you caught them if you ever do catch them.  They dare you to sue them because you would be taking on the biggest company in commercial history that controls 90% of the access to information in the world and routinely defies governments.  Not everyone has the spine of Maria Schneider.

Failing to license at all or failing to pay retroactively means that YouTube profits from piracy by converting your property to their own.  And as Maria rightly points out, Google scrapes user data through non-display uses in the background even if YouTube is not monetizing overtly which they then use to compile user profiles in “millions of buckets” (which dribbled out before Judge Koh in the Gmail litigation (In Re: Google, Inc. Gmail Litigation,  Case No. 13-MD-02430-LHK, (U.S.D.C. N.D. California, San Jose Division, Sept. 26, 2013)).

In either case, the value of the amount converted or stolen should rightly include the value of these user profiles scraped in the background, as well as the advertising revenue.

And don’t forget that Google is controlled by Larry Page, Sergei Brin, and Eric Schmidt through their “supervoting” shares of stock.  It’s hard to believe that this YouTube policy was created without their blessing.

The simplest move for Google would be to simply pay both retroactively and (if the copyright owner elects to monetize) prospectively.  Otherwise, it seems like a huge number of crimes are going on in a very planned and organized way dreamed up by YouTube and Google employees.  “Dreamed up” is also called a conspiracy, and if there’s an actual conspiracy it’s not a theory (which came up in an interesting trade secret misappropriation RICO case against Google they managed to wriggle out of, at least for the moment).

The law has another word for organized theft at scale–we sometimes call it “racketeering.”

racketeering

 

Guest Post: The Royal Scam: Content ID and Google’s Massive Profits From Piracy and Crime

By Chris Castle

Google and YouTube have managed to create a scam that has gone both largely undetected and largely unpunished for a decade–illicit activity that can be both seen and quantified through the sale of advertising and is also unseen and unquantified through data scraping in the background.  (I leave it to you to speculate which is more valuable.)

It is rare for Google to get caught like they were with the massive multi-agency sting operation and grand jury investigation by the then-U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island that led to the $500,000,000 punishment and non prosecution agreement in 2011.  (Which led to a very expensive shareholder lawsuit against Google’s board of directors and bizarre settlement.  We’ll come back to the board of directors issue here.)

If you had to put your finger on a moment in time that Google began buying Washington in earnest, it was this sting.  It was also the closest that Larry Page ever came to going to prison with all its earthly delights.  That evidently got his attention.

Google has also faced down civil RICO claims for racketeering through the theft of intellectual property.  The last reported RICO case against Google offers a checklist for how to make a civil RICO claim stick against the Leviathan of Mountain View.  I like the YouTube case a lot better than the inventor’s case they beat back.

But most of the time Google just keeps the money when they get caught.  A prime example is YouTube’s standard practice of refusing to pay a revenue share retroactively after you catch them infringing your work using Content ID.  That unjust enrichment creates an incentive to sharply limit the number of artists or songwriters who get access to Content ID in the first place.  I think this is why Google massively overreacted to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s Civil Investigate Demand and subpoena that they never did respond to.  Maybe they were covering up the same crimes that got them prosecuted in Rhode Island and they did not want to go through that again.

And therein lies the rub and our topic today:  If Google never gets caught, Google quietly keeps all the money.   For our world, this happens because they’ve artificially limited the tools that independent creators can use to catch the massive infringements.  And even if the majors and a handful of independents get the Content ID tool, YouTube still has the incentive to make Content ID just good enough that they can say it works, but not so good as to actually stop the infringement before it starts.

The majors using Content ID have to employ still other means to catch them, sometimes manually, at great cost.  In fact, you have to wonder if net-net the total costs of administering the YouTube deals actually exceeds the minimum guarantee and royalty payable.  Those tools are simply beyond the reach of the creators, even the few who YouTube grants access to Content ID.

And of course, any user of Content ID (big or small) has to sign up to the take-it or leave-it shakedown deal that limits what you can do about it when you catch them.  Which is just another form of the protection rackets.

This criminal enterprise comes in two flavors (at least):  Ad sales for illegal products (like the drugs, counterfeit tickets and the like), and selling legitimate advertising around content that Google knows or should have known was illegal (like YouTube’s monetization of infringing works).  And, of course, Google scrapes data in the background on all these criminal activities to its great–and secret–profit.

As we saw with the drugs case, Google knew exactly what it was doing, and I’m not willing to believe their rudderless ad sales teams don’t also know exactly what they are doing (remember Google’s ad sales team gave credit terms to infringers, and the drugs sting operation also shows that they brainstormed many criminal dodges to deceive Google’s own best practices team).

What little evidence we can lay hands on in the open source demonstrates that Google must know very well that it engages in criminal behavior–why else was Eric Schmidt advised by then-counsel David Drummond to refuse to answer Senator John Cornyn’s questions regarding the drugs case when Schmidt testified before a 2011 Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing?  (Also known as “taking the Fifth.”)  After engaging in a weak attempt at misdirection.  Did they think this question wouldn’t come up so didn’t prepare for it?  I doubt that very much.  (If they cooked up this story without the lawyers, this might well have been a conspiracy.  Attorneys take note:  Crime/fraud execution?)

schmidt senate

Eric Schmidt Takes the Fifth on drugs case to Senator John Cornyn: ” I have been advised — unfortunately, I’m not allowed to go into any of the details and I apologize, Senator”

Now that the U.S. Senate is investigating the effectiveness of the safe harbors under DMCA, this would be a good time for the Department of Justice to investigate Google’s business practices and potential criminal activities.  Smells like RICO to me.

As independent composer (and MTP guest poster) Kerry Muzzey highlighted in his recent testimony before the United States Senate regarding Content ID:

My name is Kerry Muzzey, and I am a film and television and modern classical composer.

I am one of the very few independent artists who has access to YouTube’s Content ID system; and most of my experience with notice and takedown has been on YouTube. Content ID has become a core piece of my licensing business: it is the x-ray that reveals the theft of my music to me. This is why I am also nervous about speaking out today – because I fear retaliation by YouTube and Google. I am concerned that they may take Content ID away from me for raising my concerns publicly. The technology behind Content ID is nothing short of brilliant, and I don’t want to lose access to it.

Growing up, my mom always said: “You’re not allowed to complain unless you’re gonna do something about it.” Senators, my being here today is my “doing something about it.” Today, I have the most unique opportunity I have ever had in my lifetime. I have the opportunity to ask Members of my United States Senate to fix a broken law.

Let’s also not forget the way Google is governed (as is Facebook, Spotify and many others).   Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Eric Schmidt hold a special class of  “supervoting” shares, what SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson has called “corporate royalty”.

These insiders get 10 votes for every one share they own of a special class of supervoting stock.  This means that the insiders control over 60% of the voting stock and win all shareholder votes—including votes to appoint the board of directors.

Supervoting shares give insiders absolute control of Google–one of the most successful public companies in commercial history.  Because they control every aspect of Google’s operations, Google truly is their “alter ego.”  One purpose of Google’s lobbying spend must be to keep the corporate royalty out of prison.

These supervoting Google Class B shares are not available to the public.  The public can buy two classes of stock:  GOOGL shares are Class A (one vote per share) and GOOG shares are Class C (no votes per share).  (GOOG shares were issued in a dividend to GOOGL holders.)  GOOGL shares typically trade slightly higher than GOOG which may demonstrate that the market has priced in a lack of meaningful voting rights in GOOGL.

It should not be surprising that Google shareholder meetings are a one-way communication event. The supervoting corporate royalty tell the other shareholders how things are going to be and vote down any move by GOOGL holders to change the status quo—like converting supervoting shares into one share one vote.  As Floyd Norris reported in his New York Times “Economix” column, “Rarely has a shareholder vote been less suspenseful.”

So Google’s profit from evil is not an accident.  If Congress wants to fix the DMCA, let’s fix all of it.  And as U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha discovered ten years ago, that requires a grand jury.

 

Guest Post: Pandemic: @Music_Canada COVID Study Sets the Gold Standard for Reopening Data-Driven Policy

By Chris Castle

[This post originally appeared on MusicTechPolicy.]

MusicCanada commissioned an outstanding survey by Abacus Data using serious data-driven methodology to credibly measure the Canadian public’s experience with the COVID shut down of live music and expectation for reopening.  Instead of glorified “Who’s Hot”-level casual polls you see cropping up here and there, The Locked-Down Blues: Canadians, Live Music and the Pandemic sets the gold standard for the kind of data-driven serious national opinion study that policy makers can actually use to plan how to get out of this corner.

The study measures many different factors, including the more intangible questions of what trust level fans will require before they come back to live music.  Regardless of what distancing or contamination standards are imposed, none of that matters much if the fans don’t trust it enough to come out to hear live music in cities like Toronto and Austin.

For example, the study found this reaction:

DESPITE WANTING TO GO, CANADIANS, EVEN THOSE WHO LOVE LIVE MUSIC, SAY THEY WILL BE RELUCTANT TO GO BACK TO LIVE MUSIC EVENTS BEFORE A VACCINE FOR COVID IS FOUND.

Even if they are permitted to go to live music events, many Canadians, including those who love live music the most, will be reluctant to return for some time.

We asked respondents how soon they will feel comfortable enough doing several activities, once physical distancing restrictions are lifted. In almost all cases, fewer than 40% said they would feel comfortable in a few months or less. For most, the time horizon was much longer with many saying they may never feel comfortable again.

For example, 43% said it would take six months or more before they would feel comfortable going to a music festival or a concert in a large venue. Another quarter said they may never feel comfortable going to those types of events again.

I find it hard to believe that there’s going to be an appreciable geographical distinction between Canada and any other country on these issues.  But this study provides a gold standard for other studies in other countries, all of which should be done and done using a robust and defendable methodology.

So let’s be clear–this study is giving you the hard truth.  It is not some Chamber of Commerce hoorah or conclusion-driven clap trap.  It also tells us that the idea that you can just turn the lights back on and people will flock to the clubs may be looking at the wrong ball.  It has serious implications for the entire music industry across all genres.

But–it especially has serious implications for cities like Austin that get significant economic benefit from music tourism.  Given that the City of Austin commissioned the Austin Music Census in 2015, another robust data-driven study that produced  unwelcome dire conclusions,  it is astonishing that the blinking red light in the Census was completely ignored.  Not only were Austin musicians poorer than the City seemed to think they were, the entire local ecosystem was essentially dependent on live music.  For example, streaming was a negligible source of revenue for Austin musicians–think maybe someone would have wanted to look into that issue as a matter of industrial strategy?  And is there anything about the “Live Music Capitol of the World” that gives you a clue that maybe you might want to start thinking about why all the eggs were in that basket?  As Mark Twain said, if you’re going put all your eggs in one basket, watch that basket.  Or at least don’t ignore it.

Since the City did such a thorough job of ignoring the Census for so long, I wonder if they’re going to be able to figure out how to solve the current crisis.  Or if maybe somebody actually would like Austin to turn into just another college town with a Google campus, self-driving cars busily scraping rider data while stacked up on I-35 and Uber Eats Your Soul.

We can be grateful to Music Canada for commissioning this study and getting it out at the perfect time for policy makers to have some meaningful data driven reality conducted in a manner that could stand up to peer review like the Austin Music Census.  And show the world the gold standard for how to develop policies that actually solve a problem because you better know what the problem is you want to solve.

Here’s the survey:

 

 

Click to access Music-Canada-National-Survey-Interview-Schedule_Release.pdf

@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.

Guest Post @musictechpolicy: Another Bad Artist Relations Week for Spotify

By Chris Castle

Spotify released one of their groovy ad campaigns last week.  This time celebrating their freebie subscription campaign.

D_SMUJEW4AAwd6c

You really do have to wonder where they find the people who come up with these things.

Blake Morgan, David Lowery and David Poe all laid into Spotify with their own tweets.  Just like Lowery’s seminal “Letter to Emily” post, but much faster, social media began driving traditional media with the story.

Billboard, Newsweek, Variety and New Music Express all picked up the story in 24 hours, and many others are also picking up the story.  I did a short post that Hypebot connecting the dots from the giveaway campaigns to user-centric royalties.

But the capper was the Godwin’s Law moment when Spotify’s lawyer and NYU professor Christopher Sprigman went after both Blake and David Lowery on Twitter for reasons that are frankly lost on me.  Professor Sprigman had something of a bizarre moment when he compared Lowery to Alex Jones which culminated in this exchange (recall that Alex Jones was deplatformed):

Sprigman 1

It should not be lost on anyone that Professor Sprigman supported Professor Lessig’s losing argument in the Eldred v. Ashcroftcase and apparently was co-counsel with Lessig in another losing argument in the Kahle v. Gonzalescase.  It also must be said that David Lowery and Melissa Ferrick’s class action against Sprigman client Spotify and Lowery’s case against Rhapsody were probably among the most consequential copyright cases (along with BMG v. Cox)  in the last five years.  Some would say that the Lowery cases set the table for the Music Modernization Act (and it should come as no surprise that David was asked to serve on one of the committees).

So while Professor Sprigman may find that Lowery “isn’t important”, there is a crucial difference between Professor Sprigman’s big copyright cases and David’s.  Want to guess what it is?

Some are speculating that Sprigman is retaliating on Blake and David Lowery for their successful commentary on his client Spotify–but I’d want to see a lot more proof.  Until then, you’d have to say Charlie has a point when he says that Sprigman is kind of an academic Bob Lefsetz.

Sprigman 2

And Spotify stumbles across the finish line of another bad media week of dissing artists.  Whew. Thank God it’s Monday, right?

Guest Post: @musictechsolve: Betting on the House: Issues that House Judiciary Should Investigate Against Google–End Supervoting Shares for Publicly Traded Companies

by Chris Castle

The House Judiciary Committee announced recently that it was opening an antitrust investigation into “tech giants” including Google.  Chairman Jerry Nadler said:

[T]here is growing evidence that a handful of gatekeepers have come to capture control over key arteries of online commerce, content, and communications…Given the growing tide of concentration and consolidation across our economy, it is vital that we investigate the current state of competition in digital markets and the health of the antitrust laws.

We’re going to do a series of posts about some issues Chairman Nadler should consider in the Judiciary Committee’s review of Big Tech business practices.  These posts will cover issues that relate both to Google as well as Facebook, Spotify and some others.  Let’s start with reforming corporate governance and bring eyesight to the willfully blind.

1.   One Share, One Vote, Not Ten Votes for the Special People:  Anyone in the music business has had just about enough of government oversight from the consent decrees to rate setting to the Music Modernization Act, so I don’t recommend it as a solution in general.  But–in the absence of marketplace transparency, the government is about the only place to go to bring reforms to well-heeled corporations.  So rather than ask the government to fix specific problems on an ad hoc basis, the government would do well to ask what causes the market to fail as it clearly has with Google.  Then rip out that problem root and branch.

The first question to ask when confronted with all of Google’s overreach is where was the board?  That’s an easy question to answer in Google’s case–they were in the pockets of the insiders as you will see.  But we ask that question because corporate boards of directors are supposed to be the first line of oversight to keep companies, especially publicly traded companies, from running off of the rails.

In Google’s case, the core problem is both easy to find and (I hope) easy to fix.  It lies in the voting structure of the shareholders.  Shareholder rights and corporate charters are state law matters and don’t relate to the federal government, but–the federal government does have a say about who gets to sell shares to the public. (For those reading along at home, I’m thinking of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 under the jurisdiction of the Securities and Exchange Commission.)

The federal government also has an interest in protecting those who purchase the shares of publicly traded corporations.  It is this nexus that gives the House Judiciary Committee clear oversight authority over the corporate structure of at least publicly traded corporations.  Once a start up decides to feed from the trough of the public’s money, they should expect to answer to their public shareholders.

While anti-coup d’etat provisions might make sense for private companies whose investors are sophisticated financiers, or newspapers seeking to retain editorial independence, once that company is publicly traded a bald discrepancy that simply mandates voting power to the insiders forever seems like it has to go.  And as we have seen with Google, the lack of corporate oversight has resulted in unbelievable arrogance and a complete failure of corporate responsibility.  And worse yet, because Google got away with it, lots of other tech companies follow essentially the same model (including Facebook, Spotify and Linkedin).

Take stock buy backs for example, such as the $1 billion stock buy back announced by Spotify.  It must also be said that stock buybacks approved by a board where insiders who benefit from the buyback have supervoting shares and control the board is a practice that reeks to high heaven.  Buybacks and dual class supervoting shares have been widely criticized including by Securities and Exchange Commission Commissioner Robert Jackson who is also a critic of supervoting shares.

So how did Google come to give control to its insiders, essentially forever?  Google’s supervoting structure started when Google was a private company as a way for the founders to preserve control and avoid venture capital investors pushing them around.

OK, fine, I understand that. But once Google went public with their IPO that made those same insiders billionaires several times over, why should the insiders keep that level of control?

You may ask how that supervoting stock works?

Google (which is really its parent company, Alphabet) trades under two ticker symbols on the  NASDAQ: GOOGL Class A and GOOG Class C.

Oops.  What happened to Class B?  Ay, there’s the rub.

Class B shares are not publicly traded and are held by insiders only.  But as you will see, they control every aspect of the company.  So how do Google’s insiders get this share structure?  There’s actually a simple answer.  Class A shares (GOOGL) get one vote per share, Class B shares get 10 votes per share and Class C shares (GOOG) get no votes.

That’s right–Class B shares cannot be purchased and their holders get 10 times the voting power of the Class A holders, often called “supervoting” shares, because their super power is…well…voting.  (When sold, Class B shares convert to Class A shares.)

The Class C shares were created as part of a 1:1 stock split that doubled the number of shares, halfed the price per share, but resulted in no change of the voting power of the Class A and C shareholders.  Class A holders got double the shares but half the voting power post-split.

When the dust settled, the Google/Alphabet voting capitalization table looked something like this:

Class A: 298 million shares and 298 million votes, or roughly 40% of the voting power with votes counting 1:1.

Class B: 47 million shares and 470 million votes, or roughly 60% of the voting power with votes counting 10:1.

What this also means is that the holders of Class B shares voting as a bloc will never–and I mean never–be outvoted at a shareholder meeting, their board of directors will never be challenged much less replaced and shareholder meetings are a one way communication event where the insiders tell the stockholders how the insiders will spend their money.

Who controls the Class B shares?  I culled out some numbers for individual holders which may not be entirely accurate, but the individual holders are who you would expect.  These numbers shift around a bit depending on whose sold what (if you want to drill down, you can check the SEC’s Form 4 filings, such as this one for Sergey Brin).  These are the people that Commissioner Jackson might call the “corporate royalty“:

Larry Page: 20 million shares (as of 2017)

Sergey Brin: 35,300 Class B shares plus 35,300 Class A shares (as of 2018)

Eric Schmidt: 1.19 million Class B shares, 40,934 Class A shares, and 10,983 Class A Google shares, plus 2.91 million Class B shares through family trusts.

Sundar Pichai: 6,317 Class A shares and no Class B shares.

The House Judiciary Committee has a chance to correct the supervoting system as bad policy and implement a long-term fix across the board for all dual-class companies that want to trade on the public exchanges.

This means that the “corporate royalty” at Google, Facebook and Spotify would be much more accountable to shareholders which would help keep the company on the rails. I think that the Judiciary Committee might find that they are pushing on an open door at the SEC, especially with Commissioner Jackson.

The essential proposal is a simple tradeoff–if you want to keep supervoting stock, sell your shares privately to sophisticated investors under a registration exemption and don’t sell shares to the general public.  But if you want to sell shares to the public, keep your corporate governance at least arguably transparent and fair by sticking to one share one vote.

[A version of this post first appeared in Chris Castle’s MusicTech.Solutions blog]

 

UPDATE: Panel on The Pledge Music Crowdfunding Debacle

You’ve probably heard the news that PledgeMusic is fast approaching some kind of end.  You may have read Iain Baker of Jesus Jones story of the band’s encounter with Pledge here and hear.

Digital Music News reports giving a chronology of the events leading up to what seemed the inevitable fire sale result of “new boss” syndrome:

Now, a leaked e-mail has revealed how bad things truly are for Rogers’ company, and for artists who depended on the platform.

“Please, please, please buy PledgeMusic!  But, don’t worry.  You don’t have to pay back artists.”

Earlier this morning, Digital Music News received an interesting e-mail from an anonymous source.

FRP Advisory LLP, a UK business advisory firm, has been named the proposed administrator of PledgeMusic.com Limited and its subsidiaries (dubbed ‘The Group’).

With a pre-liquidation fire sale set to take place, FRP Assistant Manager Robbie Wirdnam has now sought “expressions of interest in the business and assets of the Group’ – i.e., PledgeMusic.

By way of introduction, I’m part of the corporate finance team at FRP and assisting my colleagues in the restructuring team, as the proposed administrators of PledgeMusic, in the marketing of the Group’s business and assets.  As you have previously looked at the opportunity on a solvent basis, I’m circling back to determine whether you have an interest in the business and assets for sale, ahead of an administration process.” [“Administration” in the UK is sort of like bankruptcy.“]

Wirdnam explains that the British crowdfunding platform faced two ‘pressures’ which ultimately lead to its demise – working capital pressures and a lack of ongoing funding.

This is serious stuff.  There’s potentially millions at stake and thousands of people worldwide who will be harmed, not only the artists but also fans and vendors, producers and songwriters.

UPDATE: As Jem Aswad in Variety notes in “PledgeMusic Nearing Bankruptcy, Although Sale Talks Continue“:

It should be noted that a buyer of PledgeMusic would be taking on the debts owed creditors, which include artists who launched programs with the company and owed money, which is estimated to be as much as $3 million total (here’s a small list of how much certain artists were owed, as of February). As the company has demonstrated in the past, tends to go to the most prominent, or at least the loudest, artists affected.

Hypebot also has a story on the FRP situation “Pledge enters pre-administration as buyer deliberates”:

UK based corporate advisory FRP has been named to contact potential buyers and value the company’s assets in pre-administration; while in parallel, the interested buyer finishes due diligence.

If no buyer steps forward within the week, PledgeMusic will likely enter Administration with FRP as the proposed administrator.

If you’re in Austin, Chris Castle is moderating a panel about Pledge with Jesse Moore and Peter Ruggero, two bankruptcy law experts.  The panel is co-hosted by the Austin Bar Association Entertainment & Sports Law and Bankruptcy sections  and titled “The Pledge Music Crowdfunding Debacle” on May 22.  Here’s the event description:

The panel will review the reported facts on the decline of PledgeMusic.com, a crowdfunding platform directed at independent artists, established artists with significant fan bases and labels.  PledgeMusic has taken in contributions from fans but has not paid out all or a significant portion of those funds to the artists for over a year. Many Texas consumers, artists and vendors have been affected by the company’s collapse.

The panelists will analyze the effects of this collapse on artists, the rights of consumers and vendors and the potential future outcomes if the company does not solve its financial crisis and seeks protection of the insolvency and bankruptcy laws.

As far as we know, this is the only response from the legal community so far.  Chris tells us that it is directed at artists, fans and vendors as well as lawyers.  $5 covers pizza and parking.

Deets are:

Wed, May 22, 2019
12:00 PM – 1:00 PM CDT

Austin Bar Association
816 Congress Avenue, Room # 700
Austin, TX 78701

Sign up with Eventbrite

 

 

Don’t Get Fooled Again: Piracy is still a big problem-MusicTech.Solutions

Guest post by Chris Castle (from MusicTech.Solutions)

I know it’s not very “modern,” but music piracy is still a huge problem.  As recently as yesterday I had a digital music service executive tell me that they’d never raise prices because the alternative was zero–meaning stolen.  (This demonstrates the downward effect on prices from massive piracy that David has noted many times on the Trichordist.)

Very 1999, but also oh so very modern as long as Google and their ilk cling bitterly to their legacy “safe harbors” that act like the compulsory licenses they love so much.  Except the safe harbor “license” is largely both royalty free and unlawful.  Based on recent data, it appears that streaming is not saving us from piracy after all if 12 years after Google’s acquisition of YouTube piracy still accounts for over one third of music “consumption.”  The recent victory over Google in the European Parliament indicates that it may yet be possible to change the behavior of Big Tech in a post-Cambridge Analytica world.

It’s still fair to say that piracy is the single biggest factor in the downward and sideways pressure on music prices ever since artists and record companies ceded control over retail pricing to people who have virtually no commercial incentive to pay a fair price for the music they view as a loss leader.  The current thinking seems to be that streaming will save us by having more users subscribe to music services at a price that reflects the market distortion of massive piracy.  In other words, less is more–the revenge of Chris Anderson.  Except now we are to treat the head of the tail as though it were the long tail.

On the other hand, if the Googles of this world were living up to their ethical responsibilities that should be the quid pro quo for the profits they make compared to the harms they socialize, then you wouldn’t see numbers like this chart from Statistica derived from IFPI numbers:

The good news is that there is a solution available–or if not a solution then at least a more pronounced trend–toward making piracy much harder to accomplish.  It may be necessary to take some definitive steps toward encouraging companies like Google, Facebook, Twitch, Amazon, Vimeo and Twitter to do more to impede and interdict mass piracy in return for the safe harbor they love so much and misuse every day.

Private Contracts:  It may be possible to accomplish some of these steps through conditions in private contracts that include sufficient downside for tech companies to do the right thing.  That downside probably should include money, but everyone needs to understand that money is never enough because the money forfeitures are never enough.

The downside also needs to affect behavior.  Getting Google to change its ways is a tall order.  Witness Google’s failure to comply with their nonprosecution agreement with the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice for violations of the Controlled Substances Act.  When the United States failed to enforce the NPA against Google, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sought to enforce Mississippi’s own consumer protection statutes against Google for harms deriving from that breach.  Google sued Hoodand he ended up having to fold his case, even though 40 state attorneys general backed him.

Antitrust Actions:  Just like Standard Oil, the big tech companies are on the path to government break ups as Professor Jonathan Taplin teaches us.  What would have been unthinkable a few years ago due to fake grooviness, the revolving door and massive lobbying spending all over the planet, in a post-Cambridge Analytica and Open Media world, governments are far, far more willing to go after companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.  At least in Europe where fines against Google for competition law violations exceed $5 billion.

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act Civil Prosecutions:  “Civil RICO” claims are another way of forcing Google, Facebook, Amazon & Co. to behave.  Google is fighting a civil RICO action in California state court.  Civil RICO may be a fertile solution against one or more of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

As we know, streaming royalties typically decline over time due to the fact that the revenues to be divided do not typically increase substantially (and probably because of recoupable and nonrecoupable payments to those with leverage).  At any rate, the increase in payable revenues is less than the increase in the number of streams (and recordings).

While it’s always risky to think you have the answer, one part of the answer has to be basic property rights concepts and commercial business reality–if you can’t reduce piracy to a market clearing rate, you’ll never be able to increase revenue and music will always be a loss leader for immensely profitable higher priced goods that artists, songwriters, labels and publishers don’t share be it hardware, advertising or pipes.

I strongly recommend Hernando de Soto’s Mystery of Capital for everyone interested in this problem.  The following from the dust jacket could just as easily be said of Google’s Internet:

Every developed nation in the world at one time went through the transformation from predominantly extralegal property arrangements, such as squatting on large estates, to a formal, unified legal property system. In the West we’ve forgotten that creating this system is what allowed people everywhere to leverage property into wealth.

What we have to do is encourage tech companies to stop looking for safe harbors and start using their know-how to encourage the transformation of the extralegal property arrangements they squat on and instead accept a fair rate of return.  My bet is that this is far more likely to happen in Europe–within 30 days of each other we’ve seen Europe embrace safe harbor reform in the Copyright Directive while the United States welcomed yet another safe harbor.

If we’re lucky, the European solution in the Copyright Directive may be exported from the Old World to the New.  And if Hernando de Soto could bring property rights reform to Peru in the face of entrenched extralegal methods and the FARC using distinctly American approaches to capital, surely America can do the same even with existing laws and Google.