Guest Post: Where is the Save Our Stages Money to #SaveOurStages? Texas Music Office Leads the Charge

By Chris Castle

We all breathed a bit easier when we heard that the $15 billion Save Our Stages legislation authored by Austin Rep. Roger Williams and Texas Senator John Cornyn had passed the Congress and was signed into law last December as part of the $2.3-trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. SOS is administered by the Small Business Administration and allows live performance venues, movie theaters, and talent agencies to apply for relief grants if they’ve lost at least 25% of their revenue due to the pandemic up to a maximum of $10 million. Venues employing fewer than 50 full-time (also known as every music venue I know of) can apply for a share of a $2 billion of the fund to cover payroll, rent, utilities, and insurance. 

The problem is that the Small Business Administration has failed to implement an application process so that venues can even apply–and months are going by.  As states reopen, thriving venues are going to be a big part of the economic recover, particularly in a state like Texas.  What’s even more bizarre than the SBA not having an application process in place (or bridge loans or something) is that the City of Austin has managed to distribute millions to the Austin music community while waiting for the legislation, which Rep. Williams and Senator Cornyn got through Congress in record time–which may be because Austin wants to keep the title of “Live Music Capitol of the World” when the live music business reopens.

It is very difficult to understand why the SBA is taking so long to distribute appropriated funds for federal legislation that was bipartisan and not controversial.  It’s not just me–Governor Abbot’s Texas Music Office s leading the charge to light a fire under the SBA.  

If you want to let you views be known, you can write to the SBA at advocacy@sba.gov contact your local members of Congress or your state and city economic development offices.

Here’s a letter from Texas Music Office Director Brendon Anthony to the head of the SBA asking for her to expedite the applications:

February 25, 2021

Tami Perriello, Acting Administrator
U.S. Small Business Administration
409 3rd St SW
Washington, DC 20416

Dear Acting Secretary Perriello:

Thank you for all that you do in service of the SBA, on behalf of  the American  people. And  thank  you for your organization’s steadfast work assisting small businesses across the state of Texas, and beyond, during the pandemic. At the TMO, we hear firsthand from our constituents that the daily work of the regional SBA offices has provided an invaluable lifeline of resources and information, supporting the livelihoods of countless hardworking Texans.

As Director of the Texas Music Office (TMO), a division of the Office of the Governor’s Economic Development & Tourism Office, my team and I represent the more than 210,000 constituents and their permanent jobs within the Texas music industry. We implore you to accelerate opening the application window for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Shuttered Venue Operators Grant in order to help provide a bridge to saving one of the first industries impacted by Covid -19 mitigation,and ultimately one of the last industries that will be able to fully re-open.

As of February 2020, combined, the music industry and music education in Texas directly accounted for $4.4 billion in annual earnings, and just over $ I 0.8 billion  in  annual  economic  activity.  The ripple effects associated with the direct injection related to music business and  music education  in Texas bring the total impact to $8.8 billion in earnings and $27.3 billion in annual economic activity.

Although most music fans around the world are familiar with our state’s largest music brands like Austin City Limits Festival and the SXSW Music Conference, it’s the small venues and historic dancehalls where Texas musicians cut their teeth which are currently impacted by closure. These hallowed venues are the testing grounds for our chart-topping artists like Beyonce, Selena, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Travis Scott, and so many more.

As each week passes, we lose more and more small music venues to permanent closure. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant will be a crucial stopgap to helping our state’s music industry survive, providing the state’s music venues a bridge to help them weather this catastrophic event

On behalf of the Texas Music Office and its constituents from all across the state, please take the necessary steps to open applications for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant so that the Texas music industry    and the thousands of individuals employed by the state’s small venues – may live to see another day, as the permanent closure of these venues would  be immeasurable  to our state’s economy and culture.

Brendon Anthony

Director, Texas Music 
Office Office of the Governor

The venues really need our help to pry loose the money from the SBA that has already been appropriated by Congress.  I don’t ask for this often, but the Trichordist audience is very effective at contacting their governments.  Remember, that’s advocacy@sba.gov

Results and Recommendations of the Artist Rights Watch MLC Awareness Survey

Guest post by Chris Castle

Our sister site Artist Rights Watch fielded a Mechanical Licensing Collective Awareness Questionnaire during January targeting songwriters attending our MLC webinar.  (MLC Awareness Questionnaire 1/31/21 n=120.)  The purpose of the questionnaire was to give the panelists some idea of the awareness level of attendees about the issues we intended to discussed based on early responses to the survey.  You can read the analysis of the responses here, but I’m going to discuss them briefly.

Of the 120 people who responded, responses suggest that approximately 70% of respondents personally handled the business and administration of their song catalogs, 50% were self-administered, and 50% administered song catalogs of 100 songs or fewer.  In other words, the majority of respondents were exactly the kind of self-administered songwriters or administrators we sought to connect with and who are eligible to stand for the MLC board seats devoted to self-administered songwriters if the right insiders nominate them .  We are still analyzing the geographic data, but about 16% were from California zip codes with the rest distributed across Texas, Georgia and other fly-over states predictably not represented on the MLC’s board of directors.

The basic questions about the MLC awareness we were trying to better understand were whether respondents even knew what we were asking about, and if so, how did they know.  This will help understand the success of the information efforts to date by the MLC, the DLC, and the Copyright Office.  We also wanted to know if respondents felt that they knew enough about the MLC to advocate for themselves with the MLC as an effectiveness metric for other educational efforts to date.

An encouraging 63% of respondents had heard of the MLC, but 22% had not.  Less encouraging was 6.67% who had both heard of the MLC and successfully registered and 4.17% who had heard of it but had not been able to register.

When asked how they had heard of the MLC, respondents were asked to respond to a list of potential sources, including “other”.  The largest source of information was “news media” at 27.35% and the next largest was “other”, which included a variety of sources including The Trichordist, Artist Rights Watch and MTP.  

However, given the other answers, the education efforts of the MLC (including HFA), the DLC and the Copyright Office did not seem to be making much penetration into these respondents, although the Copyright Office led the pack, sometimes by a lot.  This is curious because it’s not really the Copyright Office’s job and they are not being paid millions to do it.

MLC Quesion Source

As a measurement of the cumulative effectiveness of the educational outreach by the MLC, DLC and Copyright Office, we asked whether respondents felt they could advocate for themselves with the MLC.  60.83% answered “no” or that they “could use some help.”  This was surprising, and I would have preferred to see that number down in the single digits.

Of those who tried to register with the MLC, 15.38% of respondents successfully registered, 12.5% were told to use HFA, but 32% were “not sure” what they were told to do by the MLC.  I think that it’s safe to explore whether the data indicate that the educational outreach has resulted in an abysmally low registration rate.

For whatever reason, this language has appeared on the MLC’s website in recent days:

Prior to January 1, 2021, DSPs operating under a compulsory license were required by law to account to rightsholders on a monthly basis, within 20 days after the end of each month. Starting on January 1, 2021, DSPs operating under the new blanket license will have 45 days after the end of each month to send their usage reports and royalty payments to The MLC. The MLC will then take 30 days to perform its matching functions and calculate the royalties due to each of its Members. That means that The MLC will send out royalty payments and statements to Members roughly 75 days after the end of each monthly period. Because the total duration of the new distribution process will be longer than the old process, there will be a two month gap at the beginning of 2021 between the time rightsholders receive their last monthly statements and payments from DSPs under the old process and the time when they receive their first monthly statements and payments from The MLC under the new process. 

12% of respondents said that they were paid monthly and 60% of respondents were paid quarterly or “other” than monthly or quarterly.

We will be studying the responses over the coming weeks, but I had a few thought on the responses and a couple recommendations.  

  1. I’m going to ask if ARW can field the same questionnaire periodically to see how responses vary over time. UPDATE: ARW will be fielding a new survey with a few additional questions, you can participate at this link.
  2. It appears that of all the media the experts are using to get their messaging out, the one making the greatest penetration for mere awareness is news media.  However, respondent’s lack of confidence in their ability to register with the MLC as well as the low level of successful registrations hasn’t yet supported a conclusion that the experts’ well-funded efforts are producing greater MLC registrations or a greater understanding of how to register, or, and most importantly, actual registrations.
  3. There seems to be considerable confusion for whatever reason about someone else doing the registration for songwriters, be it administrator or publisher.  Outside of the survey, we have anecdotal evidence that songwriters are finding that their songs are not registered with the MLC after having been assured they would be by their publishers.  Because of the announced songwriter payment gap that the MLC anticipates in the first few months of its operations, songwriters may only find out they are not registered when their payments stop.

    Recommendation:  One technique I observed with a  SoundExchange information session was that artists were able to bring their laptops to a seminar where they were literally walked through the SoundExchange registration process step by step after the informational Q&A session concluded.  Even during COVID this could be accomplished using screen share.  

    By using this technique, the MLC could make sure that the end result of their webinars, etc., was that songwriters or publishers registered works and learned how to do so for the remainder of their catalog.  Plus they knew who to call if they had any problems or further questions.  This takes time, but the whole process takes time and you’re only fooling yourself if you think otherwise, to be blunt. I would say that it matters less how these people managed to waste two years in which they could have been doing this than it does to fix the problem right here, right now.  Do not let them tell you that the need only arose on the License Availability Date of 1/1/21 because that is just a CYA lie.

    Recommendation:  The experts should make a focus of their messaging a very clear statement that if you don’t register you will not get paid.  That is the harsh reality.  By hiding that ball, they do everyone a disservice.  Maybe an unregistered songwriter will eventually be able to claw their royalty back from the black box at some point in the future, but in the time of COVID, that claw back comes with a mortality rate.

    Recommendation:  No accrued but unpaid royalties for the first two or three years of the MLC’s operations should be able to be placed in the black box.  Not that they wait to pay out black box for 3 years, but they cannot use any of this money for black box–ever.  Like state unclaimed property offices, they hold the money forever.  The reason is that there is a greater than 50% chance that the reason funds are unmatched is because of the MLC’s startup missteps, not anything the songwriter did.  

Save the Date! January 14 at Noon CST, Zoom Panel with @musictechpolicy @northmusicgroup @sealeinthedeal for Independent Songwriters

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is https%3A%2F%2Fcdn.evbuc.com%2Fimages%2F122288515%2F87998774455%2F1%2Foriginal.20210105-173522

By Chris Castle

I’m grateful to Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts, Austin Texas Musicians and the Austin Music Foundation for hosting an information webinar next week on the impact of the new blanket mechanical license under the Music Modernization Act on independent songwriters. We will also cover the nuts and bolts of dealing with The MLC, Inc. and a unit on the Digital Licensee Coordinator.

I couldn’t be happier to have two great panelists in music publisher and song data solver Abby North and my fellow Austin music lawyer Gwen Seale.

While this panel has an Austin origin, the topics are not Austin-centric and will apply to all songwriters in the world just like the MLC does.

Please RSVP to Eventbrite if you think you might attend at this link and also take a moment to complete the anonymous 10 question MLC Awareness Questionnaire on Survey Monkey at this link. The Zoom code to join will be posted through Eventbrite.

I’ll be posting some other materials, but for those who want the more nitty gritty background, you can read this package of documents at this link.

The DLC Finally Confirms (Sort Of) How Much is in the MMA Black Box–Bigger than a breadbox

By Chris Castle

[This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

We’ve all heard rumors about how much is in the “inception to date” black box at the digital music services. The main reason that nobody knows is another example of the dismal drafting of the Music Modernization Act.

Limitation on Liability

Wouldn’t you think that if the class actions against Spotify gave the insiders the leverage to negotiate the MMA giveaway that they could at least have gotten an immediate accounting from the services for how much of the songwriters’ money they’ve been holding all these years? But no, it’s sleepy time in Washington yet again. From the Land of Frozen Mechanicals they bring you more Brinksmanship 101. The retroactive black box payment is due to be made by the services to the MLC and its data vendor, HFA–remembering that HFA was also the data vendor for at least some of the services that created the black box in the first place.

limitation on liability 2

However, there is some activity at the Copyright Office now about how to get this money paid. It’s at the Copyright Office because while drafting the aircraft carrier revision to the Copyright Act (aka Title I of the Music Modernization Act), the hard parts were never drafted and were left to the Copyright Office to handle through regulations. Musicians–you’ve seen this before. This is the Washington version of “we’ll fix it in the mix.” So you do have feel sympathy for the Copyright Office in the situation when all the smart people leave them twisting in the breeze.

Not that I necessarily believe this number, but for the first time the services have given a bigger than a breadbox idea of how much is in the black box. The DLC’s lawyers filed an “ex parte” letter in which they made that revelation (along with the known universe: Artist Rights Alliance Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Digital Licensee Coordinator Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Mechanical Licensing Collective Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Music Artists Coalition Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Nashville Songwriters Association International Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)National Music Publishers’ Association Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Recording Academy & Songwriters of North America Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020)Songwriters Guild of America et al. Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 18, 2020).)

The DLC itself is at the mercy of its members in terms of revealing this number but they claim the following in the Digital Licensee Coordinator Ex Parte Letter (Nov. 17, 2020):

DLC also provided a rough estimate of accrued royalties that are available to be transferred to the MLC, based on a limited survey of a subset of DLC members at a particular point in time, and with the crucial caveat that the precise amounts are in flux as digital music providers continue to engage in robust matching efforts. Specifically, DLC estimated that several hundred million dollars were available to be transferred to the MLC as accrued royalties, even after accounting for the derecognition of accruals based on preexisting agreements containing releases to claims for accrued royalties.

DLC also explained that the accruals that were derecognized because copyright owners were paid and provided releases were a fraction of that amount—on the order of tens of millions of dollars.

So now we know at least that much. We know there are “several hundred million” dollars at issue in the black box and we generally know where the money is. We may know that DLC members hold the money. We also know that this money has not been identified, but we at least know enough to get the nose of the camel in the tent.

Guest Post: The False Double Payment Bottom of the MMA Black Box

By Chris Castle

[T-Editor says: This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

The Dog Who Didn’t Bark On the Mirror

There seems to be some concern about pre-Music Modernization Act confidential lump sum payments of accrued black box monies under direct licenses or settlement agreements.  Services are promoting the idea that these payments must be deducted from the cumulative black box payments required for services to get the benefit of the limitation on liability and reach back safe harbor. 

That limitation on liability, of course, comes with a condition that the services use “good faith, commercially reasonable efforts” to match works to copyright owners.  Uses that remain unmatched are then turned over to the Mechanical Licensing Collective for matching and distribution.

The Digital Music Providers [“DMPs”] are now promoting the payment of black box as an option for which they can elect to take the limitation on liability.   The Digital Licensee Coordinator [representing the DMPs] tells us “If the regulations make it less likely that a DMP will be able to rely on that liability protection when it needs iti.e., if it increases the risk that a court would deem a DMP to not have complied with the requirements in section 115(d)(10)—a DMP could make the rational choice to forego the payment of accrued royalties entirely, and save that money to use in defending itself against any infringement suits.”

The SOCAN company MediaNet tells us that absent some aggressive concessions by the Congress to essentially re-write the Copyright Act in their favor, “MediaNet may decline to take advantage of the limitation on liability, which may deprive copyright owners of additional accrued royalties.”  

The DMPs have somehow managed to convince themselves that payments of unallocated sums under settlement agreements (which they weren’t required to match before the MMA) and payments of unallocated sums under the MMA’s black box (which they are required to match under the MMA) are a “double payment.”  While easy to say, “double payment” makes it sound like someone paid twice for the same thing.  That would be bad if it were true.  

But it’s not.

Betting and Strangers

Certain DMPs and certain publishers made settlement agreements of prior unpaid royalties.  We don’t know exactly what gave rise to those agreements but we do know that they covered unmatched (and therefore unallocated) black box payments.  Because the payments were unmatched, they were necessarily a lump sum payment to the participating publisher (although the amounts may have been reduced by commissions for administering the lump sum distributions under so-far confidential settlements).  

At the time of the settlement, nobody did the work to match the unallocated.  This is important for at least two reasons:  Because the works were not matched, the lump sum couldn’t have been allocated to specific works owned by strangers to the settlement.   Therefore there was no initial payment to those strangers, the strangers were not represented in the transaction, the strangers did not authorize the settlement of their claims, and there was no legal basis for the parties to settle ripe but inchoate claims the strangers could have made had they been asked.

The lump sum settlement was evidently based on market share of the then-unallocated black box.  Market share payments would be a typical way to avoid doing the work of matching.  It’s like a DMP saying to a publisher “I’ll make you a bet—if you have 10% market share of the known knowns, I’ll bet that the most I owe you for then known unknowns is 10% of the cash value of the unallocated black box.  Particularly if you are the first payment.”

Why not do the matching at the time?  We’ll come back to that.  

Betting Secrecy

The settling publisher feels they made a good bet and accepts the terms.  The DSP adds one additional post closing condition—the bet must be secret.  The settling publisher will likely voluntarily distribute the monies to their own songwriters on a ratio of earnings (similar to market share), so it can’t be entirely secret.  And there are no secrets in the music business.  But given these realities, why must the bet be secret?  

To keep the strangers to the bet in the dark.

If the bet is announced, strangers to the bet may decide they need to look into how much they are owed.  They may not be willing to take a bet.  They may want what the statute contemplates—good faith commercially reasonable efforts to actually match.

After the DMPs negotiated their safe harbor in the MMA—remembering that the black box payment was never sold to songwriters as optional—it became apparent that all the strangers were now going to be paid for all the uses that were never matched as a part of the lump sum bet.  All the DMPs efforts to keep the strangers in the dark were going to be exposed.  And exposed all at once.  To what end is this secrecy?  Probably for the same reason the DMPs have never posted the unmatched (unlike Royalties Reunited or the AFM-SAG/AFTRA Trust Funds.

Who’s At Fault?

The settling publishers have done absolutely nothing wrong here.  They could have pressed for matching but chose to take the bet.  Could be high, could be low, but seemed like a good bet at the time.  

Plus, by making the bet, they did not take anything away from strangers.  The DMPs still owed an obligation to the strangers.  The settling publishers did not owe the strangers anything.  

This is why the bet is not a double payment so long as the settling publishers are not claiming any uses that were released and settled, which they are not as far as we can tell.  

If the DMPs made a bad bet, that’s on them.  

The DMPs cannot now reduce a cumulative unmatched black box by the prior bets they made.  And of course, as transactions are matched, the unknown knowns become known knowns and are paid out.  In order to accomplish the purpose of the statute, all the transactions must be reported. 

The MMA “deal” was for cumulative payment of the black box.  If settling publishers end up having matched works in the black box—when the unknown become known—those per-transaction payments can be offset to the extent they were covered by a prior release agreed to by a bettor.

But what they cannot do is simply say I made a bet with these guys, so I’m going to claw that back from what I owe to other people who are strangers to the bet.  That’s not a double payment either to the bettor or the stranger to the bet.

Letter of Misdirection

I also do not understand a conversation about letters of direction in this context.  As known unknowns get matched, the DMP should render a statement.  

If the known unknown becomes a known known, that statement will reflect at a minimum the title, copyright owner and the usage as well as whatever other metadata the regulations require.  The now known knowns will either be payable as matched works or have already been covered by a settlement and release for the corresponding period.

In the former case, the payable royalty will be available.  In the latter case, the royalty will have already been paid as part of the settlement.  If that settlement royalty is included in the corresponding black box, that settled usage would be deducted as already paid, which would have a corresponding reduction in the total amount of accrued but unpaid royalties.  That’s not a letter of direction, that’s an offset against otherwise payable royalties due to matching.  

Alternatively, the settling publisher would not be allowed to make a claim for the periods subject to the release because they have no live claims, assuming a total settlement and release for the corresponding accounting period.

Said another way, whatever transactions are in the pending file stay in the pending file with accrued royalties until claimed.  Prior settlements can only be deducted from the transaction lines in the pending file that are for songs owned or controlled by publishers that fall under a prior settlement.  

Tolling the Statute of Limitations

The way the DMPs have actually harmed the strangers is by keeping quiet on this idea that the reach back safe harbor is optional.  They could have raised this issue during the drafting of MMA and after.  But they waited until they had scared away anyone except Eight Mile Style from suing while in theory statutes of limitations ran out starting on 1/1/18 at a minimum.  They used the MMA as a kind of in terrorem stick.

That is grossly unfair.  This has to be changed so that strangers who didn’t make the bet, who didn’t get the payment, and who were silent with their ripe claims since 1/1/18 are not harmed.  

It’s all fine for the DLC to say they do a cost benefit analysis and elect not to take the safe harbor while allowing strangers to be duped.  They should not be able to fool both Congress and the strangers.  Any statute of limitations running since 1/1/18 should be tolled, perhaps under the Copyright Office emergency powers.

Songwriter Black Box Payments

It is rare for a songwriter to have a royalty claim on unallocated catalog-wide payments such as black box monies absent a specific negotiated deal point.  This is a point of some contention with songwriters, so the Copyright Office should look into it as part of the black box study if nothing else.

This black box issue that keeps coming up may be many things, but a double payment it’s not.  

Chris Castle’s Copyright Office Comments on the Black Box Controversy

Here’s some more MLC news you’ll never read about in the trade press.

Yesterday we posted a shocking revelation from the MediaNet/SOCAN ex parte letter to the Copyright Office: It appears that the digital music services have no intention of complying with the much ballyhooed benefit to the Music Modernization Act–in return for the “reach back” safe harbor that somebody decided to grant the services retroactively, the services would pay over (or you could say “disgorge”) all the unmatched and unpaid mechanical royalties that they were holding, sometimes for years, and always secretly. (Adding insult to injury, MediaNet seems to think that referring to SOCAN’s ownership of MediaNet somehow makes screwing us over into a songwriter-friendly act of good fellowship and felicity. More likely, SOCAN itself knows nothing about it.)

Remember, MediaNet straight up threatened to decline the reach back safe harbor and not pay over the black box. As it turns out, MediaNet’s position is not unique–as Chris Castle identified in his reply comment on the Copyright Office’s black box study, all of the services represented by the DLC made that exact threat to the Copyright Office. As Chris observes, these are not idle threats. They are made by the biggest corporations in commercial history, one of which may be broken up due to antitrust investigations on two continents.

Something must be done and done quickly before the DLC decides to take the blanket license without the limitation on liability for past infringements having successfully scared off anyone who could have sued but didn’t thinking that there was a fixed reach back safe harbor. That seems like it will result in the big guys having paid off the big guys in the NMPA’s secret settlement that was being negotiated simultaneously with the MMA (the NMPA’s umbrella December 17, 2017 Pending and Unmatched Usage Agreement referenced in the MediaNet ex parte letter and talked around in other filings. Remember–the MMA was introduced a few days after the secret NMPA agreement on December 21, 2017 and Wixen Music Publishing felt they had to sue Spotify by December 31, 2017 because of the reach back safe harbor. So everyone except the songwriters–and perhaps most Members of Congress–seems to have known that the fix was in on black box.)

Another fine mess they got us into. Here’s the except from Chris Castle’s reply comment:

The DLC’s Quid Pro Quo Revelation

The concept of a “black box” distribution is a pale mimic of a simple
fact: It is not their money. The fundamental step that Title I excuses
is basic and would solve much of the unmatched problem if Title I did
not exist: Don’t use a work unless you have the rights.

It is a fundamental aspect of copyright licensing and it is not metaphysical.
Yet the message from all negotiators concerned in this process seems
to shelter legitimacy in a complication of dangers to the black box that
come down to another simple fact: Obey and be quick about it or the
law will take your money and give it to someone else.

How much is in the black box? They won’t tell you. From where? Not
your business. From when? Confidential. Is it yours? Already paid it
to someone else before you even knew it was there. And Lord knows
that money once taken incorrectly in the dark is unlikely to be paid
correctly in the light.

Comments by the DLC demonstrate conclusively that addressing the
black box has taken on even greater urgency. The DLC’s Initial
Comment in a related docket is unusually revelatory for a group with a
multitrillion dollar market capitalization that loves them some
protective orders. This passage is particularly breathtaking:

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

If that were “the deal” it is news to me, and I like to think that I’ve
been reading along at home pretty attentively. If I wasn’t aware of
“the deal”, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my ignorance, but I’m far more
understanding of why the negotiators would have been motivated to
keep “the deal” under wraps if that’s really what it was.

If “the deal” wasn’t kept quiet, someone might have asked why there
was a “deal” when the services were simply agreeing to pay money
they already owed and that they were already obligated to pay for infringements that already occurred. Yet, services still got the new
safe harbor trophy to put on the wall in the copyright hunting lodge
next to the DMCA and Section 230.

The gall doesn’t end there, however. The DLC goes on to make this
threat of imminent harm:

[The “deal”] is a crucial point for the Office to keep in mind as it
crafts rules in this space. If the regulations make it less likely
that a DMP will be able to rely on that liability protection when
it needs it—i.e., if it increases the risk that a court would deem a
DMP to not have complied with the requirements in section
115(d)(10)—a DMP could make the rational choice to forego the
payment of accrued royalties entirely, and save that money to
use in defending itself against any infringement suits.

It is a bit odd that the DLC seems to think of Title I as their private
contract, but there it is. The DLC members’ anticipatory repudiation
of the purported deal that the world now knows underpins Title I was
both refreshingly brazen and starkly shocking. Given that the Eight
Mile Style
case against DLC member Spotify (and both Spotify and
The MLC’s vendor the Harry Fox Agency) is a live action, the DLC is
not making an idle threat. The DLC tells us that if its market cap isn’t quite high enough to suit, Spotify could immediately dip into the black
box for “money to use in defending itself.”

The relationship with the services apparently has settled into the
customary laying about with threats and blackguarding both
songwriters and the Copyright Office. That’s reassuring in confirming
that human nature hasn’t actually changed and these companies really
were the Data Lords we had always known our betters to be after all,
sure as boots.17 Maybe one day the scorpion really won’t sting the frog.
Maybe another “unity dinner” is in order. But not today.

Regardless, it is clear that the Copyright Office is almost the only place
that songwriters can go for relief and an explanation of how the MMA
is to be implemented whatever secret deal the DLC now purports to
have made. Given the DLC’s unequivocal threat on behalf of its
members, there is no doubt of the imminent danger that the black
box currently being held is about to vanish into thin air if something
isn’t done immediately to preserve the status quo. The balance of
hardships pretty clearly tilts in favor of the songwriters as the safe
harbor services control the money and always have.

Notes and Materials on TikTok from MusicBiz Conference

By Chris Castle

I was pleased to moderate a panel on TikTok’s situation for the Music Business Association with an all-star panel of experts on September 25. You can access our voluminous panel materials here including the panelists biographies.

The following is my opening statement followed by the panel outline with some page number cross references to the panel materials.

Opening Statement

TikTok has become a major marketing tool for artists in the music business.  It has also been accused of some pretty serious consumer issues as well as massive copyright infringement.  We care what happens to TikTok for many of the same reasons we cared about what happened to Napster—ideally we would bring TikTok into a professional business reality that is safe for fans and where artists and songwriters can be paid.  In other words, we come here to save TikTok, not to bury it.

It appears that a potential deal with TikTok could be unraveling.  See your materials at p. 92 for a summary of deal points.  It’s a bit cloudy to decipher the positions of the parties without pre and post money cap tables, but we try.  

What we know is that the Commerce Department has delayed the ban on downloading new versions of TikTok until midnight Sunday.  TikTok has asked a federal court to block the download ban, and DC District Court Judge Carl Nichols told the US Government yesterday that it has until 2:30 pm ET to show cause why they need the ban or the Court will hold a hearing Sunday morning.  TikTok’s official statement is a p. 91 in your materials. UPDATE: After the MusicBiz panel, Judge Nichols granted a preliminary injunction allowing TikTok to be downloaded and holding that TikTok’s operations fit in a loophole. Read the order here.

In China, the Chinese government recently changed its technology export controls to cover TikTok.  TikTok is required to obtain government approval of the deal by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Commerce which it has not yet granted.  The Chinese Communist Party has “slammed the deal as ‘dirty and unfair’” and “modern piracy” according to the Wall Street Journal.   

So there’s that.

TikTok is the subject of a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (or “CFIUS”) which is a cabinet level group that reviews M&A activity from a national security perspective.  CFIUS was established by Congress in 1988 as an amendment to the Defense Production Act of 1950. (See p. 83 of the panel materials)

As a matter of process, CFIUS conducts a review of a covered transaction and makes a recommendation to the President about whether the transaction should be approved or unwound based on national security concerns, including data security.  

CFIUS review can be also be done before an acquisition, but Bytedance elected not to request a pre-acquisition review by CFIUS which created substantial investment risk for Bytedance shareholders as we have seen play out with TikTok.

CFIUS has required divestment of various acquisitions in the past decades, such as Aixtron, Ralls, Mamco, StayInTouch, Qualcomm, PatientsLikeMe, Grindr, and Moneygram.  

CFIUS review of Bytedance is based on the company’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly.  CFIUS concluded that the acquisition “threatens to impair the national security of the United States” and recommended divestiture.  The CFIUS review began November 1, 2019, which resulted in two executive orders requiring the divestiture of Musical.ly or substantial mitigation to satisfy CFIUS requirements (extensively covered in Sec. 2 of the August 14 Executive Order.  (p. 76 of materials).  

There has been some negotiation of a potential sale of TikTok which is premised on two opposing views:  The US will not permit TikTok to operate in the US unless it is controlled by 

Americans, all data is hosted in the U.S. meeting CFIUS inspections, and US companies have access to all TikTok’s technology.  The position of the government of the Chinese Communist Party is essentially the opposite of the U.S. view.

If a resolution cannot be reached, the President has the power to stop Americans from engaging in transactions of any kind with TikTok under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act which would apply to employees, vendors, advertisers and users.  (Cited in 8/14 Executive Order and discussed at p. 65)

And even if TikTok can get past the CFIUS problems, it still has to deal with its failure to license substantial numbers of copyrights, and that implicates a foreign infringer’s ability to use various safe harbors to copyright.  The copyright infringement issues will extend outside of the U.S. and we will discuss implications for Canadian artists and potential class actions against TikTok.

It must also be noted that there is currently a class action against TikTok in Illinois for child endangerment and violations of child privacy protections through TikTok’s biometric data collection.  Of course, TikTok already paid the largest fine in FTC history for violations of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.  We won’t discuss this topic today, but relevant documents are included in your materials at p. 177.

There’s also the potential for a TikTok IPO to be blocked because China refuses to comply with US public company accounting standards based on national security concerns (which essentially means any government contract).  This makes it impossible to compare Chinese and all other public companies, and opens the door to financial fraud such as with Luckin Coffee.  The Senate has passed the “Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act” and the bill is sponsored in the House by Rep. Brad Sherman.  (At p 105 in the materials).  It is doubtful that the Chinese government would allow TikTok to comply with that US law either.

Closer to home, commenters have asked whether TikTok should be permitted to operate without implementing infringement controls at least as strong as YouTube’s Content ID and a transparent repeat infringer policy.  But first, we will discuss the functionality of TikTok and how we got to this place.

Panel Topics

1.  TikTok Data Functionality:  Trent Teyema and Chris (10 mins) (p. 83)

–What about TikTok creates a national security problem for a CFIUS review?

—What is the connection between Bytedance, TikTok and the Chinese government?

—How does China’s National Intelligence Law create requirements of TikTok executives to disclose user data?

—What is involved in a CFIUS pre-clearance?

2.  The TikTok Executive Orders:  Rick Lane and Chris (10 mins) (p. 75) (TikTok statement p. 91)

—What is the legal authority for the EO?

—Does the Oracle and Walmart investment solve TikTok’s data security problem?

—Has TikTok already engaged in or promoted election interference?

—What safe harbors does TikTok benefit from under US law?  Section 230 and DMCA

3.  Copyright Infringement on TikTok: Chris and Gwen Seale (10 mins) (p. 130)

—What is the functionality that creates copyright infringement on TikTok?

—Is TikTok eligible for the new blanket mechanical?

—Is TikTok eligible for DMCA protection?

—How does TikTok’s DMCA takedown process work?  

—How extensive are TikTok’s licenses?

—Should TikTok be allowed to continue operations without implementing a system at least as effective as YouTube’s Content ID and CMS?

—How does TikTok’s infringement problem compare to Napster? To Spotify class action?

4.  Copyright Infringement Class Actions in the US and Canada: Chris and David Sterns (10 mins) (p. 138)

—Compare US copyright infringement class action in Lowery v. Spotify to TikTok

—Discuss Canada’s UGC exception, non-commercial and moral rights issues

—Compare US vs. Canadian class actions for copyright infringement

5. Discussion:

—Impact of allowing foreign companies using safe harbors like 230 and DMCA in US.  US/UK bilateral US/EU bilateral.

—Can a US TikTok IPO be blocked based on accounting standards, see Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, SOX, and Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act

Today: Music Biz Association Panel: Buyer Beware: What Does the Legal Future Hold for TikTok?

Chris Castle will moderate a panel entitled “Buyer Beware: What Does the Legal Future Hold for TikTok?” as part of the Music Business Association’s Entertainment & Technology Law Conference today at 1:35 pm ET.  Sign up here, registration fee is required.

The all-star panel has experts from inside and outside the music business:

  • Rick Lane, CEO, Iggy Ventures, LLC
  • Gwendolyn Seale, Attorney, Mike Tolleson & Associates
  • David Sterns, Partner, Sotos Class Actions
  • Trent Teyema, Principal, Global Threat Management

The panel will discuss the legal basis for the TikTok sale and potential ban as well as TikTok’s massive infringement problems.  The focus will be on understanding how we got here and what exposure TikTok will have even after a sale.

If you can’t make the panel, Chris has promised to make the panel materials available next week.

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

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

Quality Control of The MLC’s Operations and Platforms

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

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

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

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

Mr. Thompson also stated at the December 2019 panel:

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

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

Mr. Thompson also stated:

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

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

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

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

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

As the House Judiciary Committee stated:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Kickoff Transcript at 40 ln 2.

[4] Kickoff Transcript at 40-41.

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

[6] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(3)(J)(iii).

[7] House Report at 8.

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

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