Black Box Hunting: The Songwriters Guild/Society of Composers & Lyricists/Music Creators North America’s Ex Parte Letter Stands Up for Transparency

[Editor T says: Remember when songwriters were promised that the Music Modernization Act was going to solve all your problems—AND give you a set of steak knives? Remember? Never needs ironing? And doubles on sax? One big feature was digital music services paying up to the Mechanical Licensing Collective for matching the entire black box from “inception” meaning all the money a service ever held that their data vendors couldn’t match and weren’t paid to try very hard, especially Spotify aka “defendant”. Who was that data vendor who couldn’t match? HFA. And who is the MLC’s data vendor? HFA. So the last couple weeks the insiders have been back-tracking behind closed doors at the Copyright Office on how–or if–that black box will be paid to songwriters. The only way you’d ever know this was happening is if you were paying very close attention to the Copyright Office “ex parte” letters. (sign up for email alerts there.) The Songwriters Guild/SCL/MCNA group is the songwriter’s junkyard dog with their teeth sunk in the tuchus of the insiders. We’ll be posting a selection of these recent “ex parte” letters which publicly document private conferences held by the Copyright Office with “stakeholders”. “Everyone’s a winner, bargains galore….the large print giveth and the small print taketh away” as Tom Waits said.]

EX PARTE MEETING SUMMARY WITH

THE UNITED STATES COPYIGHT OFFICE

Docket Number 2020-12

November 18, 2020

Re: Summary of the November 13, 2020 Ex-Parte Meeting Between the United States Copyright Office on behalf of the following independent, US-based music creator organizations: the Songwriters Guild of America, Inc. (SGA), the Society of Composers & Lyricists (SCL), and Music Creators North America, Inc. (MCNA)

On Friday, November 13, 2020, an ex-parte video-conference meeting was conducted by the United States Copyright Office (USCO) with multiple interested parties concerning rulemakings in connection with Doc. No. 2020-12. This summary is submitted on behalf of SGA, SCL and MCNA (together, the “Independent Music Creator Organizations” or “IMCOs”), all of which were represented at the meeting. Attending for SGA were President Rick Carnes, outside counsel Charles Sanders, and outside legislative consultant Marla Grossman of the American Continental Group (ACG). Attending for SCL was President Ashley Irwin. Attending for MCNA was President Eddie Schwartz. The meeting was chaired on behalf of the USCO delegation by its General Counsel, Regan Smith.

Individuals representing the IMCOs began by respectfully stressing, as they had in their ex parte tele-conference with the USCO on September 11, 2020, the bedrock principle that independent music creators speak for themselves on all issues related to their rights and interests, and that no other music community groups have the right or authority to claim otherwise. Specifically, the IMCOs rejected the assertion by some music publisher representatives (backed by at least one of their affiliated songwriter groups) that the USCO’s oversight and rulemaking authority concerning matters related to 2020-12 should be viewed as being narrowly limited.

The IMCOs have stressed on multiple occasions through their USCO Comments a strong belief that Congress, by its very construction of the Music Modernization Act (MMA), intends the Office to have broad and expansive authority to oversee and guide the implementation of the MMA by the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC). That is especially so in regard to ensuring transparency, reliability and fairness regarding the safeguarding of music creator rights, the class of persons for whom the MMA was most clearly enacted to protect pursuant to Article I Section 8 of the US Constitution.

The main issue of concern addressed at the November 13, 2020 meeting was the oversight and disposition of accrued, unmatched royalties collected and held by Digital Music Providers and subsequently distributed pursuant to private negotiated agreements with music publishers. It is believed by the IMCOs that as regards those agreements and royalties, some or all of the parties thereto were very likely aware at the time of negotiation and execution, that (i) such confidential agreements and payments concerned royalties accrued from the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of musical works owned by unrelated third parties; (ii) little to no effort had been made to properly identify rightful ownership, and (iii) such accruals might soon be subject to payment rules under the MMA that would require strictly delineated sharing of such “permanently” unmatched royalties with music creators by music publishers (including a minimum floor of 50%) after the conducting by the MLC of bona fide searches for rightful owners.

Further assertions were made by the IMCOs at the meeting that after three years of discussions, still no informed estimate had yet been made by Digital Music Providers of the aggregate amounts of unmatched royalties both still being held and already distributed. Thereafter, one knowledgeable representative of Digital Music Providers estimated that while there remain hundreds of millions of dollars in accrued, unmatched royalties in the possession of the Digital Music Providers, tens of millions of dollars in accrued unmatched royalties were indeed turned over directly to music publishers pursuant to the terms of the confidential, private negotiated agreements.

As was also made clear during the meeting, the IMCOs have no direct information as to the content of such private negotiated agreements, and no direct information as to what became of the unmatched royalties such music publishers received.

Several music publishers have claimed in ex parte letters to the USCO that they indeed shared such unmatched royalties with their affiliated music creators, but no specific information has been provided as to the methodology and details of such sharing, including whether the principles and and guarantees eventually set forth in the MMA as enacted were applied.1 Moreover as the IMCOs reported at the meeting, an informal and ongoing process of canvassing creators currently being conducted by each MCNA member organization have yet to confirm a single instance in which a songwriter or composer received a royalty statement indicating that portions of such accrued, unmatched royalties were included (though they may have been) and on what basis.

As the IMCOs asserted at the meeting, were such unmatched royalties paid to songwriters and composers by music publishers on terms resembling the MMA rules concerning music creator protections (as either drafted or eventually enacted), it seems counter-intuitive that that no line item would appear anywhere in accounting statements indicating the source of such payments, not only as a matter of sound accounting practice, but of earned good will. No other music creator groups present at the meeting challenged or contradicted these ongoing findings or assertions. In any event, as noted, it seems that the burden of demonstrating the details of such payments is more properly placed on the music publishers who claim to have made them, which could be as simple as each publisher disclosing a properly predicated and binding assertion that the payments were made, how many were made, what was the aggregate payment, and how was each songwriter’s share determined.2

Under such circumstances as they currently exist, as SGA President Rick Carnes pointed out at the meeting, asking interested parties to render opinions on the minutiae of proposed rules concerning the disposition of accrued unmatched royalties –with only some parties having an understanding of how the private agreements operated, who got paid, who didn’t, and why– is a difficult position in which to place the IMCOs and other parties with important, related interests.

As Mr. Carnes pointed out, the issues of (i) how to protect the rights of those music creators and copyright owners who did not participate in the privately negotiated agreements by ensuring that there is an opportunity to actually match those already-distributed royalties to their proper owners and to effect the prompt payment of such sums, (ii) how to balance accounts once such proper identifications have been made, while also ensuring that affiliated music creators have been properly paid by their music publishers concerning royalties collected under the private negotiated agreements that otherwise would have flowed through the MLC and been explicitly subject to MMA distribution requirements, (iii) how to address demands of Digital Music Providers that they not be made to pay twice for the same unmatched uses, and (iv) how to ensure that such private negotiated agreements are not utilized in the future in attempts to override the provisions of the MMA, all need to be addressed prior to a proper analysis of how most effectively to move forward.3

Thus, as was stated at the meeting, while the IMCOs agree the MMA makes clear that ALL accrued unmatched royalties for unauthorized reproductions and distributions dating back to inception must be turned over to the MLC by Digital Music Providers, and that the term “generally accepted accounting principles” used in the Act in no way provides an exception to that unambiguous provision, the crucial questions enumerated above also need to be immediately addressed as matters of fairness and transparency mandated by the Act.

As to the very important issue of retroactive effect of the MMA provisions concerning guaranteed music creator participation in the distribution of permanently unmatched royalties at or above the fifty percent level, the IMCOs adamantly believe, as stated at the meeting, that it is wholly illogical for any interested party to argue that Congress intended as it did to require that all accrued, unmatched royalties be rendered to the MLC by Digital Music Providers back to each service’s date of inception, but that the songwriter, composer, transparency and good faith protections guaranteed by the Act would not otherwise be applicable in the event of premature disgorgement of unmatched royalties by Digital Music Providers to music publishers pursuant to prior agreements. This is an issue that certainly requires further attention, and calls for more comprehensive discussion than for which there was time at the meeting.

As was noted several times by various speakers, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary has warned that absent a fair and transparent resolution of these complex issues, the MMA may become a magnet for litigation, the very opposite effect that it was intended to achieve. The IMCOs wholeheartedly agree, and stand ready to assist the USCO in taking all reasonable measures to achieve the transparency, fairness and robust oversight that the legislation demands in order to avoid that undesirable result.

To reiterate in closing, as the IMCOs tried to make clear at the meeting, voluntary disclosure of the specific details of the privately negotiated agreements, redacted to protect legitimate privacy and antitrust concerns, is an important prerequisite to achieving those goals. The IMCOs further repeat their stated beliefs that the USCO has the singular ability if not to compel, at least to facilitate such disclosures in a timely manner, and respectfully urge it to do so.

Further comments of SGA, SCL and MCNA will be forthcoming in regard to the proposed rulemaking by next week’s deadline. As stated at the conclusion of the meeting, however, the IMCOs believe that all parties would benefit by a brief extension for the submissions of such comments until the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday in order to allow for further discussions among the parties. The IMCOs acknowledge a certain lack of unified support for this suggestion at the meeting, and active opposition by at least one music publisher representative, but continue to believe it to be an advisable accommodation. Those parties wishing to abide by the original deadline would always be free to do so, as was explicitly pointed out.

The IMCOs thank the USCO for scheduling the ex parte discussion, and look forward to continuing this constructive dialog.

Respectfully submitted,

Charles J. Sanders
Outside Counsel
Songwriters Guild of America, Inc.

cc: Regan Smith, General Counsel, The United States Copyright Office
Rick Carnes, SGA President
Ashley Irwin, SCL President
Eddie Schwartz, MCNA President

  1. At least one publisher has indicated an alleged willingness to share details of such payments with any writer who makes inquiry as to his or her own works, an unlikely scenario considering that a huge percentage of writers have no knowledge of the private negotiated agreements in the first place, and –to the knowledge of the IMCOs based on informal canvassing– have not been directly informed about them by their publishers. See, e.g., Ex Parte letter from Sony/ATV dated October 28, 2020: “It has been SATV’s practice to explain to our writers who inquire how these royalties are distributed and reflected on their statements.”

2. Likewise, it seems that the burden of demonstrating how much each Digital Music Provider paid to music publishers is more properly placed on the services who claim to have made the payments, which in turn could be as simple as disclosing a properly predicated and binding assertion that the payments were made, how many were made, what was the aggregate payment, and how was each publisher’s share determined. It is anticipated that such details may be forthcoming from Digital Music Providers in their reporting under the MMA, but that remains uncertain.

3 That is especially so in light of the apparent assertions of one or more Digital Music Providers that they may forego the limited safe harbor provisions provided by the MMA by not turning over to the MLC the full amount of accrued, unmatched royalties dating back to inception of use, probably under the assumption that the potential running of applicable statutes of limitations will provide the same protections as the safe harbor without payment of the royalties due. The IMCO raised this statute of limitations issue at the meeting, and was gratified that at least one Digital Music Provider representative felt that this was an issue worthy of further discussion, hopefully with the important input of the USCO. See also, related comment of DLC that “…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.” Comments Of Digital Licensee Coordinator, Inc. In Response To Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking , Docket 2020-12, Document COLC 2020-0011-0008 (Aug. 17, 2020) at 4.

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.

Future of Music Coalition Warns Against Vendor Lock-in in Copyright Office Comments

[The Future of Music Coalition joins the chorus of concern about shenanigans at The MLC, Inc. with special access and treatment of its vendors regarding the “public” database. As others have pointed out, there’s a real question as to whether The MLC, Inc. is actually building its own database or is just building up the data muscle of its vendor the Harry Fox Agency (formerly owned by MLC promoter and nonvoting board member NMPA. The MLC is prohibited by law from licensing other than the narrow window of streaming mechanicals, but HFA is not.]

[I]t’s important that MLC’s chosen vendors not be able to leverage their
status with the MLC to advantage themselves in other business activities not covered under the MMA. If a vendor was able to leverage its status with MLC to the detriment of competitors in other kinds of licensing activity (even informally), that wouldn’t serve competition, consumers, or creators. Additionally, the Office needs to ensure that provisions about database vendors being replaceable are meaningful.

We see no reason to expect that the MLC’s chosen vendors aren’t up to the task, but songwriters and composers need assurance that if a vendor ends up having problems and a change is necessary, that change will really be possible.

The Office can require the MLC to disclose what it is doing to prevent any vendor from being too operationally enmeshed with the MLC that it either enjoys an unfair advantage through that relationship, or that it would be practically impossible for another vendor to step in.

Read the entire post here.

Songwriters Guild and Society of Composers & Lyricists Copyright Office Comments on Database Ownership and Songwriter Credit in Public Database

[The Songwriters Guild of America and the Society of Composers & Lyricists filed a joint comment with the Copyright Office on proposed rules implementing the public database that The MLC, Inc. is charged with stewarding. They raise a host of issues, but also focus on the ownership issue raised by the Alliance of Recorded Music and the songwriter credit issue raised by Kerry Muzzey.]

Ownership of the Musical Works Database

As to the issue of “ownership” of the Musical Works Database, SGA and SCL were gratified by the USCO’s clear statement quoting the MMA that:
[w]hile the mechanical licensing collective must ‘establish and maintain a database containing information relating to musical works,’ the statute and legislative history emphasize that the database is meant to benefit the music industry overall and is not ‘owned’ by the collective itself. Under the statute, if the Copyright Office designates a new entity to be the mechanical licensing collective, the Office must ‘adopt regulations to govern the transfer of licenses, funds, records, data, and administrative responsibilities from the existing mechanical licensing collective to the public, either for free or at marginal cost, pursuant to the MMA.’

Nevertheless, we feel compelled to repeat once again the admonitions voiced by attorney Christian Castle in his recent submission to the USCO concerning practical issues, problems and anomalies that have arisen even prior to the commencement date of MLC public operations concerning the construction of the Musical Works Database:

I believe that The MLC is encouraging songwriters to correct their song data in the HFA database and that no data from HFA has been transferred to The MLC as yet, and may never be. If The MLC is having data corrected and filled out in the HFA database, then the rules applicable to vendor access to the database may not apply because the Congress’s musical works database is not actually being created at The MLC, it’s being created at HFA. Time will tell if I am correct about this, but it does seem that if I am correct, then The MLC and HFA are working together to exploit an imagined loophole in Title I that violates Congressional intent and certainly the spirit of MMA. Respectfully, the Office should find out what is going on.3

SGA and SCL believe that these are important questions of fact that require answers to ensure that data ownership issues are as clearly defined as possible in advance of any conflicts that may arise. Clarifying that (i) all data and corrections made through HFA will be mirrored in the Musical Works Database in real time, and (ii) that being compelled to provide data to HFA under color of authority from Title I does not constitute a license to HFA for any other purpose, will be important steps forward.

As we have also previously stated, the contractual role and authority of HFA (or any other vendor) should be subject to transparent scrutiny by all interested parties, includingthe music creators whose works are the subject of all information that resides in the database. That includes examination of the contractual rights of the vendor in regard to the data flowing through its own systems and/or those of the MLC, the ancillary vendor use rights (if any) of such data during both the pendency and post-expiration/termination periods of such contract(s), and the clarity of rights ownership of data by the MLC and successor iterations of the MLC (including as regards the Musical Works Database). We respectfully call on the USCO to address more robustly these important issues of transparency and data ownership, and ignore unsupported assertions that transparency and scrutiny of vendor relationships will invite inefficiencies as opposed to clarity and competition.

Songwriter and Composer Names in the Public Musical Works Database

As the USCO is aware and has recognized, SGA and SCL have been consistently outspoken concerning the fact that out of all pertinent identifiers for musical compositions, the names of the music creators of a work are among the only constant and unique data points. In all but the rarest of circumstances, such information is never subject to change, and therefore one of the most important and reliable elements necessary for accurate identification and matching of works.

Moreover, the extension of proper credit to human creators as part of this crucially important Musical Works Database –rather than simply limiting identifiers to the names of corporate assignees of rights which are frequently subject to change and termination– is both appropriate and essential to the fulfillment of the ideals and underpinnings of the MMA set forth in Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution. As that section makes clear, copyright protections are first and foremost meant to serve the interests of the creators and the public, not the corporate entities that serve in an instrumental but secondary role as rights administrators.

We have therefore remained completely at a loss to understand why this crucial category of information was omitted from the MMA as a specifically required identifier (and why the music publishing community for some reason failed to support our efforts to correct that oversight), and are especially thankful that the USCO has put forth a proposed rule

that requires the MLC to include songwriter and composer information in the database. SGA and SCL continue to remain disquieted, however, with the additional qualifier added by the USCO concerning the standard to be applied by the MLC in seeking music creator data: “to the extent reasonably available to the collective.” Such a limited standard serves to diminish the requisite and explicit value of songwriter/composer identifying information.

We respectfully believe that music creator information should be more clearly defined as a mandatory data point required to be pursued for inclusion in the database by the MLC with vigor, and suggest once again that the rulemaking more specifically reflect the imperative nature of this duty. A more appropriate standard would be, in our view: “to the extent available to the collective through its best efforts to secure such data.” The avoidance of creating loopholes that may permit music publishers to omit music creator information from the data they voluntarily provide to the MLC is essential, and the independent community of songwriters and composers continues to seek the assistance of the USCO in this regard.

In respect to the foregoing, we desire to make clear that SGA and SCL also continue to support the rights of those music creators who may wish not to be publicly associated with certain musical works. That is and must continue to be right of any songwriter or composer. We therefore support the proposed rule put forth by the USCO that grants the MLC discretion to allow music creators the option of having songwriter/composer information listed anonymously or pseudonymously. We would, however, prefer that such a regulation be extended into a mandatory direction to the MLC to accept such direction from a music creator.

Read the whole comment here.

Copyright Office Comments by Composer @KerryMuzzey: Include Songwriter Credits in MLC Database

[Kerry Muzzey is an independent classical and film composer and artist rights advocate. In his comment to the Copyright Office on the MLC regulations he asks why songwriter names are not required to be included in the public database currently being stewarded by The MLC, Inc. Including songwriter names in the database seems like a fundamental building block of identifying a song–assuming that’s what you want to do. It would be like SoundExchange reporting not including an artist name in the transaction data. It makes no sense. Yet, it’s an issue as we will see.]

My name is Kerry Muzzey. I am an independent classical and film composer, and am self-published. It is crucial that the MLC database be searchable and completely public-facing, not only by song title but by writer’s name and publishing entity name or by ISWC or BMI/ASCAP IPI/CAE. Independent artists and music publishers must have the ability to search the “black box” of royalty collection, not only for unpaid royalties, but for accrued royalties that appear under a misspelling of an individual’s name, publishing entity, or in the event that a similar song title has resulted in the misattribution of the writer/publisher credit to another writer/publisher or artist. This transparency is essential not only for accurate accounting of royalties for an individual, but also for any works that are co-written, have multiple publishers, and/or whose performance rights are represented by multiple PROs. Any composer, songwriter or music publisher should have the ability to “disambiguate” their works from any other similar- or matching-title works or similar or identical writer names, by a simple error submission/correction process (after completing any necessary verification of identity). 

Read the entire comment here.

#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

Copyright Office Regulates The MLC: Selected Public Comments on the Copyright Office Black Box Study: The DLC Spills the Beans, Part I

We once had a mechanical licensing system in the U.S. that worked well enough for songwriters for 100 years.  The problem with the mechanical licensing system wasn’t so much the licensing function it was the royalty rate.  The government held down songwriters for 70 years to a 1909-based royalty rate that for some reason was frozen in time (more on frozen mechanicals here).  But if users failed to license, songwriters could at least sue for statutory damages.

After the Music Modernization Act passed in 2018, they managed to even give away songwriters’ rights to sue.  The songwriter part of the three-part MMA is called “Title I” and that’s the part that gave away the one hammer that songwriters had to be heard when their rights were infringed.  They called it the “limitation on liability” and it was retroactive to January 1, 2018—before the bill was actually passed by Congress and signed into law.

It’s entirely possible that even if you knew about the MMA, you didn’t know about this new safe harbor created by the same uber-rich companies that wrote themselves the DMCA safe harbor that has created the value gap and plagued artists for years and the “Section 230” safe harbor in the “Communications Decency Act” that services use to profit from human trafficking and revenge porn stalkers.  And now there’s the MMA safe harbor.

Only a handful of insiders got to be at the table when they gave away your rights in Title I without your even knowing what they were up to.  Don’t get us wrong, there are great things in the other parts of MMA dealing with closing the pre-72 loophole, some important changes to the rules for ASCAP and BMI with rate courts, and the fix for producers getting a fair share of SoundExchange royalties.  These are all good things.

The part that sucks is Title I that created this new safe harbor give away that will bedevil songwriters for generations to come.

So you may be asking how do we know this?  Since the so-called “negotiations” for the Title I give away happened behind closed doors, how do we even know what happened?  The answer is that we didn’t have the proof because anyone who tried to offer constructive criticism to the “negotiators” for songwriters was menaced, threatened and stabbed in the back.  Nobody was talking about the safe harbor give away.

But now we do have the proof courtesy of the music services representative at the “Digital Licensee Coordinator” who opened the kimono in their recent comments to the Copyright Office about the black box.  (Read the entire DLC comment here.)  Their comments make for quite a read, not only about the so-called “negotiations” by the unrepresentatives of songwriters but also about the run-up to the MMA in the private settlements that nobody sees.

The first issue is that the Copyright Office has proposed some well-meaning regulations to increase the likelihood that the black box will actually get paid to the songwriters who earned the money.  The services seem to be all in a huff about rules applying retroactively when they’ve been using old rules to organize their data.  You know, they don’t like this retroactive thing unless it’s a retroactive expansion of their safe harbor.  Then they like it just fine.

“The DLC emphatically opposes the Office’s proposal to retroactively expand the required reporting of sound recording and musical work information beyond that which is required by the existing regulations in 37 C.F.R. § 210.20. Those regulations were issued in interim form in December 2018, and finalized in March 2019, and unambiguously required collection of reporting information under the existing monthly statement of account regulations in 37 C.F.R. § 210.16. The Office has now proposed, in paragraph (e) of the proposed rule, to change the required reporting elements for the individual tracks, nearly two years after the MMA’s enactment and months before cumulative statements of account are due to be served.”

Sorry, but we think that the richest companies in commercial history, with trillions and trillions of dollars in market capitalization and the most advanced data mining capability in the known universe, can manage to figure out how to pay songwriters in a way that will actually result in songwriters getting paid. The truth is that they are so used to screwing songwriters that they are not going to lift a finger to help beyond the absolute minimum they have to do.

They got their retroactive safe harbor to give away, so don’t come whinging about retroactivity if it makes the distributions more likely to get to the right person, something the services have uniformly failed to do from their founding.

But now it gets interesting.

“It is well-known that—prior to enactment of the MMA—a number of DMPs entered into industry-wide royalty distribution agreements under the auspices of the NMPA, structured to allow all unmatched works to be claimed by their owners and all accrued royalties to be paid out, in what became the model for the MMA. These agreements were designed to, and did, put tens of millions of dollars in statutory royalties in the hands of copyright owners—money that they had been unable to access due to the broken pre-MMA statutory royalty system.”

First of all—“money that they had been unable to access due to the broken pre-MMA statutory royalty system” is utter crap.  The reason that services didn’t pay out is because they didn’t clear the songs but exploited them anyway.  For example, that’s also why Spotify got sued so many times and is still getting sued.  It’s not that the system was broken, it’s that the services didn’t care and handled licensing in an incompetent manner. In case you missed it, that’s what they want to keep doing by extending into the future the same sloppy practices they got sued for in the past.  The only thing new and improved about it is their absurd and undeserved safe harbor.

We don’t know what these “industry-wide royalty distribution agreements” were all about, but one thing we know for sure is that they weren’t “industry-wide” and the NMPA wouldn’t have had the authority to make those deals “industry-wide” in the first place.  “Industry-wide” seems to mean “with the major publishers” or with NMPA members or just plain insiders.  The implication is that “industry-wide” means everyone, which it clearly does not and cannot if you think about it for 30 seconds.

And if the copyright owners were owed a payment with their own money, the only reason that they couldn’t “access” the funds is that the services wouldn’t let them.  When you owe somebody money, you should pay them because you owe them, not act like you’re doing them a favor.

But here it comes:

Congress in the MMA’s limitation on liability provision enacted a compromise among stakeholders’ interests: elimination of the uncertainty of litigation facing DMPs in exchange for the transfer of accrued royalties to the MLC.

In other words, the services sat on the money and refused to pay until they got the MMA safe harbor.  That was the “trade”—do something the services were already required to do in return for something the songwriters were never obligated to do.  The songwriters paid for the safe harbor with their own money.

“As set forth in the relevant statutory provision, in exchange for payment of accrued royalties from “unmatched” usage prior to license availability date (and related reporting), DMPs are protected from the full brunt of copyright damages in any infringement lawsuits based on alleged failures to comply with the requirements of the prior mechanical licensing regime. The provision provides a clean slate for any past failures under the prior licensing regime for those DMPs who pay those back royalties and provide associated reporting. It provides requirements for DMPs that seek to take advantage of the limitation on liability, ensuring that DMPs that pay accrued royalties to the MLC can do so without having to second-guess whether the payment was worth it—that is, whether they qualify for the limitation.

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.

Which “stakeholders” were these?  Did they include any of the plaintiffs who were then suing the services?  No.  Did they include anyone who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid?  No.

So let’s be clear—the reason that the services deigned to actually pay money they owed for failing to license properly is because they didn’t want to be sued for screwing up.  They wanted a vig of a new safe harbor, and as the DLC tells us very, very clearly this issue was at the core of the deal you didn’t make for Title I.

More in Part II

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: MLC Black Box Invasion: Transparency for the “Interim Application of Accrued Royalties”

This post is a version of Chris Castle’s comment in the current Copyright Office rulemaking on the transparency of the MLC

By Chris Castle

Just when you think you understand Title I of the Music Modernization Act, another toad runs out from under a rock.  My nickname for the toad we’re going to talk about today is the “Hoffa Clause,” in honor of the Teamster leader and well-known pension fund raider (played by Al Pacino in The Irishman).

Here it is:

INTERIM APPLICATION OF ACCRUED ROYALTIES.—In the event that the administrative assessment, together with any funding from voluntary contributions as provided in subparagraphs (A) and (B), is inadequate to cover current collective total costs, the collective, with approval of its board of directors, may apply unclaimed accrued royalties on an interim basis to defray such costs, subject to future reimbursement of such royalties from future collections of the assessment.[1]

The Office has a serious public education issue about the hygienically titled “Interim Application” clause.  I have yet to meet a songwriter who is aware of this clause in Title I and it was never publicized in the run up to passing MMA. Many publishers have been so taken aback[2] that they deny the clause is there.  Despite the provision’s rather metaphysical properties, it is there and it says what it says.  How it came to be there is only known to the insiders.  But it’s very specific, so must have been placed there for a reason.

Title I gives The MLC tremendous power over affording itself the benefit of administering other people’s money.[5]  The plain language of this clause essentially says that The MLC can invade the black box and make interest free, nonrecourse loans to itself to apply against certain shortfalls in “collective total costs” when the administrative assessment approved by the Copyright Royalty Judges is “inadequate to cover total collective costs.” Under Title I as drafted, The MLC is solely in a position to control that shortfall and to invade the black box.

Anytime anointed people handle other people’s money, stringent rules apply to that duty.  Or ought to.  Strangely enough, this “Interim Application” provision is not addressed at all in the legislative history or the Conference Report.   So we can only look at the words and try to divine the intention of the lobbyists who wrote the bill.

Plain Meaning

The new rule announces itself as relating to the “application” of “accrued royalties” on an “interim” basis.  The Cambridge Dictionary tells us that “interim” means temporary, such as a temporary solution:  “temporary and intended to be used or accepted until something permanent exists”.  That “something permanent” is the “administrative assessment”–which of course will already exist at the moment of “application”.  So there is a chicken and egg issue with this entire concept from the beginning.

(Remember that the “administrative assessment” is the operating budget and startup costs paid for by the users of the Title I blanket license who may also be the beneficiaries of the Title I safe harbor.  The administrative assessment always exists once it has been set in motion by the Copyright Royalty Judges, which is now in place for the foreseeable future.  The CRJs essentially recently rubber stamped the agreement between The MLC (the biggest publishers, having single-mindedly gotten rid of the independents through legal maneuvering) and the DLC (i.e., the biggest services).)

So what money is available to be tapped through this “interim application”?  “Unclaimed accrued royalties”, which sounds like the black box.  Which is why I call it a “black box invasion.”

It is worth noting that Title I uses the terms “unmatched” and “unclaimed” somewhat interchangeably.  I would point out that it is possible for royalties to be both matched and unclaimed, matched and disputed and unilaterally held by The MLC, as well as unmatched and therefore unclaimed. And remember that just because money is unclaimed does not mean that there was any method in place for it to be claimed.

Realize that the entire Hoffa clause is based on an assumption–that there was a meaningful process in place for songwriters (1) to know that The MLC had decided that their money should be held as accrued but unclaimed and (2) to claim their money.  There is neither present today and there is unlikely to be either available any time soon based on public statements of executives of The MLC.  Without both these processes in place, it seems that it should be important, if not crucial, to preserve the status quo until they are and that the public interest would be served by doing so.

Holding Periods Maketh the Black Box

I suggest that the common interpretation of black box is that it includes a series of royalty payments that may be disputed, matched, unmatched and unclaimed and has been so for a holding period of at least a few years, in this case three years.[3]  That suggests that no invasion may occur under this clause before the passing of three years, and the holding period should run on an item-by-item contributory share basis for each rolling accrual.

But that isn’t really the whole story on the holding periods in the first black box distribution from the DLC to The MLC.  The first distribution is going to be all the black box money ever held by all the DLC members (and any other users of the blanket).  Because the security surrounding this amount is tighter than the nuclear football, it is impossible to say how much will be in the black box.  The Songwriters Guild and Society of Composers and Lyricists (the ones who were maneuvered out of the assessment hearing) have been asking this question for months and no one has responded.

The relevant holding period for the black box is not only the three years that The MLC can hold the money, but the entire holding period from when the black box first “accrued”.  That could be many years longer than the Title I holding period.  There’s a question as to the three-year rule should apply or whether the DLC should be allowed to ignore all those holding periods on top of the three years.  You can see this is a story for another post, but keep that in mind for this post.  I don’t think that sentient beings with the ability to think sequentially can just accept that the relevant holding period is three years–after the black box is transferred to The MLC as though the money had been there all the time.  I don’t think songwriters need a court to tell them that’s just wrong.

What Does Accrued but Unclaimed Even Mean?

The fact that royalties are “accrued but unclaimed” for all or part of a song does not tell the whole story, because “unclaimed” standing alone doesn’t tell the whole story.  The “Interim Application” clause applies to “unclaimed accrued royalties” which could be royalties payable for unmatched contributory shares of songs that The MLC doesn’t know who to pay (therefore unclaimed) as well as matched royalties that have yet to be claimed but for which a payee might be identified with subsequent research.

Which contributory shares of a song that are or are not claimed is a fact determined by a snapshot in a moment of time that could easily change in the next moment.  In fact, accrued royalties being held on disputed songs may also find their way into the black box.[4]  Unfortunately, Title I has yet another drafting glitch because it does not identify that moment in time for purposes of the black box invasion.

Borrowing from Frankie to Pay Big Paulie

There could easily be a situation where the black box is invaded but the future assessment is not made for a year or more, or the future assessment is insufficient to repay Peter for the loan to Paul.  Because an expenditure may be an item of “collective total cost” but may not be reimbursed by “future collections of the assessment” rather than the next collection of the assessment occurring after the interest-free nonrecourse black box invasion, the statutory drafting is glitchy.

Plus, while the CRJs approve the administrative assessments, they have no direct approval right over a black box invasion—although approval over one does imply approval over both to the extent the invasion takes money from an assessment in a proceeding before the CRJs (which would be all assessments).  I’ve almost talked myself into believing that the CRJs actually were intended to approve any black box invasions, at least to the extent the sums are to be included in future assessments or offset prior assessments.  I think we all would be grateful if the Copyright Office could clarify this point.

In any event, it is clear that The MLC is allowed to write itself what amount to limitless[6] interest-free nonrecourse loans against the black box that can only be repaid from the assessment if the DLC approves (or perhaps the CRJs could be persuaded to approve).

The DLC would then be put in a position of declining to approve an increase to cover a black box invasion in the assessment that the DLC had nothing to do with incurring and will not have been informed of based on the plain language of Title I.  Since the current assessment seems to be on a fixed trajectory based on the last assessment settlement, it is likely that any invasion amount might exceed the stipulated assessment.  What happens if the assessment is not available to repay the invasion amount is unclear, even though The MLC is allowed to make the decision before knowing how the loan will be treated?

Required Transparency

The first issue in this cluster must be transparency on the board vote at a minimum.  Because the statute refers to approval by The MLC’s  “board of directors” and because the nonvoting members are part of the board, I have always assumed that such a board vote requires both voting board members and at least the assent of nonvoting members.  Neither does the glitchy language require any particular majority, so the new regulations may be an opportunity for the Copyright Office to require a majority, supermajority or unanimous board vote in regulations.

My preference would be for unanimous because I think taking other people’s money is a controversial act and they should lock arms and all go together.  Unanimity would also require both publishers and songwriters to vote for the loan (as publishers already have a supermajority representation written into the law).  As far as I can tell, we can only go by the plain language of the statute as I have found no legislative history on this provision.

Notice to Songwriters

I also think that regulations should provide that there be some written public statement by The MLC’s chief financial officer to the Copyright Office (or the CRJs) that these funds are being approved by the board for disbursement before the taking.  The CFO should also provide a justification statement.  The MLC board should have to sign up to that statement with full transparency of (1) why there is this compelling need and (2) why that need can only be met this way.  Frankly, it would be best if the funds could not be disbursed until the Register or the Librarian approved the disbursement in all respects.  One would think that the board members would want this sharing of responsibility.

Another option, if possible, would be to require The MLC and the DLC to return to the CRJs and request an increase in the applicable assessment or amendment to The MLC’s budget to cover the black box invasion.

What’s in Your Wallet?  Explain Why There is a Shortfall

There yet another drafting glitch in this section.  The statute fails to ask why a quango like The MLC is in a position that the millions in the Administrative Assessment doesn’t cover the relevant costs in the first place.  The assumption seems to be that there was a spike in the defined “collective total costs”.  As The MLC is in control of how the Administrative Assessment is spent, there may need to be some true up between the authorized budget approved by the CRJs and what was actual spent on a line item basis.

This raises, of course, the question of what kind of items should never be covered by the Administrative Assessment (which, if violated, could cause a shortfall requiring the black box invasion).  Such items might include loans to executives, performance bonuses, excessive travel reimbursements (such as first-class travel or reimbursement for tips in transit), expensive restaurant tabs and alcohol bills, but also items like settlements of harassment claims or related court costs.  Since harassment claims often are subject to nondisclosure agreements, it does not seem appropriate for The MLC to be able to recover such payments from black box invasion.  None of those items should be deductible from the Administrative Assessment and should never be the cause of a black box invasion.

It must also be said that “collective total costs” includes “bad debt.”  This caught my eye.  “Bad debt” is generally defined as a contingency or credit extended (such as to a customer) that is determined to be uncollectable.  Why would a pass-through quango like The MLC which has all of its costs covered by a third party need to be extending credit or loaning money to anyone, certainly not to any employee, board member, or vendor?  Under these circumstances, how would the bad debt be matched according to GAAP?  What controls are there within The MLC to disclose bad debt?  And why should bad debt be able to cause a black box invasion?

A corollary to bad debt is the indebtedness of The MLC itself as a borrower.  Again, given that the collective total costs are underwritten by a third party, why would The MLC need to borrow any money at all?  One could imagine that The MLC might properly have a modest bank credit line for cash flow purposes, but servicing any credit line should not result in a black box invasion, nor should the black box be used as collateral for any loan.

Paying Songwriters Who Claim or Are Matched After the Loan

The other drafting glitch I spotted that I would recommend needs closing up has to do with subsequent matching and paymenting.  What happens if there is a call on the black box invasion funds loaned to The MLC after the loan is made but before it is repaid.  These black box invasion loans should not delay matching and should also not delay payment of royalties matched after the loan is disbursed.

The easiest solution for a call on these loaned funds is to require the board members (or their companies) to cover the required funds, but I really think the Copyright Office needs to address the potential to abuse this tempting power.  Abuse of this power is exactly the kind of thing that could give rise to the very “waste, fraud and abuse” Congress wants the Copyright Office to take into account in the quinquennial review and potential redesignation (discussed above).

Yield Not Unto Temptation:  Detection Leads to Correction

This comment is not intended to be a knock on The MLC.  I am simply noting that any MLC may face the temptations that have certainly been irresistible for many smart people similarly situated in other contexts.  This kind of loan might well be a breach of a fiduciary duty by board members, and certainly would be in other similar situations.

It also must be said anecdotally that there are many songwriters who, perhaps unfairly, think that publishers use black box payments as a slush fund to run their operations with interest-free loans as the hygienically named “interim applications” would be.

The problem is that without the disinfectant of sunlight, there may be no detection to lead to correction.  Who would not prefer to avoid that problem who was able to avoid it?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

[1] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(7)(C).

[2] I have also discussed this clause off the record in the context of the Dispute Resolution Committee and Unmatched liability safe harbor for The MLC with friends at CMOs outside of the U.S.  When the laughter subsided, they all said that if they did anything like this they’d be fired long before they hit the gross negligence threshold.  “Heads on pikes” was the description.  We must then wonder what the CMOs think of this clause and what in the world they think the Americans are up to.  The Office might want to ask them.

[3] 17 U.S.C. §115 (d)(3)(H)(i).

[4] It appears that royalties held by the Dispute Resolution Committee for disputed works will also be kept in the black box account and presumably would be subject to invasion.  “The dispute resolution committee established under subparagraph (D)(vi) shall establish policies and procedures…that shall include a mechanism to hold disputed funds in accordance with the requirements described in subparagraph (H)(ii) pending resolution of the dispute.”  17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(3)(K)(ii).  Subparagraph (H)(ii) provides for an “Interest-bearing account.—Accrued royalties for unmatched works (and shares thereof) shall be maintained by the mechanical licensing collective in an interest-bearing account that earns monthly interest….”

[5] Presumably this issue will be addressed in the Copyright Office Unclaimed Royalties Study of best practices on both matched but unclaimed and unmatched royalties.  Even so, this may be a good place to insert a true escrow account for the mandated interest-bearing account for the black box so that the account is held by a third-party bank unrelated to The MLC, the DLC, their board members or their vendors.  There should be specific withdrawal instructions to that third-party bank.  I find it difficult to understand why anyone would oppose such an ethical separation.

[6] The loans are limitless because there is no limitation on the amount in Title I.  The loan could theoretically even exceed the amount of the then-existing black box and be taken from a future accrual.

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

This post first appeared on Artist Rights Watch.

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

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

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

This comment from Music Reports gives some interesting insights into how The MLC is favoring the NMPA’s formerly wholly-owned Harry Fox Agency (HFA) which has been on the wrong side of most of the licensing debacles.  Chris posted some analysis on MediaNet’s comment about criticisms of the HFA-The MLC contract as well as its rather odd timeline as revealed at The Copyright Office roundtables on the next cluster jam, the unclaimed royalties.  At least that has the entertainment value of watching them steal in plain site with the Copyright Office drinking game of who will make the excuses for them this time like we don’t notice.  We’re not big MRI fans (or MediaNet fans for that matter), but when they’re right, they’re right.

The sad truth is that this entire MLC exercise has become about the rich getting richer from a data land grab for independent songwriters and publishers who have been duped into thinking it’s all for their benefit.  It was all so predictable, but nobody listened.  This is what they wanted, and now they’ve got it.  How about a rule that says if you had your fingerprints on any part of the debacle of the last 20 years, you are immediately disqualified?  Bye bye HFA, NMPA, MRI, MediaNet.  Unfortunately that is not and never will be the rule because these are the same people who make the rules and are the same people who gave songwriters frozen mechanicals from 1909-1978 and are still freezing the 9.1¢ statutory royalty for fourteen years.

MRI could have done with some editing, but stick with it, they make a lot of sense.]

Read Music Reports entire comment here.

Music Reports generally agrees with, endorses, and echoes the views of MediaNet as stated in the response to the NOI it filed today.

Music Reports also takes note of the MLC’s selection of HFA as a major provider of the capabilities required for its core operations. While the MLC is narrowly limited by the MMA to the principal purpose of administering the blanket license for Section 115-compliant audio-only streaming music services in the United States, and specifically prohibited from storing data about or administering public performance licenses, HFA/SESAC is not so constrained.

On the contrary, HFA/SESAC is free, as a non-regulated, for profit commercial music rights administration service, to administer any type of mechanical licenses. Moreover, SESAC, administers performance rights on a for-profit basis in competition with other PROs. Being hired by the MLC does not change the fact that HFA/SESAC is in competition with other commercial music rights administration services that are not the beneficiaries of a long term, highly-paid contract with the MLC. This is fair enough, so far is it goes.

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But as noted above, the boundaries between HFA/SESAC’s database and that which the MLC must build and make publicly available are completely unknown [want to bet that’s because they don’t exist?], as is the timeframe during which the former will substitute for the latter, and whether a proprietary MLC database built independently of HFA’s data will ever be the basis on which the MLC renders royalty distributions.

What is known, however, is that the MLC will enjoy publicity generated by its own statutory mandates (subsidized by the DLC), by the DLC itself, and by the Office, all of whom are authorized and required to devote budgetary allocations to direct publishers’ attention to registering their rights data with the MLC (the database of which is, for the foreseeable future, that of HFA/SESAC). Notwithstanding that the primary purpose of these provisions may be to publicize the existence of the database and of available unclaimed royalties, the consequence will be the direction of resources toward the focus of copyright owners’ attention on just one of several important, pre-existing music rights registries. This is in effect a set of reinforcing government subsidies of which one private enterprise, in competition with other marketplace actors, is the beneficiary.

To the extent HFA/SESAC directly benefits unfairly from a privileged place in the data ecosystem by virtue of this arrangement, the goal of the MMA to create a healthier music rights administration ecosystem will be perversely harmed by the creation of an uneven playing field that penalizes the investments in data made by other services. To be sure, other commercial services are free to compete with HFA to offer services to the MLC and others in the marketplace. But over time, a privileged place in the market’s information flow may distort competition to the determent of copyright owners and their administrators, DMPs, and the public.

Luckily, the Office can prevent this result quite simply by requiring that the MLC provide access to its public database on a competition-neutral basis.

As was noted above, there is an important temporal aspect to the management of music rights data. In order for two administrators to efficiently interoperate, they must be able to have a more or less shared contemporary view of the data about the works they are administering, even if they don’t always agree on every detail.

Therefore, the specific prescription called for here is a combination of the points made in the previous sections above: (a) the Office should use its authority under the MMA to adopt such regulations as it deems necessary to clarify that the public database which the MLC must establish and maintain will be identical to or at least contain the same data as the database on which the MLC will distribute royalties; (b) the MLC should make its public database available contemporaneously with the commencement of its royalty distribution efforts; and (c) the MLC must offer eligible parties bulk, machine-readable access to such data “on a basis that is both comprehensive and as frequent as necessary to efficiently manage the licensing and royalty distribution activities of the mechanical licensing collective itself, and not less than daily access to changed information within a day of any change to such information.”