“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”
It’s hard to believe, but the major labels have filed an “emergency motion” at the Copyright Royalty Board asking the Judges to “clarify” their historic rejection of the insider deal to extend the freeze on physical mechanical royalties for songwriters that many have criticized as being flat out corrupt (and the Judges certainly hinted at it, smoke and fire being what they are). I don’t know about that, but what they seem to really mean is for the Judges to limit the rejection to George Johnson because he’s the only songwriter in the Phonorecords IV proceeding–like that will help them–but screw every other songwriter in the world, and indie label, too, for that matter.
Look, everyone is entitled to a hail mary, but the labels are essentially asking the Judges to say “just kidding” about their rejection of the insider deal. I must say that it’s kind of hard to follow the pretzel logic in places, but one point was very, very clear and it is this:
Nor would there be any basis for the Judges to reject the Settlement as to non-participants [that would be every songwriter except George]. Non-participants take a calculated risk when they choose to sit out a proceeding. Specifically, they decide that to save the expense and burden of participating in a proceeding, they will live with the outcome of the proceeding whatever it is. In particular, just as a dissatisfied non-participant [that would be you and me] cannot seek appellate review of the outcome of a rate proceeding, non-participants may not object to any settlement reached by those who are prepared to undertake the expense and burden of participation. [Well judging by the uniformly negative public comments lots of people including me did not get that memo.] Thus, while Congress has authorized the Judges to decline to adopt a settlement as to an objecting participant, it expressly did not authorize the Judges to decline a settlement as to non-participants who, by definition, have chosen to allow the participants to reach an agreement on their behalf. In so doing, Congress reasonably chose to promote participation in proceedings while also giving settlements broad effect.
Guys, guys, guys…there are a lot of ways you could have said this, but why on Earth you chose this one is beyond me. By definition, non-participants have chosen to allow the participants to reach an agreement on their behalf? Really? Really? By whose definition? I’m sorry, but that just does not pass the laugh test.
And are they really saying that the preferred outcome–promoted by Congress, no less–is to have every songwriter and independent label in the world crammed into the Copyright Royalty Board’s hearing room? Do they really want a line out the door and around several blocks? Because if that’s really what they want, maybe that could be arranged in Phonorecords V. But we also may see real scorched earth litigation ensue here if the Judges refuse to reverse themselves instead of making lemonade out of lemons.
Actually, Congress did not charge the well-heeled major label and publisher participants to look out for the interests of nonparticipants. (Almost sounds like…gasp…a fiduciary duty, don’t it?) You know who Congress does charge with that obligation as true blue fiduciaries?
The Judges. That’s their job. And the Judges showed up for work, rejected the insider deal, and did their job just as they are supposed to in order to preserve equal justice under law.
[If you want to tell the Copyright Royalty Board what you think, try email@example.com]
It was a big week for songwriters last week! The Copyright Royalty Judges rejected the frozen mechanicals settlement put forward by the majors in the current rate-setting proceeding at the Copyright Royalty Board thanks in part to the best audience in the world–that would be you! All that hammering on the issue paid off.
We also acknowledge the hard work of all the commenters who spoke straight from the heart and of course songwriter George Johnson who has been fighting the good fight in the Copyright Royalty Board all by himself for years now. We’re also very grateful to the Judges for a well-thought out ruling and a thorough vetting of the issues, George’s many filings and the songwriter public comments.
The question we’ve heard a lot in recent days is where do we go from here? Clearly the answer is “Up” but how far up is the question. We need to be mindful of the economic impact that increased rates will have on independent labels in particular, but at the same time acknowledge that all record companies have gotten the benefit of frozen rates for 16 years and that songwriters have taken it in the shorts for a long, long time.
The Judges seem to be hinting at a deal in their ruling (remembering this is the rate for physical and downloads only (called “Subpart B rates”) and not for Spotify-type streaming which is not affected by these rate changes). Here’s the relevant quote from the ruling:
Commenters advocated application of an inflation adjustment beginning, at a minimum, in 2006. See, e.g. [Songwriters Guild of America] Comments at 4; [Monica] Corton Comments at 4; [Kevin] Casini Comments at 4. According to the proponents of a cost of living adjustment (COLA) applied to the 2006 rates, that adjustment would yield a 2021 royalty rate of $ 0.12 (an upward 31.9% inflation adjustment over the sixteen-year period). See, e.g., SGA Comments at 4. SGA conceded that the COLA extrapolation cannot be considered dispositive on the issue of new rate-setting, but they contended that it does “starkly demonstrate the outrageous unfairness that has been imposed on the music creator community over a period of more than an entire century.”
Step one, then, could be to increase the minimum statutory rate to 12¢ (or 13¢ depending on how you do the math) with customary adjustments for the “long song” formula for songs over 5 minutes.
That increase in the rate would be significant and probably the biggest rate increase ever on a percentage basis for the statutory rate. Will that satisfy everyone? Probably not, but it’s a step forward.
But–and this is a big but–that’s not the end of the story. We do not want to be right back in the same position in a few years time. One way to avoid this is to increase the new rate for inflation every 12 months (called “indexing”) the same way that the webcasting rates are indexed for sound recordings.
The Judges also hint at indexing as a potential solution to avoid just another rate freeze:
[George Johnson] has long advocated inclusion of an inflation index in royalty rates set by the Judges, including the…rates at issue here. In support of his advocacy, GEO has filed 27 pleadings, including motions seeking imposition of an inflation index on section 115 rates and periodic notices of U.S. inflation rates. His plea is bolstered by the many commenters who, almost unanimously, included this suggestion.
So the way this would work is that starting in 2023, the current 9.1¢ rate would be increased to 12¢. After 12 months, the rate would be increased by the Consumer Price Index (the CPI-U rate) for each 12 month period until 2027 when new rates would get decided by the CRB in the next rate proceeding (Phonorecords V). Example: If the CPI is 10%, then the minimum statutory rate would increase to 13.2¢ for the next 12 months. If the CPI in the second year was also 10%, then the 13.2¢ rate would be increased to 14.52¢ and so on until the last year of the period (2027). (Of course we can’t tell today what the CPI will be in 2023.)
Given the Judge’s rejection of the frozen rates, it is very doubtful that there will ever be another freeze, but we have to stay alert and vocal. When the new rates come up, we all have to pay attention.
It’s important to remember that “indexing” to inflation just preserves buying power. Meaning that 12¢ today is what 9.1¢ was worth in 2006. Would it be the fair thing to index all the way back to 1909? Sure, but while the Judges hint at going back further (the “at a minimum” reference), the Judges may not be inclined to go further back than 2006 when the current freeze started, but we’ll see what happens.
We’d be very interested in hearing from you with any questions you have or other ideas for solutions. Obviously, this post is just sharing ideas with our audience and isn’t a formal statement by any particular person or group. There may be a number of proposals coming out and we’ll of course post them on Trichordist.
It must also be said that George Johnson has yet to weigh in on the situation and may very well have a different idea. There’s also some twists and turns to sort out, such as the black box “MOU” (the fourth of its name) but especially the controlled compositions rates that the Judges discussed in some detail (as Judge Barnett said, “The disparity between the static rate and the dynamic market is even more stark when considering the “controlled composition clause.””).
In any event, feel free to comment and we welcome the discussion.
[A little context: As readers will recall, the Copyright Royalty Board is in the middle of two (count ’em, two) simultaneous rate proceedings for the statutory mechanical royalty rates under the reliably absurd Section 115 of the Copyright Act. These two are styled “Phonorecords III” and “Phonorecords IV” respectively. Technically, Phonorecords III was appealed to a higher court (DC Circuit for those reading along at home) and was pretty much rejected and sent back to the Copyright Royalty Board on what’s called “remand” or as it’s know in the vernacular, “nice try.” Phonorecords IV is for the 2023-2027 period and is currently in the discovery phase for streaming mechanicals. MTP readers will also recall that I anticipated an attempt to extend the freeze on physical mechanicals at the 2006 rate of 9.1¢–long since corroded by inflation to a real mechanical rate of about 6¢ given an inflation rate of approximately 33% since 2006. And the majors are vigorously pursuing both a freeze as well as an extension of the pending and unmatched settlements for NMPA members (aka “MOU” for “Memorandum of Understanding” among the insiders) that is tied to the freeze for everyone else. See what they did there? Today we are posting the first of the 2nd round comments on the freeze filed with the Copyright Royalty Board in the Phonorecords IV proceeding. I was kind of hoping that someone would file a comment in support of the freeze but no one did–all comments are opposed. The first up is Professor Kevin Casini’s thoughtful comment. We will be cross posting with the Trichordist.]
November 20, 2021
Hon. C.J. Suzanne Barnett Hon. J. David R. Strickler Hon. J. Steve Ruwe
US Copyright Royalty Board 101 Independence Ave SE / P.O. Box 70977 Washington, DC 20024-0977
Honorable Judges of the Copyright Royalty Board:
I am a Connecticut resident, attorney, and law professor, and the views expressed here are mine, and not necessarily those of any local or state bar association, or any employer. The bulk of this comment appeared in an open letter to this body, and to my senators, dated May 27, 2021. It requested time to comment for those that were not represented by the publishing lobby, the so-called “self-administered” songwriters that were so en vogue during the passing of the Music Modernization Act, and with it, the advent of the Mechanical Licensing Collective. As the preeminent music economist of the day, Will Page, put it in his annual “Global Value of Music Copyright” compendium, “anyone can record a song, but only someone can compose it.” I don’t speak for them, I’ve not been empowered to do so, but because so many of us know “self-administered” means “not administered” I speak to their best interests, even if they don’t know anything about this process. These writers are considered “self-publishing”, but the reality is, they have no publishing. Ironically, it is these independent writers who rely disproportionately on physical sales, direct downloads, and Bandcamp Fridays. In essence, “I speak for the trees.”
On May 18, 2021, a “Notice of Settlement in Principle” was filed by parties to the proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Board about its Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Making and Distributing Phonorecords. That Notice was followed on May 25, 2021 by a Motion To Adopt Settlement Of Statutory Royalty Rates And Terms For Subpart B Configurations, filed by the NMPA, Sony, Universal and Warner and NSAI. I write today in reference to that proposed settlement.
This settlement outlines the terms by which mechanical royalty and download rates will remain locked at the current rate of 9.1¢. The same almost-dime for each copy of a work manufactured and distributed. The same almost-dime that it’s generated since 2006. A paltry sum to be certain but a far cry from the 2¢ royalty rate mechanical royalties imposed for the better part of seventy years. Starting in 1977, Congress mandated that the mechanical royalty be increased incrementally until 2006 when the rate of 9.1¢ was achieved. And there it has remained.
This proposed private settlement would extend that 2006 freeze until 2027.
In March 2017, a precursor to Phonorecords IV found the Copyright Royalty Board ruling that interactive streaming services must pay more in mechanical royalties over the course of the next five years. Surely more than a simple inflation adjustment, but nonetheless a sign that the CRB thought costs and values needed to become more aligned for streaming—which is paid by the streaming platforms unlike the physical and download mechanical which is paid by the record companies. Now comes Phonorecords IV, and a proposed settlement from the major publishers and their affiliated major labels. Before this proposal can be accepted by the CRB, I asked for the simple opportunity of public comment. This COurt saw fit to grant that request, and I express my appreciation.
As you well know, in nearly all other administrative proceedings public comment is an integral and indispensable component of the process. To see that the CRB may allow for a public comment period by members of the public beyond the participants in the proceeding or parties to the settlement is a step in the right direction, and my hope is that this development will be broadcast far and wide so that the CRB, and in turn, Congress, may get a full picture of the status of mechanical royalty rates, especially from those that are historically underrepresented. “Public comments” should be comments by the public and made in public; not comments by the participants made publicly.
I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the work put into the landmark copyright legislation that came about at the end of 2018, and for those that made it happen. So too for the members of the CRB, and in this space, I thank those Judges for taking the time to read a letter from an adjunct law professor with no economic stake in the outcome, but rather an interest in, and duty of, candor to the Court.
In an age of unprecedented political polarization, the consensus built in the passage of the Music Modernization Act showed that politics aside, when it’s time to make new laws that fix old problems, Congress can still get the job done. I know well the sweat-equity poured into its creation by the very same people that propose this settlement. I have found myself on the same side fighting the same fight as them many times. They have proven capable of navigating your halls and taking on those that would seek to devalue (or worse) the work of the songwriter, and musician. In this instance, I would like to see them fight the fight yet again. recognize the reasoning and intention behind the proposed settlement. Commenting by the public is a way for that to happen. I commend this Court for re-opening the comment period to allow for as much dialogue, and information, as possible.
A year ago, I made the unilateral decision to pivot our consulting company, Ecco Artist Services, to purposefully work with, and advocate for, the traditionally and historically underserved and underrepresented in the music industry. Freezing the growth of rates for physical and digital sales that are already digging out of the residual effects of 70 years at 2¢ strikes at the heart of that community’s ability to generate revenues from their music.
Now, it’s no secret the trade association for the US music publishing industry is funded by its music publisher members, and of course, as a professional trade organization, the association is bound to represent those members. Publishers have long enjoyed a better reputation amongst industry insiders than “the labels,” and for good reason, but the fact remains that writers signed to publishing deals are in contractual relationships with their publishers, and their interests are not always aligned. Such is the state of play in a consumer-driven marketplace, and especially now that publishers and labels are consolidating their businesses under the same tents. They, it seems, are the forest. An indie songwriter is but a tree.
Unfortunately, the independent songwriter lacks the resources to participate fully in the process, and although a signed songwriter may believe her interests and those of her publisher are one and the same, they may not always be. It would seem the economic analysis the publishers undertook in deciding the mechanical royalty was not worth the heavy cost and burden of fighting is the same calculus the writers need not do: they couldn’t afford the fight no matter the decision.
But I ask: if the mechanical royalty covered by the proposed settlement is a dying source of revenue, why would the fight be so onerous? By the RIAA’s 2020 year-end statistics, physical sales and downloads accounted for 15% of the music marketplace. That’s a $12.2 billion marketplace, and that 15% amounts to $1.8 billion. Now, I know attorney’s fees can be exorbitant in regulatory matters, but I would think we could find a firm willing to take the case for less than that. As for sales, in 2020, 27.5 million vinyl LPs were sold in the United States, up 46-percent compared to 2019 and more than 30-fold compared to 2006 when the vinyl comeback began, while some 31.6 million CD albums were sold.
Median wages in the US, adjusted for inflation, have declined 9% for the American worker. Meanwhile, since the 9.1¢ rate freeze, the cost of living has gone up 31%, according to the American Institute of Economic Research. The 2006 inflation rate was 3.23%. The current year-over-year inflation rate (2020 to 2021) is now 4.16%, which is all really to say, simply, an accurate cost-of-living increase would have a mechanical rate of at least 12¢ per sale. Twelve cents! You would think that would be an easy sell, but the streaming rates are fractions of that rate. The reality is a song would need to be streamed 250 times to generate enough money to buy it from iTunes. As my dear friend Abby North put it, the royalty amount for the digital stream of a song is a micro penny.
An adjustment for inflation should require no briefing, let alone argument. If songwriters were employees, this would simply be line-item budgeted as a “cost-of-living adjustment.” If songwriters were unionized it would be a rounding error, but I digress.
Even if it is true that the mechanical revenue is a lost and dying stream, by the RIAA’s own figures, there stand to be billions of dollars at stake. An opportunity to be heard, without having to sign with a publisher and then hope that publisher takes up the fight you want, maybe that’s all the independent writers of the industry—and, indeed, the world–need to be able to win.
An inflation-adjusted cost-of-living update to the mechanical statutory royalty rate should be of no issue. Those independent, self-published writers affected by the decision of the CRB have been given the opportunity to voice their concerns through public comments. I hope that the CRB considers the disparities in bargaining power among those on the “writers’ side” of this issue before it makes its final decision. Please note, I pass on judgment on those that serve their constituencies, I just know there is no substitute for direct action, direct aid, or direct advocacy.
I want to close this time by thanking the Board, and Copyright Office, all for their continued attention to the universe of copyright, licensing royalties, and the economy that exists therein, and specifically the recently retired CJ of Copyright Royalty Board Jesse Feder, for allowing this opportunity, and so many other. It is my sincere hope (and effort) that the tone and tenor of these negotiations, deliberations, and litigation proceedings can be focused on the issue at hand, with collaborative results the goal, but when that cannot be, I trust the Copyright Royalty Board will see both forest and trees.
Kevin M. Casini New Haven, CT
Attorney-at-Law, Adj. Professor, Quinnipiac Univ. School of Law
 The term “mechanical royalty” dates back to the 1909 Copyright Law when Congress deemed it necessary to pay a music publishing company for the right to mechanically reproduce a musical composition on a player-piano roll. As a result, music publishers began issuing “mechanical licenses”, and collecting mechanical royalties from piano-roll manufacturers. The times, and the tech, changed, but the name stuck.
 The CRB arguably has the statutory obligation to publish the Motion in the Federal Register for public comment, but may have the discretion to construe those commenting to the participants in the proceeding and the parties to the settlement. 17 U.S.C. § 801(b)(7).