Coalition of Songwriter Groups Call on Copyright Royalty Board for Fairness and Transparency on Frozen Mechanicals

[Editor T says this is a letter from a coalition of US and international songwriter groups to the Copyright Royalty Board about the frozen mechanical issue. If you want to write your own comment to the Copyright Royalty Board about frozen mechanicals, send your comment to crb@loc.gov]

MUSIC CREATORS
NORTH AMERICA

May 17, 2021

Via Electronic Delivery

Chief Copyright Royalty Judge Jesse M. Feder
Copyright Royalty Judge David R. Strickler
Copyright Royalty Judge Steve Ruwe
US Copyright Royalty Board
101 Independence Ave SE / P.O. Box 70977
Washington, DC 20024-0977

To Your Honors:

As a US-led coalition representing hundreds of thousands of songwriters and composers from across the United States and around the world, we are writing today to express our deep concerns over the “Notice of Settlement in Principle” recently filed by parties to the proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Board concerning its Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Making and Distributing Phonorecords (Phonorecords IV) (Docket No. 21–CRB–0001–PR<(2023–2027)). For reasons explained below, several highly conflicted parties to this proceeding have apparently agreed to propose a rolling forward to the year 2027 of the current US statutory mechanical royalty rate for the use of musical compositions in the manufacture and sale of physical phonorecords (such as CDs and vinyl records). This proposal (and related industry agreements yet to be disclosed by the parties— see, https://app.crb.gov/document/download/23825) should neither be acted upon nor accepted by the CRB without the opportunity for public comment, especially by members of the broad community of music creators for whom it is financially unfeasible to participate in these proceedings as interested parties. It is our livelihoods that are at stake, and we respectfully ask to be heard even though we lack the economic means to appear formally as parties. If procedures are already in place to accommodate this request, we look forward receiving the CRB’s instructions as to how to proceed.

The current U.S statutory mechanical rate for physical phonorecords is 9.1 cents per musical composition for each copy manufactured and distributed. That rate has been in effect since January 1, 2006. It represents the high-water mark for US mechanical royalty rates applicable to physical products, a rate first established in 1909 at 2 cents. That 2-cent royalty rate, in one of the most damaging and egregious acts in music industry history, remained unchanged for an astonishing period of sixty-nine years, until 1978. Nevertheless, the recording industry now seeks  to repeat that history by freezing the 9.1 cent rate for an era that will have exceeded twenty years by the end of the Phonorecords IV statutory rate setting period.

Inflation has already devalued the 9.1 cent rate by approximately one third. By 2027, 9.1 cents may be worth less than half of what it was in 2006. How can the US music publishing industry’s trade association, and a single music creator organization (which represents at most only a tiny sliver of the music creator community) have agreed to such a proposal?

The answer to that question is an easy one to surmise. The three major record companies who negotiated the deal on one side of the table have the same corporate parents as the most powerful members of the music publishing community ostensibly sitting on the other side of the table. Songwriter, composer and independent music publisher interests in these “negotiations” were given little if any consideration, and the proposed settlement was clearly framed without any meaningful consultation with the wider independent music creator and music publishing communities, both domestically and internationally.

How on earth can these parties be relied upon to present a carefully reasoned, arms-length “Settlement in Principle” proposal to the CRB under such circumstances, fraught as they are with conflicts of interest, without at least an opportunity for public comment? Further, how can these parties be relied upon in the future to argue persuasively that mechanical royalty rates applicable to on-demand digital distribution need to be increased as a matter of economic fairness (which they most certainly should be), when they refuse to seriously conduct negotiations on rates applicable to the physical product the distribution of which is still controlled by record companies (who not so incidentally also receive the lion’s share of music industry revenue generated by digital distribution of music)?

The ugly precedent of frozen mechanical royalty rates on physical product has, in fact, already served as the basis for freezing permanent digital download royalty rates since 2006. Is this the transparency and level playing field the community of songwriters and composers have been promised by Congress through legislation enacted pursuant to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution?

The trade association for the US music publishing industry is supported by the dues of its music publisher members, the costs of which are often in large part passed along to the music creators affiliated with such publishers. It is thus mainly the songwriter and composer community that pays for the activities of that publisher trade association, a reality that has existed since that organization’s inception. Still, the genuine voice of those songwriters and composers is neither being sought nor heard. Further in that regard, we wish to make it emphatically clear that regardless of how the music publishing industry and its affiliated trade associations may present themselves, they do not speak for the interests of music creators, and regularly adopt positions that are in conflict with the welfare of songwriters and composers. Their voice is not synonymous with ours.

Unfortunately, the music creator community lacks the independent financial resources –in the age of continuing undervaluation of rights, rampant digital piracy and pandemic-related losses–to rectify these inequities by expending millions more dollars to achieve full participation in CRB legal and rate-setting proceedings. Clearly, such an inequitable situation is antithetical to sound Governmental oversight in pursuit of honest and equitable policies and results.

In the interests of justice and fairness, we respectfully implore the CRB to adopt and publicize a period and opportunity for public comment on the record in these and other proceedings,especially in regard to so-called proposed “industry settlements” in which creators and other interested parties have had no opportunity to meaningfully participate prior to their presentation to the CRB for consideration, modification or rejection. In the present case, hundreds of millions of dollars of our future royalties remain at stake, even in a diminished market for traditional, mechanical uses of music. To preclude our ability to comment on proposals that ultimately impact our incomes, our careers, and our families, simply isn’t fair.

Finally, we request that this letter be made a part of the public record of the Phonorecords IV
proceedings. We extend our sincere thanks for your attention to this very difficult conundrum
for music creators, and further note that your consideration is very much appreciated.

Respectfully submitted,

Rick Carnes
President, Songwriters Guild of America

Ashley Irwin
President, Society of Composers and Lyricists
Officer, Music Creators North America Co-Chair, Music Creators North America

List of Supporting Organizations
Songwriters Guild of America (SGA), https://www.songwritersguild.com/site/index.php
Society of Composers & Lyricists (SCL), https://thescl.com
Alliance for Women Film Composers (AWFC). https://theawfc.com
Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC), http://www.songwriters.ca
Screen Composers Guild of Canada (SCGC), https://screencomposers.ca
Music Creators North America (MCNA), https://www.musiccreatorsna.org
Music Answers (M.A.), https://www.musicanswers.org
Alliance of Latin American Composers & Authors (ALCAMusica), https://www.alcamusica.org
Asia-Pacific Music Creators Alliance (APMA), https://apmaciam.wixsite.com/home/news
European Composers and Songwriters Alliance (ECSA), https://composeralliance.org
Pan-African Composers and Songwriters Alliance (PACSA), http://www.pacsa.org

cc: Ms. Carla Hayden, US Librarian of Congress
Ms. Shira Perlmutter, US Register of Copyrights
Mr. Alfons Karabuda, President, International Music Council
Mr. Eddie Schwartz, President, MCNA and International Council of Music Creators (CIAM)
The MCNA Board of Directors
The Members of the US Senate and House Sub-Committees on Intellectual Property
Charles J. Sanders, Esq.

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.

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.