Copyright Office Regulates The MLC: Selected Public Comments on the Copyright Office Black Box Study: The DLC Spills the Beans, Part 3

[Read Part 2 here.  This is the last of 3 parts]

The services tell us in their Copyright Office comment that the whole point of the Music Modernization Act was this (largely secret) deal to get them a new retroactive safe harbor so their massive infringement couldn’t be stopped by songwriters.  (That’s their third statutory safe harbor counting DMCA and Section 230.)  What do you think that MMA safe harbor is worth to them to avoid what they call “ruinous litigation”?

Let’s use Spotify’s market cap as a proxy for the value of the safe harbor–imperfect, yes, but at least it is transparent unlike anything else having to do with Title I of the MMA.

SPOT Safe Harbor Value

Around October of 2018 when the MMA was signed into law, Spotify traded at $189.  A recent closing price for SPOT is $268.  Is it fair to say that the MMA was the rocket fuel that made Daniel Ek a billionaire?  Not entirely.  You can see from the graph that Spotify actually broke through a $190 per share support level to the downside right after the MMA was signed and bounced around below that price for a year or more.

The clear driver of Spotify CEO for Life Daniel Ek’s wealth and profiteering is the COVID virus.  Make no mistake, human misery–not the MMA safe harbor–is what provided the rocket fuel for Spotify’s 2020 growth.  In fact, the same rocket fuel of misery seems to have benefited each of the exploitative cohort as this graph shows using Live Nation as a proxy for the collapse of touring:

COVID MISERY INDEX 8-22-20

So it could be said that the entire “ruinous litigation” argument from the DLC is simply so much bullshit that these companies fed to the MMA negotiators by the plateful.  What is not bullshit, however, is that the one thing the negotiators could have scored that they didn’t is a waiver of the services appeal rights in the Phonorecords III rate setting decision.  This is the appeal that the services recently won when the appeals court handed the negotiators heads to them.  There could also have been a settlement since they seem to like those so much.  The negotiators didn’t do either.  We’ll see how the do-over turns out, but one thing we know is that there will be millions in legal fees that songwriters will have to eat one way or another that could easily have been avoided.

What is also not bullshit is the other side of the MMA transaction:  The loss to songwriters of this heretofore secret deal.

You will note that none of the music services appear to have paid out jack in the way of newly matching the previously “unmatched” in the years since the signing of the MMA. Why?  Because the MMA negotiators did not require any interim payments of matched funds or any public reconciliation of black box to matching efforts.  No, no, the first time the black box gets disclosed publicly is when those funds are paid to the MLC, not to the songwriters who earned the money.  Round and round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.

If you believe as we do that the services have not lifted a finger to increase their matching efforts (and based on the DLC’s disclosures seem to have already paid out pre-MMA black box on a market share basis), you will better understand why we think this was a colossally terrible deal for songwriters.  You will also understand why this part of it was largely kept secret or downplayed.

The Eight Mile Style complaint against Spotify and the Harry Fox Agency (which is the same Harry Fox Agency that is now going to be handing your royalties for The MLC, how curious) has an informative passage about the timing of this retroactive safe harbor:

In addition, the retroactive elimination of the right to profits attributable to infringement, statutory damages, and attorneys’ fees under the MMA is an unconstitutional denial of substantive and procedural due process, and an unconstitutional taking of Eight Mile’s vested property right, and this Court should so declare.

It is settled law that an infringement claim is a property right that vests in a plaintiff the moment the infringement occurs. The Bill that ultimately became the MMA, written by the NMPA, with input from Spotify, became law in October 2018, but provides retroactively that a plaintiff who did not file an action by December 31, 2017, could lose any right to profits attributable to infringement, statutory damages, and attorneys’ fees if successful in a case against Spotify or other DMPs of interactive streams. On information and belief, the MMA, according to the NMPA’s own announcements, lobbyist spending, and congressional testimony on Capitol Hill, was jointly crafted by members of the NMPA (whose three top markets shares and dues-paying affiliated companies own equity in Spotify) and Spotify, DiMA, and other interactive streaming companies.

They knew what they were doing….

[W]ith the removal of these remedies, it cleared the last hurdle for Spotify to go public, thereby reaping tens of billions of dollars for its equity owners, including the major music companies as mentioned above. The unconstitutional taking of Eight Mile’s and others’ vested property right was not for public use but instead for the private gain of private companies.

The reference to timing on Spotify “going public” means Spotify filing their “DPO” to sell stock on the public markets–the really big money.  That’s relevant to the MMA negotiation because the MMA bill was introduced on December 21, 2017.  Spotify filed a confidential paper with the Securities and Exhange Commission on January 3, 2018 and Spotify’s stock started trading on April 3, 2018.  The MMA allowed them to show the markets that they were doing something about their systemic copyright infringement problem and gave fuel to the specious argument that lawsuits against them were merely opportunistic gotcha lawsuits and not a bellweather for their utter incompetence and cavalier treatment of songwriters.

Why is this timing important?  Because the MMA was filed on December 21.  What happened on December 22?  Congress closed for the holidays and would not reopen until after January 1, 2018.  That meant there would not be an official version of the bill until after January 1, 2018, the deadline to sue before the retroactive safe harbor would eventually take effect.  Various copies leaked, but since the entire music industry was also shut down for the holidays, it was unlikely that any songwriters would see it, particularly because we can’t find that their so-called “representatives” ever brought it up in any public messaging before the January 1 deadline had passed.

Do you think that timing is a coincidence?

As Eight Mile Style tells us:

The proof is in the pudding: Spotify was sued many times prior to December 31, 2017, for similar acts of copyright infringement as alleged herein, but not once since December 31, 2017. This is because the Bill that ultimately became the MMA first publicly leaked shortly before December, 2017, leaving music publishers with little or no time to investigate or file a lawsuit for infringement, even if they somehow became aware of the Bill at that time.

It just happened that Wixen Music Publishing was already on a war footing from opposing the various Spotify settlements and was able to easily pivot to filing its own lawsuit against Spotify before the December 31, 2017 deadline in a move worthy of General Patton at Bastogne.  But Wixen was alone.  No one else probably even knew the deadline was passing or what it meant.

The value of what the “negotiators” gave away cannot realistically be measured for the reason that Eight Mile Style clearly states, which is also the same reason that the retroactive safe harbor is unconstitutional:

The only practical or realistic remedies in these cases is the statutory damage remedy, and profits attributable, together with the ability to receive attorneys’ fees, and the drafters of the MMA knew it. The elimination of these remedies takes away from Eight Mile and others who may be similarly situated any practical or realistic remedy, immunizes complying DMP’s from suit, and should be declared an unconstitutional deprivation of due process and a taking of a vested property right.

So what’s the value that songwriters gave up in the MMA?  Wixen sued for $1.6 billion.  You figure it out.

Is The MLC Updating the HFA Database?

The MLC announced an aspirational tool for publishers to confirm whether the MLC’s data is correct for their songs.  Apparently this is planned to be a quality control check for song metadata that The MLC has already acquired. As far as we can tell, the tool doesn’t actually exist yet.

VaporwareHere’s the press release language:

For Music Publishers, Administrators and CMOs: Data Quality Initiative (DQI)
The MLC created the Data Quality Initiative (DQI) to provide a streamlined way for music publishers, administrators and foreign collective management organizations (CMOs) to compare large schedules of their musical works’ data against The MLC’s data. Through the DQI, The MLC will provide participants with reports that highlight the discrepancies between the two sets of data so that they can more easily address those discrepancies and improve the quality of The MLC’s data.

The MLC has begun working directly with a number of music publishers and administrators to on-board them into the initiative. The MLC is also working with software vendors to help them enhance their platforms to enable users of their systems to participate in the initiative. The MLC looks forward to working with other music publishers, administrators, CMOs and software system vendors interested in participating in The MLC’s Data Quality Initiative.

“One of the biggest and most time-consuming challenges for music publishers, administrators and CMOs is checking the accuracy of their musical works’ data,” said Richard Thompson, CIO of The MLC. “We launched the Data Quality Initiative to help those parties increase the efficiency and effectiveness of this process. Participants in the initiative will be able to see where their musical works data does not match The MLC’s data, so that they can then take the necessary corrective action.”

Of course, The MLC has yet to permit songwriters (or anyone for that matter) to register their songs with The MLC at least not publicly.  Neither have they given anyone access to whatever data they actually have ingested–and still won’t with the DQI tools. When you use the DQI tool, you sit outside The MLC’s database and they give you “reports” so you may take “the necessary corrective action”.  At your own expense, of course.  You know, “Play Your Part On Your Dime to Keep Us Relevant.”

So if the goal of the Data Quality Initiative is for “The MLC [to] provide participants with reports that highlight the discrepancies between the two sets of data so that they can more easily address those discrepancies and improve the quality of The MLC’s data” we have to ask how did The MLC come to have any data to check for quality control in the first place?

Chances are pretty good that the source of The MLC’s data set is the Harry Fox Agency–if they’ve even bothered to copy the HFA data into The MLC’s database.  (One reason they send you a “report” is so the source of that report is not disclosed as if it were just the HFA database being queried, it might raise some hackles among songwriters and especially the DLC who is paying millions for the whole show.)

As has been noted, The MLC’s Richard Thompson announced that The MLC was working with HFA since The MLC was first designated by the Copyright Office as the MLC. (even before they announced that HFA was their vendor)  This is the HFA that services Spotify.  Spotify has been sued…ahem…a number of times for failures to license songs in historic litigation that led to their latest get-out-of-jail-free goal-post-moving exercise also known as the Music Modernization Act.  In fact, HFA is currently being sued alongside Spotify by Eminem’s publishers for all sorts of nasty things (which have yet to be proved).  But make no mistake, HFA was picked as best of breed by everyone’s favorite MLC, The MLC.

So what The MLC is really saying here is that they want everyone to take the time to check your own data against the HFA database and then correct it.  And who wants to bet that all those corrections–which could be a vast number of corrections and song-share updates–will end up back at HFA for HFA to use as it chooses (or its Rumblefish affiliate).

Play Your Part for HFA

But wait, there’s more.  Don’t forget:  The reason for this exercise in data cleaning is to “improve the quality of The MLC’s data“.  Why do you care about the quality of The MLC’s data? Very simple.  The government makes you do it.  What could be worse than a compulsory license?  A compulsory license with a safe harbor for massive infringers like Spotify and an industry-wide market share black box controlled by the for-profit companies that most benefit from the market share black box.

So what The MLC is really saying is “play your part” to “improve the quality of The MLC’s data” or we will take your money and there’s sweet F-all that you can do about it.  In the middle of a global pandemic.  The truth doesn’t read quite so well, right?  Oh, and by the way–you get to pay the costs of this data clean up job yourself even though it’s for the benefit of The MLC.  And why are you compelled to cover those costs?

Because they’ll take your compulsory royalties if you don’t.  And given the way these people work, maybe even if you do.  How would you ever know?

But wait, there’s still more.  Remember that the Eminem publisher’s case is about Spotify’s failure to match properly which is a condition of the MMA safe harbor that somebody decided was a good idea for the rest of us.  Let’s say that those publishers are wrong and that the services have actually been matching like crazy to keep their safe harbor (albeit in the background because the sainted MMA does not have any oversight or transparency about matching).

We don’t believe this, of course.  But let’s just say that they’re wrong for argument’s sake.

If The MLC got their data from the services instead of from HFA, then presumably all that matching being done by the biggest tech companies in human history would probably result in a greater match rate than HFA–particularly since HFA has been at the heart of many, many lawsuits against their clients for failing to match.  Let’s face it–many, many publishers have already burned a huge amount of energy fixing Google’s weak Content Management System alone.  Want to bet that CMS has a higher match rate than HFA?

So we don’t think that the song data that is being checked so you can “Play Your Part On Your Dime” is from anywhere but HFA.  We also think that if no one stops them, The MLC will simply hand over all those corrections to HFA for use in its own database for unrelated clients, such as for bundled performance licenses.  And who benefits from that besides HFA?  If you said the publishers with direct deals on services that engage HFA or Rumblefish to handle their licensing,  you probably would not be too far wrong.

Remember this?

Facebook Inc. has engaged HFA’s Rumblefish services to offer to publishers the opportunity to enter into a direct license agreement with Facebook for Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and Oculus. This opportunity is available to all publishers.

This license agreement will grant Facebook Inc. reproduction, display, synchronization, and public performance rights. As an HFA Affiliate you have already authorized HFA to act on behalf of your publisher with respect to licensing offers for the rights mentioned above other than performance, which means we need your written permission to accept this offer on your behalf.

So be sure to fire up that credit card and “Play Your Part”.  And be quick about it.  Your betters are waiting.

Guest Post: Who Owns The MLC Database of Songs?

[This is crossposted from MusicTech.Solutions and is adapted from the author’s comment to the Copyright Office in the MLC regulations.]

By Chris Castle

If you’ve been following the evolution of the “aircraft carrier” revision of the U.S. Copyright Act styled the “Music Modernization Act,” you will remember that America now has a blanket license for the mechanical reproduction of songs (or will have as of 1/1/21).  The “MMA” comes in three parts (or as I say three and one-half):

  • Title I which establishes the blanket license, a willing-buyer willing-seller standard for mechanical royalty rate setting, the Mechanical Licensing Collective (called the “MLC”), the all-important safe harbor for Big Tech’s massive infringement of songs, and authorized the creation of the “musical works database” which is the subject of this post;
  • Title I-1/2 which gives certain small benefits to ASCAP and BMI;
  • Title II which provides meaningful relief and largely fixes the pre-72 loophole that the Turtles sued over (formerly the CLASSICS Act); and
  • Title III which gives producers a statutory basis for SoundExchange royalties, another truly meaningful change.

I supported Title II and Title III, but I have lots of bones to pick with Title I, not the least of which has to do with the musical works database.  A lot of my issues have to do with what I perceive as sloppy drafting and a mad rush to “get a bill” at all costs which has led to a strong need to “fix” a lot of “glitches” in Title I itself (such as the failure to dovetail the major change in the compulsory mechanical from a per-song basis to a blanket basis. This in turn has an affect on other copyright provisions such as the termination right for songwriters which is now having to get solved–maybe–through the caulking of regulations to cover sloppy workmanship.  (Caulk cracks.)

For those of us who sweep up behind the elephants in the circus of life, I fear that the musical works database of other people’s things is an 11th Century solution to a 21st Century problem–a list of things that will be very difficult to get right and even more difficult to keep right, not unlike William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book.  Static lists of dynamic things necessarily are out of date the moment they are fixed.

Domesday-book-1804x972

Who Owns the Crowdsourced Musical Works Database?

We are going to discuss Title I musical works database today from a very simple threshold question:  Who owns it?

Spoiler alert:  The public owns it.  This is logical, but like so many things in the drafting of Title I, the drafting is glitchy, which is what you call it if you’re in a good mood.  I apocryphally attribute the term “glitch” when applied to massive Internet data breaches to the Fathers of the Internet who did not take care that the cracks were sealed (looking at you, Vint Cerf).

When you consider that the most valuable asset of the MLC is going to be the song database, ownership matters.  This database of other people’s things must be created by the efforts of potentially hundreds of thousands of songwriters given no choice in the matter.  It would be a bit much for the U.S. Congress to require all this only to enrich one U.S. corporation controlled by the U.S. publishers by leveraging a compulsory license to create a very valuable private asset.  Particularly a database paid for by still other people that might then get taken and given to a replacement MLC.  (There’s that “taken” word again.)  That’s typically not what Congress does.

Ownership matters to the Digital Licensee Coordinator, too.  Let’s also remember that on paper, the MLC does not pay a penny for the cost of its operations, including the creation of the database.  The entire cost of the MLC’s operations is borne by the users of the blanket license through an organization called the Digital Licensee Coordinator.  (If you’re thinking what’s with these names, I know, I know.  Forget it, Jake, it’s Washington.)

This database ownership issue has been raised to authorities a couple times, and no one has answered it.  I made it part of a recent comment I filed with the Copyright Office in the current rule making for regulations implementing Title I.  Maybe they’ll get around to answering the question this time.  After a while, you have to wonder why they have not.

The MLC’s Short Track Record on Ownership of Other People’s Things

A side note demonstrating both that ownership matters and that The MLC is thinking about ownership:  a service mark registration for “The MLC”.  (A service mark is a kind of trademark.)  There is a difference between “the MLC” and “The MLC”.  That’s because “the MLC” is the organization envisioned by the Congress that has to be redesignated (think “re-approved”) by the Copyright Office every five years.  On the other hand, “The MLC” refers to “The MLC, Inc.” which is the corporation created by the super popular proponents of Title I who were designated the first MLC and who style themselves “The MLC” using the definite article. But if I told you that there was a difference between “the MLC” and “The MLC” would you find that confusing?

The clear implication of the definite article seems to be that they don’t envision any future in which they will not be the MLC, i.e., will not be redesignated.  They also probably don’t envision a future where a different corporation would be designated the MLC and The MLC would be looking for something to do.  Maybe they know something we don’t, but there it is.

This also raises some interesting trademark questions should The MLC seek to prevent a successor from trading under the name “MLC”, interesting enough to stop The MLC from claiming a proprietary interest in the statutory description.  That mark is arguably descriptive and probably should be denied.  In fact it’s so descriptive it actually asserts a private intellectual property interest in the statutory language that describes the organization created by statute.  Sort of like asserting a trademark in “TVA” or “ICC” or “FOIA”.

MLC TM Registration

Should Songwriters Bust a Move to Create Value for The MLC?

Let’s be clear about who owns the Congressional database.  As you will see, the musical works database does not belong to either the MLC or The MLC.  If there is any confusion about that, the Copyright Office should clear it up right away (which would save having to go to other avenues to do the same thing).  There really isn’t a practical alternative to the Copyright Office jurisdiction.  Congress gave the Copyright Office broad regulatory powers over the MLC (and, therefore, The MLC).

The public “musical works database” that Congress envisioned in Title I of the Music Modernization Act is largely a crowdsourced asset.  Congress has asked the world’s songwriters or copyright owners to spend considerable time preparing their catalogs in whatever format The MLC and the DLC determine is good for The MLC (with the Office’s blessing through regulations).  There inevitably will be quality control and accuracy review costs invested by the world’s songwriters and copyright owners in making sure that their catalogs are correctly reflected in the musical works database.  “Copyright owners” may also include sound recording copyright owners asked to contribute their ISRCs or other data that they, too, have invested considerable expense in creating and maintaining.

Unfortunately, the transaction cost to the songwriter and copyright owner for participation in The MLC and crowdsourcing Congress’s database is an unfunded mandate at the moment.  From a commercial perspective, the dynamic evolution of data is a potentially limitless expense, yet we have both this unfunded mandate which will spike in the early years but continue on a rolling basis essentially forever.  Yet the MLC’s administrative assessment appears to be capped at a fixed increase by a settlement agreement.  Again, a “glitch.”  Still, The MLC’s executives seem positively giddy about their prospects with all the relief of someone who got tapped for lifetime employment with a pension (no doubt) while the songwriters these leaders are to serve are having the fight of their lives for survival.

What Did Congress Do?  Or Not Do?

Yet, it seems clear that at the time of passing Title I, Congress had no intention of using a public law to create a private asset.  Neither was their intention to use the law to leverage the creation of an asset for private ownership by whoever the head of the U.S. Copyright Office designated to be the MLC, regardless of how “popular” they might have been.

The creation of the musical works database is replete with hidden costs paid or incurred by songwriters and copyright owners.  Neither the Congress nor the Copyright Royalty Judges  were asked to directly address these hidden costs of creating the musical works database.   (The Copyright Royalty Judges (or “CRJs”) are relevant because they approve the DLC’s financial contribution to the MLC through the “Administrative Assessment.”  The assessment is intended to cover the “collective total costs” which includes broad categories of cost items related to the database.)  And as usual, these costs appear to have gone straight over the heads of the Congressional Budget Office in their mandated assessment of the costs of Title I.

Even so, the MMA Conference Report from Congress addresses the cost issue head on:

The [Congress] rejects statements that copyright owners benefit from paying for the costs of collectives to administer compulsory licenses in lieu of a free market. Therefore, the legislation directs that licensees should bear the reasonable costs of establishing and operating the new mechanical licensing collective. This transfer of costs is not unlimited, however, since it is strongly cabined by the term ‘‘reasonable.’’[1]

It will be impossible for the “new mechanical licensing collective” to fulfill its statutory duties or build the complete musical works database to which the United States aspires without songwriters and copyright owners around the world doing the intensive and costly spade work to prepare their data to be exported to The MLC.[2]  It is clear that the reasonable costs of preparing and exporting that data should be borne by The MLC[3] as part of the “Administrative Assessment.”[4]  This material cost clearly is covered by the definition of “collective total costs”[5] and so was, or should have been, included in the current Administrative Assessment,[6] unless the intention was to cover The MLC’s side of these costs and force songwriters and copyright owners to eat their side of the same transaction.  If that is the case, it would be helpful for the Copyright Office to clarify that intention in the name of transparency through their broad regulatory authority.

If there is another drafting glitch there, it is worth noting that the CRJs clearly contemplated revisiting the Administrative Assessment  on their own motion for good cause.[7]  If there were ever good cause, the staggering cost of registering potentially millions of songs would be it.[8]

It should be clear that no one’s intention was for the services to pay to create the musical works database and for the songwriters and copyright owners to labor to export their data to make the musical works database complete, only to have The MLC claim ownership of the musical works database, particularly if The MLC were not redesignated as the MLC following the five-year review by the Copyright Office.  That unhappy “take my ball and go home” arbitrage event is foreseeable and would entirely cut against the “continuity” contemplated by Congress.[9]

It is critical that the Copyright Office clarify in regulations that neither The MLC nor any other MLC owns the musical works database.  In fact, the MMA clearly states that “if a new entity is designated as the mechanical licensing collective, [the Office shall] adopt regulations to govern the transfer of licenses, funds, records, data, and administrative responsibilities from the existing mechanical licensing collective to the new entity.”[10]  Since The MLC will have to transfer the musical works database and the other statutory materials to the new MLC if they fail to be redesignated, there should be no misconceptions that The MLC “owns” the database and could withhold all or part of it.[11]  Because The MLC is just An MLC.

It should also be made clear that any MLC or DLC vendor does not obtain an ownership interest in any copy of all or part of the musical works database they may obtain for any reason.

Again, just like the termination right “glitch”, these are threshold questions that should have been answered in the statute itself.

Clarifying ownership of The MLC’s most important asset should be an easy ask of the Copyright Office.  Watch this space to find out if it is.

          * * * * * * * * *

[1] Report and Section-by-Section Analysis of H.R. 1551 by the Chairmen and Ranking Members of Senate and House Judiciary Committees, at 1 (2018) at 2 (emphasis added).

[2] This effort is referred to as “Play Your Part™” a business process trademarked by The MLC available at https://themlc.com/preparing-2021.

[3] I would point out that the way The MLC should work—and in the end probably will end up functioning as a practical matter–is that The MLC needs to be able to handle however songwriters ingest their data.  Instead, it appears that The MLC is trying to dictate to all the songwriters in the world how they should assemble their song data beforethey register with The MLC. If The MLC wants to shift that burden, they should expect to pay for it.  Otherwise, this is exactly backwards.

[4] 17 U.S.C. §115 (d)(7)(D).  The Administrative Assessment is what makes the MLC different from other PROs or CMOs where members bear their own cost of participation.  The Administrative Assessment is to cover the entire cost of creating the musical works database, not just The MLC’s startup or overhead costs.  If nothing else, another way to treat these out of pocket costs is as a contribution to the operating costs of The MLC by songwriters and copyright owners that should be offset against future Administrative Assessments.

[5] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (e)(6).

[6] Order Granting Participants’ Joint Motion to Adopt Proposed Regulations, In re Determination and Allocation of Initial Administrative Assessment to Fund Mechanical Licensing Collective (U.S. Copyright Royalty Judges Docket No. 19-CRB-0009-AA (Dec. 12, 2019)).

[7] The CRJs included this footnote in their ruling on the administrative assessment (emphasis added):  “The Judges have been advised by their staff that some members of the public sent emails to the Copyright Royalty Board seeking to comment on the proposed settlement agreement. Neither the Copyright Act, nor the regulations adopted thereunder, provide for submission or consideration of comments on a proposed settlement by non-participants in an administrative assessment proceeding. Consequently, as a matter of law, the Judges could not, and did not, consider these ex parte communications in deciding whether to approve the proposed settlement. Additionally, the Judges’ non-consideration of these ex parte communications does not: (i) imply any opinion by the Judges as to the substantive merits of any statements contained in such communications; or (ii) reflect any inability of the Judges to question, [on their own motion without a filing from a participant] whether good cause exists to adopt a settlement and to then utilize all express or reasonably implied statutory authority granted to them to make a determination as to the existence…of good cause [to reject the settlement now or in the future].”   Order Granting Participants’ Joint Motion to Adopt Proposed Regulations, In re Determination and Allocation of Initial Administrative Assessment to Fund Mechanical Licensing Collective (U.S. Copyright Royalty Judges Docket No. 19-CRB-0009-AA (Dec. 12, 2019) n.1 (emphasis added)).

[8] There is a simple solution to determining these costs to songwriters and copyright owners.  The Copyright Office could designate several metadata companies who could compete to handle the various steps of creating and exporting metadata to The MLC, such as in the CWR format, for example North Music Group and Crunch Digital have such tools.  To avoid picking winners and losers and to preserve competition, the Office could alternatively establish a benchmark of quality control or some other criteria for becoming an approved company.  The costs charged would likely vary depending on the size of the catalog, but The MLC need only pay the invoice of these companies which would be included in the Administrative Assessment.  Obviously, the entity performing such work should be independent of The MLC, the DLC or any of its members, or any of their respective vendors.  This would, of course, introduce the concept of competition into the monopoly which may interest no one but might benefit everyone.

[9] See H. Rep. 115-651 (115th Cong. 2nd Sess. April 25, 2018) at 6 (hereafter “House Report”); S. Rep. 115-339 (115thCong. 2ndSess. Sept. 17, 2018) at 5 (together with identical language, hereafter “legislative history”) (“Although there is no guarantee of a continued designation by the collective, the Committee believes that continuity in the collective would be beneficial to copyright owners so long as the entity previously chosen to be the collective has regularly demonstrated its efficient and fair administration of the collective in a manner that respects varying interests and concerns. In contrast, evidence of fraud, waste, or abuse, including the failure to follow the relevant regulations adopted by the Copyright Office, over the prior five years should raise serious concerns within the Copyright Office as to whether that same entity has the administrative capabilities necessary to perform the required functions of the collective.”)

[10] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(3)(B)(ii)(A)(II).

[11] It seems that if an incumbent MLC that was not redesignated and continued to operate, it would almost unavoidably compete with the newly designated MLC but with a substantial leg up.  I realize there have been some statements made about The MLC taking on work beyond the blanket license, such as voluntary licenses.  That additional work might require additional investment, or a sharing of the total collective costs by third parties.  I have not addressed that allocation as I for one would like to see The MLC stick to their knitting and succeed at the job they are obligated to do, and, frankly, paid to do, before worrying about expanding into profitable roles for the non-profit corporation.   It does seem that if The MLC is not redesignated, there would not be much for them to do once they transfer the public’s assets to the new MLC.

Guest Post: Copyright Office Regulates the MLC: Selected Public Comments on MLC Transparency: MediaNet

By Chris Castle

The wisest among us learn to use their portents well
There’s no need to hurry, it’s all downhill to hell.

From “Don’t Stand Still“, written by Original Snake Boy, performed by Guy Forsyth

The Copyright Office has solicited comments on the transparency of The MLC and received quite a few well-thought out comments (if I say so myself).  MediaNet

has raised some very interesting questions about the NMPA’s relationship with HFA and The MLC that many have questioned both in prior comments and in the many lawsuits against HFA clients like Spotify for its various licensing failures.  (Note that I don’t really fault HFA all that much because I think it really boils down to choices made by Spotify, another Internet company that is in a rush to enrich themselves at the expense  of songwriters and artists.  If you can fault HFA for one clear choice in that cluster, it’s that they didn’t resign from the job both during and after their ownership by NMPA and SESAC.  Maybe they got stock, too.)

MediaNet raises this interesting point:

In passing the MMA, Congress recognized that the party who controls the database may enjoy an economic advantage over others.9 Although not applicable to the MLC-HFA contract, The Federal Acquisition Regulation System, codified at 48 C.F.R. § 1.000 et seq., provides guidance regarding the principle cited by Congress under the MMA. For example, under FAR 9.505 a contracting officer cannot award a federal contract to a contractor where an organizational conflict of interest (or “OCI”) cannot be avoided or mitigated.

But here’s the clincher:

Applying the principles from the FAR, the arrangement between MLC and HFA raises a number of questions regarding the potential for unfair economic advantage to HFA as a consequence of its control over the operation and administration of the MLC database, including the following:

· Who owns the database, MLC or HFA? [The answer is neither]

· If HFA is terminated by MLC, does HFA own or have a claim to any proprietary or intellectual property rights in the database?

· Will HFA have access to “Confidential” or “Highly Confidential Information” (e.g., contract terms, payments and financial information) of music publishers or other similarly situated organizations such as PROs and administration service providers?

· Will HFA have access to the reporting of usage and required payments of the administrative assessment by significant nonblanket licensees (“SNBLs”) in the notices of nonblanket activity (“NNBAs”) required under the MMA?

· Sources suggest HFA may offer [an “ethical wall”] between its work on the MLC database and other work for third parties not using the blanket digital license, and an audit right to ensure HFA complies with this separation. Can HFA effectively separate such third party work from the database it administers for the MLC?

What are the remedies for non-compliance with such measures?

MediaNet respectfully requests that the Copyright Office, as part of its regulatory and oversight authority to ensure transparency, require that the agreements between MLC and all of its vendors be made publicly available, and with respect to the MLC agreement with HFA, if the information requested above is not disclosed in such agreement, require MLC and HFA to submit answers to the forgoing questions.

It should be obvious to everyone that there is an inherent conflict of interest between NMPA and HFA.  Insufficient care was taken at the Copyright Office and at The MLC to create systems to reduce the fact of this conflict negatively affecting the operations of The MLC which presents an opportunity to leave the bad days behind.  But that didn’t happen and here we are again.

But let’s not forget that The MLC is essentially a quasi-governmental organization and must comply with the Copyright Office’s oversight role despite the intimidation tactics.  And the Copyright Office is already looking a bit ragged around the edges from even the little connection to corrosion they’ve had to date.

For example, the Copyright Office announced that “the Butler Report” was commissioned by the Copyright Office to poll ex-US CMOs about their black box practices, knowledge which likely was common to everyone on The MLC’s board.  I must have missed where this work product was put out for bid, which leads me to think it was a single source consulting contract which is what they use to pave the road to hell when good intentions have supply chain disruptions.  Nothing against Susan Butler who is very competent and engaging, but I can think of several academics who would be better suited and would have been peer reviewed.  We can disagree about that, but why not have them submit proposals?  And also deliver all the work product that the taxpayer financed?

MediaNet raises many more excellent points about the inherent conflicts in the NMPA-The MLC-The HFA relationship and The Copyright Office’s designation process that are well worth reading.  You can find the full comment here.

And keep this in mind:

MLC executive Richard Thompson said at the Copyright Office panel on unclaimed royalties last December,[1] “[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.)  Of course, The MLC didn’t announce the selection of HFA and ConsenSys until November 26, 2019. [2]

If The MLC was already working with HFA in July as Mr. Thompson says, why did they give the world the impression that they had not picked a vendor until November?

 

 

 

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

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