Is MLC Getting it Right in a Post-MMA World?

It’s becoming more obvious that the Mechanical Licensing Collective is not succeeding in its Congressional mandate to build the definitive music rights database so that all songwriters get paid. We often hear about MLC match rates being consistent with the “industry standard,” but this is pre-MMA thinking and is no longer relevant in a post-MMA world. (Not to mention the fact that it was these very “industry standards” that produced gigantic levels of unmatched payments that the MLC is mandated to fix.) As we will see, any match rate less than 100% is inconsistent with the MLC’s Congressional mandate which will be relevant when those in control of the MLC’s operations are reviewed by Congress in the not too distant future. Remember, The MLC, Inc. may be a private company in the traditional sense, but the MLC (different than The MLC, Inc.) is a statutory creation whose functionality is awarded to the current operators if they do a good job giving effect to the Congressional mandate. Congress can take that deal away and essentially “fire” The MLC, Inc.

It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that the Copyright Office has no stomach for its Congressionally mandated oversight role as they have been silent as the tomb so far no matter how absurd the results coming from MLC. The difference in post-MMA planning is that every royalty audit of MLC should be accompanied by a FOIA request to the Copyright Office regarding what they knew and when they knew it. Neither of those remedies were available in combination to songwriters in a pre-MMA environment. (If you took the king’s shilling and signed up for HFA you got a piece of an audit recovery of unknown providence for the most part often based on projections.)

Thankfully, due to the services paying for MLC operations as well as cost-shifting combinations of direct licensing, modified compulsory and service-supported blanket (and significant non-blanket) licensing, cost will never be a factor for The MLC, so the only consideration should be the benefit to all songwriters from getting it right

Not everyone sees it that way. I raised this point on a Copyright Office roundtable about the MLC and was immediately jumped on by both the Head of Government Relations for Spotify and the head of the Digital Media Association (neither of whom have rendered a royalty statement in their lives in all likelihood). They rejected my position that the MMA requires that there should be no cost benefit analysis in matching–remember, the services are supposed to pay for that matching functionality as part of their deal for the MMA safe harbor giveaway.

Now I’m sure that these DIMA companies are perfectly capable of getting a match rate that’s in the limit. Just because they’ve never done it before doesn’t mean they can’t ever do it. They just need a little guidance.

Fortunately we have Congressional guidance on this issue in the legislative history of Title I of the Music Modernization Act which states:

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

H. Rep. 115-651 (115th Cong. 2nd Sess. April 25, 2018) at 8. (my emphasis)

I realize that the Head of Government Relations for Spotify would want to protect her employer as would the head of DIMA and immediately try to kill the idea that the MLC had to set new industry standards and that the services would pay for it. And that’s a reasonable deal in exchange for the safe harbor giveaway.

But that wasn’t the deal they made. Now you can well say that the services are not required to give a blank check, that the costs should be reasonable, and that the services have something to say about how the money is spent particularly given their expertise with supporting the world’s intelligence agencies in finding things and people, or so says Mr. Snowden. But we already see that the services got a rube deal for their tens of millions in MLC costs if the match rate is simply as bad as it was before MMA (or worse). That wasn’t their deal, either.

The deal they made was to see to it that “all artists are paid for their creations”. No qualifiers.

All means all.


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