Holding the Line on Tradeoffs for Statutory Damages

It is very likely that we will hear about a move to make significant amendments to the Copyright Act at some point before the beginning of campaign season in 2018.  There are a significant number of copyright-related bills that have been introduced in the House of Representatives in the current session, so brace yourself for an “omnibus” copyright bill that would try to cobble them all together Frankenstein-style.

A Frankenstein omnibus bill would be a very bad idea in my view and will inevitably lead to horse trading of fake issues against a false deadline.  Omnibus bills are a bad idea for songwriters and artists, particularly independent songwriters and artists, because omnibus bills tend to bring together Corporate America in attack formation.

MIC Coaltion
The MIC Coalition

When you consider that Google and Facebook are part of Corporate America (not to mention Apple), the odds of the independent songwriter and artist, but really any songwriter and artist, just holding onto the few crumbs they currently have crash and burn.  The odds of actually righting wrongs or–God forbid–getting rid of the legacy consent decrees that protect Big Business vanish into the limit.

Of course, what certain elements of Big Tech would really like to do is push all licensing of music into one organization that they could then control through consent decrees or other government regulation and supervision by exercise of the massive lobbying and litigation muscle of the MIC Coalition and DIMA.  While I realize that may actually sound anti-competitive, it is typical of monopolists to use the antitrust law to destroy competition (as Professor Taplin has taught us).   That’s certainly what has happened with the PRO consent decrees–reduced competition and lower royalties.  Not to mention such a licensing organization would collapse under its own complexity.  This is probably why the Copyright Office envisioned a “Music Rights Organization” that would combine the PROs and mechanical rights licensing but provided the relief valve of an new opt-out right so that songwriters could escape the madness.  (“Under the Office’s proposal, except to the extent they chose to opt out of the blanket statutory system, publishers and songwriters would license their public performance and mechanical rights through MROs.”  Copyright Office Music Licensing Study at p. 9)

If you want some ideas about the kinds of property rights that Big Tech wants the government to take away from songwriters and artists, just read Spotify’s most recent filing in the songwriter litigation in Nashville where their lawyer tries to define away mechanical royalties (unsurprisingly, the lawyer is a long-time protege of Lessig).  Why?  Because they are being brought to a trial by their peers on statutory damages for copyright infringement and the potential for having to pay the songwriters’ lawyers due to a statutory right to recover attorneys fees.  (Statutory damages for copyright infringement has long been an attack point of Big Tech and we get a preview of where they want it to go in Pamela Samuelson’s “Copyright Principles Project”–essentially abolished.)

One way or another, the Big Tech cartel (which includes all the companies in the MIC Coalition and MIC Coalition member the Digital Media Association which itself has members like Spotify and, curiously, Apple) is very likely going to go after statutory damages and try to create yet another “safe harbor” for themselves with no burdens–a “friction free” way to infringe pretty much at will because the actual damages for streaming royalties will be pennies.

If the cartel succeeds in eliminating statutory damages and attorneys fees awards, this will truly make copyright infringement litigation toothless and entirely eliminate the one tool that independent songwriters and artists have to protect their rights.  It will neuter massive copyright infringement as alleged in all of the Spotify class actions, not to mention cases like Limewire.

Oh, you say–did you just switch from song copyrights to sound recording copyrights by referencing Limewire?  Yes, I did–because that’s exactly what I predict the DIMA and MIC Coalition have in mind.  Why do I say this?  Because that’s what these companies are backing in the radioactive Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership bill (HR 3350).  And if you blow up all the current separate bills into one omnibus copyright “reform” bill, the pieces may reconstitute in forms you didn’t expect.

But realize that in almost all the many copyright bills currently before the House of Representatives, the other side is trying to bootstrap unjust harm into a negotiation chip to shakedown creators.  And it’s not just pending legislation–the shakedown is especially observable with the millions of notices of intention to rely on statutory mechanical licenses for songs filed with the Copyright Office.  That’s a nice song you got there, it would be a shame if something happened to it.

Big Tech’s basic negotiation method is to rely on a loophole, bootstrap the loophole to build up the pressure on people who can’t fight back, then run the shakedown to get concessions that should never be made.  This is what Google has done with the DMCA and is the same shakedown tactic on mass NOIs taken by Google, Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, and others–but curiously not Apple.  Somehow Apple has made it work with the most successful digital music platform in history.

Let’s go down the issue list:

Bootstrapped Issue

Fix

Bill

Pandora and Sirius stopped paying artists for digital royalties on pre-72 recordings—because of loophole based on federal copyright protection for sound recordings Start paying artist royalties on classic recordings made before 1972 CLASSICS Act
Terrestrial radio created a loophole so they don’t have to pay performance royalties to artists on sound recordings; stop artists from opting out Start paying artist royalties for broadcast radio (with protection for noncommercial and small broadcasters) Fair Pay Fair Play Act, PROMOTE Act
Big tech suddenly started using a loophole to file millions of “address unknown” NOIs with Copyright Office after indie songwriters filed class actions Require Big Tech to use existing databases to look up copyright owners or don’t use the songs or recordings. None
No “central database” that has all songs (but no requirement to actually look up anything), requires double registration If songwriters and artists don’t register, then no statutory damages Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act

Blown up into parts:

–Avoid raising mechanical royalty rate or paying artist royalties on terrestrial at all

–How to use the lack of the mythical “central database” as a bright and shiny object to avoid paying royalties and shirk liability for not doing copyright research, an absurd position for companies that owe much of their wealth to their unprecedented ability to profile people around the world and “organize the world’s information”

–Avoid paying statutory damages

–How to avoid paying royalties that should have paid anyway (pre-72, terrestrial, mass NOI) through distorted interpretations of the law or even safer harbors

–Avoid an obligation to actually look up anything (new databases)

–Use any work they want if all they have to pay is actual damages and no attorneys fees

–Keep songwriters and artists from opting out

–Create biggest black box possible

It should be apparent which way Big Tech is trying to push the creative community.  It is important for creators to understand that any legislative concession that the MIC Coalition or DIMA win against songwriters or artists they will then turn around and try to extract in the next shakedown–authors, photographers, film makers, all the copyright categories.

It is in everyone’s interest to support a healthy creative community that will continue to engage fans and do enough commerce to create value for the tech monopolies.  But–it is crucial to understand that it doesn’t work the other way around.

The purpose of the creative community is not to create value for tech monopolies.  It is to support compelling artists and help them engage with fans, and sometimes it is art for art’s sake alone.  If those artists throw off some commercial gain that the tech monopolies can turn to profit themselves, fine.  But creating profit for these monopolists is not the goal of artists.

Instead of creating fake problems to try to extract concessions that further undermine creators like offering ice in winter, the tech monopolies like Google, Spotify, Amazon and Pandora should identify real problems and work with us toward real solutions–and not a loophole-driven shakedown.

 

 

Don’t Believe the Astroturf: Yet More Regulations Won’t Help Songwriters or Small Business

“[Government] interference is but the first link of a long chain of repetitions, every subsequent interference being naturally produced by the effects of the preceding.”

James Madison, The Federalist Papers No. 44

There is a bill in Congress backed by the mega lobbying juggernaut called the MIC Coalition that would force songwriters and artists to “register” with the government in order to protect their rights from the biggest corporations in the world.  Failing to do so would take away the stick of statutory damages and an award of attorneys fees to songwriters or artists who are victorious in copyright infringement litigation.  Statutory damages and attorneys’ fees are the only real protection that the government gives these creators–the smallest of small businesses.

Why?  Because the government does virtually nothing to protect the rights of artists.  If it weren’t for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees there would be nothing between a creator and the ravages of mega-corporations.  Try calling a U.S. Attorney and asking them to prosecute a massive infringer.  If it hasn’t happened yet given the rampant piracy we’ve seen over the last 20 years now, it should tell you that it’s never going to happen with rich corporations that run roughshod over artist rights.

Yet songwriters in particular are some of the most highly regulated workers in America.  The government forces songwriters to license their work and sets the price they can license at–yet does nothing to enforce the “compulsory licenses” it imposes on songwriters.  Not only is the government in their lives at every turn, songwriters are poorly treated by their government.  Why?  One reason is that songwriters are among the smallest of small businesses and have little political clout.

That explains why the government imposes wage and price controls on songwriters through consent decrees and rate courts, but forgets to raise their wages for 70 years.  Can you imagine how that would go down if the government tried doing the same to auto workers or even the minimum wage?

The Rate that Time Forgot

The government first established the “minimum” statutory mechanical royalty in 1909 at 2¢ per copy.  When the government enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938–twenty nine years later–the government-mandated minimum statutory rate for songs was still 2¢ per copy.  The hourly minimum wage was set at 25¢.

The government didn’t get around to raising the minimum statutory rate until 1978–sixty nine years after it was established in 1909–when they raised it from 2¢ to 2.75¢.  The hourly minimum wage had then been raised from 25¢ to $2.65.  Shortly after, the government started indexing the minimum statutory rate from the rate that time forgot–had the government indexed to the rate of inflation from 1909 to 1978, the rate would have been closer to 13¢, a level it has yet to reach over 100 years after it was first set–today the rate is 9.1¢.  And the government has frozen the rate at 9.1¢ since 2006–eleven years ago.

That’s a cruel mess.

What happens if a music user wants to avail themselves of the statutory license but simply refuses to pay the paltry royalty rate?  Nothing happens.  At least not unless the songwriter or their publisher sues for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees.  If you’ve followed the class action cases brought by David Lowery and Melissa Ferrick against Spotify, you’ll know that these cases only involve small songwriters.  Now there’s two publishers suing Spotify in Nashville–again, small publishers suing for statutory damages and attorneys fees.  Publishers who chose to go it alone rather than take a settlement.

If these plaintiffs didn’t have the statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, do you think anyone in the government would care that the government’s compulsory license was being misused?

We’re From Washington and We’re Here to Help

Individual music users like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Spotify have about as much political clout as any of the other notorious monopolists in history from Standard Oil to United Fruit.  As members of the MIC Coalition lobbying group, these companies have the political clout of Big Tobacco, Big Pharma or Big Bombs.

These companies are all part of the MIC Coalition (or are members of other lobbying groups that are).  The MIC Coalition is all about this new “government list” that’s supposed to protect small business by crushing small business.

MIC Coaltion

Here’s the pitch on the government database from the MIC Coalition:

The lack of an authoritative public database creates problems for venues and small businesses including restaurants, taverns, wineries, and hotels. For example, venues are declining to host live musicians rather than risk potential liability due to lack of up-to-date and actionable licensing information. The lack of a database is also a challenge for local broadcasters and digital music streaming services that rely on accurate copyright information to provide music to millions of consumers.

The assumption behind this legislation is that if the government just forced all the world’s songwriters and artists to register in the government’s list, that music users would actually use that database.  If there’s one common theme in the recent lawsuits against digital services it is that the services don’t seem to use the available data–except to file millions of mass statutory licenses using a loophole in the Copyright Act.  The users spend big bucks to claim they can’t find the copyright owner of the songs they use in the current Copyright Office records and seek the government’s cover from lawsuits as if they were legitimate users.

If they put the same effort into finding the songwriters that they do into filing millions of mass NOIs, these services might not have so many problems.  And instead of removing the loophole, the government now floats this “government list” database idea to create an even more complicated loophole at taxpayer expense.

Reject the 11th Century Solution to a 21st Century Problem

It’s important to realize two key causes for the licensing mess the government has created through over-regulating songwriters, one of which is not entirely the government’s fault.

The Government Should Allow Statutory Licensing by ASCAP and BMI:  Because the government imposes a near-compulsory license through consent decrees against songwriters who are members of the two largest performing rights societies (ASCAP and BMI), a perfect opportunity to streamline the compulsory license is simply lost.  The government’s courts that supervise songwriters actually prohibit ASCAP and BMI from engaging in compulsory licensing.  If these PROs were allowed to issue licenses for all the rights digital services need, that would be a meaningful step forward.

This would make ASCAP and BMI similar to SESAC which can issue both performance rights licenses and mechanical licenses after SESAC’s acquisition of the Harry Fox Agency.  SESAC is not subject to a consent decree.  The MIC Coalition didn’t like that either and complained to the Department of Justice seeking an investigation into stopping an idea that could work.

hesse

Require Music Users to Search the PRO Databases for Song Ownership before Serving Address Unknown Mass NOIs at Taxpayer Expense:  There is nothing in the “government list” bill that actually requires music users to search or document that they have searched this new database.  Current law requires a search of at least the Copyright Office records (which Amazon, Google, Pandora, Spotify, Microsoft, iHeart and others are supposedly doing already by the millions) and in some circumstances permits a search of the performing rights society databases as well (see 37 CFR Sec. 201.10 h/t Richard Perna).

It is a short leap to require music users to search the publicly available databases of ASCAP and BMI as well as the public records of the Copyright Office before serving millions of address unknown NOIs on the Copyright Office.  This will be particularly relevant given the recently announced voluntary cooperative effort between ASCAP and BMI to combine their repertory databases (which could include other PROs).  While there is some complaining from MIC Coalition members that ASCAP and BMI won’t indemnify users of their databases for the accuracy of the data, that dog won’t hunt.

That simply isn’t true for parties to the ASCAP and BMI licenses, which after all is why the databases are created in the first place.  Since ASCAP and BMI have no idea what use anyone may make of the data and if that use is even authorized by the song or recording owners, how could they possibly be expected to indemnify all users for any use in any country of any song?  Those databases are not a search engine.  Nobody else does that, especially not search engines, e.g., Google’s disclaimer:

Our Warranties and Disclaimers

We provide our Services using a commercially reasonable level of skill and care and we hope that you will enjoy using them. But there are certain things that we don’t promise about our Services.

OTHER THAN AS EXPRESSLY SET OUT IN THESE TERMS OR ADDITIONAL TERMS, NEITHER GOOGLE NOR ITS SUPPLIERS OR DISTRIBUTORS MAKE ANY SPECIFIC PROMISES ABOUT THE SERVICES. FOR EXAMPLE, WE DON’T MAKE ANY COMMITMENTS ABOUT THE CONTENT WITHIN THE SERVICES, THE SPECIFIC FUNCTIONS OF THE SERVICES, OR THEIR RELIABILITY, AVAILABILITY, OR ABILITY TO MEET YOUR NEEDS. WE PROVIDE THE SERVICES “AS IS”.

SOME JURISDICTIONS PROVIDE FOR CERTAIN WARRANTIES, LIKE THE IMPLIED WARRANTY OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NON-INFRINGEMENT. TO THE EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, WE EXCLUDE ALL WARRANTIES.

If the government wants to tinker with the Rube Goldberg system of music licensing that it has imposed on songwriters, it could start by making these two changes before imposing a 21st Century version of William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, the Great Survey of England conducted in 1088.

Oh, and if they’re so fired up about forcing people to do things through regulation, why not force music users to license, pay and account in compliance with the law.

 

The Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act: The Domesday Book Meets A Unicorn

Americans are freedom loving people and nothing says freedom like getting away with it.

Long Long Time, written by Guy Forsyth

Longtime PRO opponent Rep. Sensenbrenner introduced a bill entitled “The Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act“, a piece of work that is Dickensian in its cruelty, bringing a whole new meaning to either “newspeak” or “draconian,” take your pick.  It’s rare that the Congress can accomplish the hat trick of an interference with private contracts, an unconstitutional taking and an international trade treaty violation all in one bill.  But I guess practice makes perfect.  And since the MIC Coalition gave the bill a rousing cheer followed by a heaping serving of astroturf, we should not be surprised.  (Read the bill here.)

While this legislation currently applies only to songs and sound recordings, other creators should not feel that they’ve dodged a bullet.  I hear that the House Judiciary Committee staff is planning on closing the loop and making all copyright categories subject to the same “register or lose it” approach favored by Lessig, Samuelson and their fellow travelers.  If you thought that we are in an era of the triumph of property rights, that must be a different Congress you’re thinking of.

The bill perpetuates the myth of the “global rights database” that no one who understands the complexities believes will ever be created.  It sounds logical, right?  We have county recorders for real estate, the DMV for cars, why not a database for music?

That is an 11th century idea being welded onto a 21st century problem, the Domesday Book meets a unicorn.  The problem isn’t knowing who owns a particular work which evidently is either what they believe or want you to believe.

The problem is that the users don’t want to seek permission or beg forgiveness, either.  They want to get away with it.  This bill demonstrates that unassailable fact in colors bold as the Google logo.

Think about it–by the time you finish reading this post, 1000 songs will be written and 500 songs will be recorded somewhere out there in the world.  Or more.  (Not to mention photographs taken,  paintings painted, chapters written and so on.)

Do you think that songwriters around the world are thinking, now I know what lets do, let’s rush to go register that new song in the U.S. Copyright Office–in the database, the registration section, the recordation section?  Otherwise, I’ll never be able to afford the lawyer to sue Spotify if they don’t pay me.  I don’t think they’re thinking that at all and are about to fall into the MIC Association’s trap for the unwary.  Why the MIC Coalition?  We’ll come back to them.

mic-coalition-no-npr
MIC Coalition Members

In a nutshell, the bill requires the extraordinarily heavy burden of requiring all songwriters and recording artists (or their publishers or labels)–all, as in the entire world seeking to sue in the U.S., not just the US writers–to register numerous fields of data in a yet to be created database if they plan on suing for statutory damages:

[I]n an action brought under this title for infringement of the exclusive right to perform publicly, reproduce, or distribute a nondramatic musical work or sound recording, the remedies available to a copyright owner [ANY copyright owner] that has failed to provide or maintain the information [required] shall be limited to…(A) an order requiring the infringer to pay to the copyright owner actual damages for the public performance, reproduction, or distribution of the infringed work; and…(B) injunctive relief to prevent or restrain any infringement alleged in the civil action.

That means if you haven’t undertaken the formality of registering in this new database, then the user has no exposure to statutory damages and will not have to pay the victorious songwriter or artists attorneys’ fees.  And this new safe harbor applies apparently even if that songwriter or artist has filed a copyright registration under existing law.

There is nothing in the bill that actually requires the protected class to actually look up anything in this new database, or actually be in compliance with existing statutory licenses (such as the webcasting or simulcasting licenses).

So who is in the new protected class entitled to the Nanny State’s protection from those collusive and pesky songwriters and artists?  Let’s look at the victimology of the “ENTITLEMENT” paragraph.

Well, actually, there’s no “ENTITLEMENT” paragraph for the entitled, it’s actually called “APPLICABILITY” (see “newspeak”, WAR IS PEACE, etc.).  The connected class includes five different categories of cronies.

First, the defined term “An establishment” gets the new even safer harbor.  “Establishment” is a defined term in the Copyright Act (in Sec. 101 for those reading along at home):

An “establishment” is a store, shop, or any similar place of business open to the general public for the primary purpose of selling goods or services in which the majority of the gross square feet of space that is nonresidential is used for that purpose, and in which nondramatic musical works are performed publicly.

Like the members of this organization, the National Retail Federation:

mic-coaltion-8-15 Retailers

Then another defined term “A food service or drinking establishment”.  Kind of like these people:

mic-coaltion-8-15 Booze

That is, the National Restaurant Association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association  (aka those who put their kids through college thanks to SXSW) and their suppliers, the American Beer, Wine and Spirits Retailers.

Next, “A terrestrial broadcast station licensed as such by the Federal Communications Commission”.  I guess that would include the National Association of Broadcasters, iHeart, Salem and Cox (which of course raises the question of whether this entitlement also applies to Cox’s Internet group), kind of like these people:

mic-coaltion-8-15 radio

Don’t forget “An entity operating under one of the statutory licenses described in section 112, 114 [webcasting and simulcasting], or 115 [mechanical licenses].”  Note–not that the statutory license applies to the particular song or sound recording in the way it is used that is the subject of the lawsuit, just that the entity is operating some part of its business under one of those licenses regardless of whether the service that is the subject of the lawsuit operates under one of these licenses or not.  (Pandora’s on-demand service compared to webcasting, for example, could be out of compliance with its sound recording licenses but claim the safe harbor because it is “operating under” one or more of the statutory webcasting license in the radio service or the statutory mechanical licenses for songs.)

It appears that would include these people:

mic-coaltion-DiMA Members

and don’t forget these people who are DiMA members and need the government’s protection from songwriters and artists:

Amazon logo

white apple logo

Microsoft Logo

Spotify_logo

And then I guess you could throw the Consumer Technology Association and CCIA in there, too.

So I think that’s everyone, right?

Last but not least there’s this group as “belt and suspenders”:

An entity performing publicly, reproducing, or distributing musical works or sound  recordings in good faith as demonstrated by evidence such as [i.e., but not limited to] a license agreement in good standing with a performing rights society or other entity authorized to license the use of musical works or sound recordings.

Note:  The license need not be for the musical works or sound recordings for which the “entity” is being sued, just any license for any musical works or sound recordings.

There are loopholes in the bill that you could drive a fleet of Street View cars through, so you have to assume that the loopholes will be hacked given who is involved.  Don’t let anyone tell you “oh that’s just legislative language, we can fix that.”  The whole thing has to be voted down.

Let’s call this bill what it is:  Crony capitalism, the triumph of the connected class.  The Domesday Book writ large.

It’s some of the biggest companies in the world deciding that they don’t want to hear from songwriters or artists anymore.

So shut up and sing.

 

Save the Date! July 26 in Austin: Chris Castle on Address Unknown NOIs Sponsored by Texas Accountants & Lawyers for the Arts

Big thanks to Texas Accountants & Lawyers for the Arts and Norton Rose Fulbright for hosting my presentation on the “address unknown” loophole and what to do about it.  As MTS and MTP readers will recall, this is a vital issue for songwriters that is a festering sore that no one has addressed.  We appreciate the support from I Respect Music Austin!

All are welcome. One hour of Texas CLE credit pending.

6:15-7:15pm Presentation “Address Unknown: Are You Missing Money from Your Songs”

7:15-8:00pm Mixer with attorneys, artists, managers, and other participants

If you are able to attend, please RSVP for details on Eventbrite.

https---cdn.evbuc.com-images-33068089-87998774455-1-original

Will Digital Aggregators Lead the Industry on Transparency with Spotify and Others?

The Music Managers Forum UK have criticized the “secrecy” arounds Spotify’s deals with major labels.  According to Complete Music Update:

The UK’s Music Managers Forum yesterday welcomed the news that Spotify had reached a new deal with Universal Music. However, the trade body criticised the continued secrecy that surrounds the deals made between the major record companies and the streaming services. This secrecy means that artists signed to or distributed by those labels are not allowed to know the specifics of how their music is being monetised.

The same criticism could equally be made of non-statutory, statutory, or direct agreements by digital aggregators like CD Baby, Tunecore, LyricFind, Pledge Music, the Orchard and Loudr, each of which offer varying degrees of transparency of their own books, much less the deals they’ve made with digital services on behalf of the artists, songwriters, labels and music publishers appointing them as agents for relicense of music.  (Loudr, for example, has recently started participating in the most obscure licensing process of all, the mass NOI registrations with the Copyright Office.  Read more about that on another series of MTS posts or my recent article in an American Bar Association journal.  At least with mass NOIs, songwriters know what their royalty is–zero.)

Loudr NOIs
Mass NOI Filings by PK Interactive on behalf of Loudr

It is probably fair to say that there is no disclosure of the actual terms of the direct licenses between these aggregators and the services concerned.  It may also be possible that no one has ever asked the aggregators for the terms of their deals.

That’s a real head scratcher because arguably those aggregators have an even greater obligation to disclose these terms given they cater to many artists, songwriters, music publishers and labels who are unlikely to have the means–even if they have the right–to conduct a royalty examination of any of these companies.  However big a problem anyone has with major labels, every major label artist and major publisher songwriter takes their “audit” rights for granted.

It would be very simple for aggregators to disclose the terms of their deals or to at least summarize them so that artists or songwriters who are considering who to sign with could compare payouts.  It’s fine to tell people what their royalty split, flat fee, or distribution fee might be, but the assumption is that the revenue stream being shared is identical from one aggregator to another.

Also remember that it is common for music services to pay “nonrecoupable” payments to labels–just like it was for record clubs.  This comes in the form of “breakage” or “technology payments” or other ways to keep the money from being called a royalty.  We know this very likely happens with major labels although the amounts are not disclosed–hence the MMF UK’s beef.  We have no way of knowing if it happens with digital aggregators or even what the basic terms of the deals are, which makes it difficult to conduct a desktop audit (the precursor to a full-blown field audit), much less an exhaustive royalty examination.

So let’s not limit the transparency concern to just the major labels.  The digital aggregators could easily lead the way forward by posting the terms of their deals with digital services.  Unless of course the problem lies as much with the digital services as it does with the labels.

 

Fighting for a Straight Count: Does Streaming Accounting Cost More than the Royalties?

When you drill down on exactly what goes into tracking and accounting for songs and recordings on streaming services one thing becomes apparent:  No matter how much you automate, those systems are expensive and the royalties are minuscule.  This is in large part because of the revenue share method of royalty payments that creates a vastly more complex accounting world than a simple per-use penny rate would require.  It’s time to make that change to simplify the reporting.

A recent post by a founder of a digital distributor gives you a sense of the complexity involved:

It’s easy to figure out how much an artist made. But if you want to figure out how much each collaborator is owed from each stream… now you’re looking at millions of rows in hundreds of royalty reports from dozens of sources — every month.

Payments are paid in fractions of cents.

Did I say fractions? I meant 20 decimal places.

Did I say cents? I meant 30 different currencies.

Did I say 30 different currencies? I meant a 350-row exchange rate lookup table. “Customer currency: Swedish Krona, royalty currency: Ukrainian Hryvnia” is a thing (and so on, and so on).

Did I say a 350-row exchange rate lookup table? I meant a different table every month — from every streaming provider.

This gives you a look under the hood of the number of transactions that are inherent in a royalty system that pays every time an end user listens to a track.  It also informs why artists and especially songwriters are royally cheesed about the sharp decrease in the size of their royalty payments.

The hidden transaction costs of the configuration shift from album bundles to singles with  the coming of iTunes was challenging but was at least manageable.  The shift from singles to individual streams is cost multiplier of significant proportion above the shift from albums to digital singles.  I would submit that not only is the cost not manageable, but when distributors promote themselves based on their ability to handle twenty decimal places to the right, it probably never will be.

When a firm’s costs exceed revenue, the firm must either take on debt, sell equity or shut down the insolvent business or business unit–or delay paying royalties, more about that later.  Royalty accounting is, of course, a core business function of distributors, but it is also a core function of the parties receiving those royalties out to twenty decimal places to the right–record companies and music publishers.  There are even more accounting costs incurred by the labels and publishers in calculating the artist or writer shares and their own share of revenue, which will cause the decimal places to increase–to the right.

What this means is that in order to stay in business, be able to meet contractual obligations and pay their artists or writers, royalty systems must be able to handle a new level of complexity they were never before required to process.  Sound expensive?

Add to this complexity that many digital music services use the compulsory mechanical license that requires monthly statements and a true-up annual accounting signed by a CPA and no audit right–instead of quarterly or semi-annual accounting with an audit right.  Even if a publisher is accounted to monthly and pays writers quarterly or semi-annually, the publisher still bears the cost of processing the monthly accounting.  The frequency of ingesting these monthly payments may compound the transaction costs at the publisher and songwriter level.

One technique employed in the Pandora on-demand song license (paragraph 6(a)) is to defer both payment of mechanicals and royalty statements until the revenue payable is $50.  While this may seem reasonable on its face, it’s not–for largely the same reasons that the Copyright Office rejected this approach (37 CFR Sec. 210.16(g)(6)).  Pandora’s license is clearly a variation on the law, which limits the deferral to $5 (not Pandora’s $50) and requires that Pandora pay any deferred royalties on the Annual Statement of Account.

That means that the service cannot write itself an indefinite interest free loan with the songwriters money and not tell the songwriter it is doing so.  And, of course, you can’t audit statements you don’t receive.

Holding these sums is one way to finance the cost of running these accounting systems that deliver ever-smaller fractions of a penny paid to songwriters and artists.  That should sound familiar–new money used to pay old obligations.  Does the name Madoff come to mind?

It’s also important to note that in a revenue share world where money is allocated based on a core calculation of uses of your catalog divided by all songs used on the service in a month, that fraction will produce an ever smaller share of revenue if the rate of change in your catalog titles is less than the rate of change in the number of all songs on the service. (This will likely be true even if the service revenue increases, because your share of it will decline on a relative basis.)

So what is twenty decimal places today, could be even more decimal places in a year or two.

Where the industry went wrong was in the beginning when services got us to buy into the idea that getting something was better than piracy and that we owed the services a chance to find an audience.  When the revenue shared was low and higher margin goods were the focus, that was one thing.

The current state of plays is another thing altogether and revenue share deals for per listen payments require a level of complexity we can’t continue to support.

And yes, that means you, Facebook negotiators.

Big Tech’s Latest Infringement Loophole: Mass Filings of NOIs to Avoid Paying Statutory Royalties (Part 3)

Recap of Part 1 and Part 2

As we saw in parts 1 and 2 of this post, New Boss companies like Google are playing on a loophole in the Copyright Act’s compulsory license for songs to shirk responsibility for song licensing from the songwriters or other copyright owners, get out of paying royalties and stop songwriters from auditing.

Not only have Google targeted long tail titles, but also new releases and songs by ex-US songwriters who are protected by international treaties.  This is exactly the kind of rent seeking behavior by crony capitalists that gives Big Tech a bad name in the music community.

Google are doing this on a grand scale and at great expense, reportedly using “millions” of “address unknown” NOI filings with the Copyright Office that are supposed to be reserved for bona fide situations where the copyright owner cannot be found after a reasonably diligent search.  Amazon is doing the same.

Through a quirk in the law (which needs to be fixed pronto) Google and Amazon are paying astonishing sums in filing fees to send the “address unknown” NOIs to the Copyright Office for songs that have not been registered for U.S. copyright or otherwise recorded with the Copyright Office.  “Address unknown” NOIs are intended to be used when you really can’t find the address of the copyright owner after a diligent search of relevant records, although the Copyright Act limits the search to the public records of the Copyright Office.  That limitation on records to be searched is a legacy echo from the 1909 revision of the Copyright Act which required registration and renewal for copyright to attach in the U.S.

So far, the overwhelming majority of “address unknown” NOIs are filed by Google.  Spot checking the Amazon filings shows that Amazon filed a handful of titles.

Google apparently accomplishes this by manipulating a data dump from the Library of Congress that was never designed for filing mass NOIs and comparing the metadata in the data dump song title to their own list of sound recording titles that they want to exploit on their services.

Moral Hazard Revisited, DMCA Style

If you have a recording you want to use, you need to clear the song.  You take that song title from the recording and look it up in the Library of Congress data dump.  If it’s not there, you file the “address unknown” NOI.  Wash, rinse, repeat 1,000,000 times or more. See how that works?

As if by magic, you don’t have to pay mechanical royalties until the songwriter figures out what you have done by checking the NOI submissions page at the Copyright Office (assuming anyone knows it’s there or knows their song might be listed) and then…does what?

co-nois-1
Note that “1 NOI” means “1 NOI with tens of thousands of songs attached in an Excel file”

This approach is fraught with moral hazard for largely the same reasons that plague the DMCA safe harbor–the party who benefits from avoiding both royalties and copyright infringement liability by sending the “address unknown” NOI is also the party who decides whether they qualify for the “address unknown” NOI.  The Copyright Office clearly lacks the resources to cross check.  Sounds kind of like DMCA notices, right?

The excuse the services  give for this approach is that they can’t find the copyright owner for “long tail” and new releases.

The long tail part you can understand, but of course you have to ask yourself if a title is so obscure that you can’t find the song copyright owner, then why use it at all?  Holding a track off of a service is far more likely to get the songwriter to come forward than sneaking around through the back door.

The New Release Scam Illustrated

It’s with new releases that Google runs the true arbitrage play.  This is the part that makes no sense, particularly for songs written or owned by people with whom Google does repeat business.  By relying on the “address unknown” NOI filings for new releases, even for songs that may be subject to a direct license, Google is using a loophole to appropriate value to themselves that should rightly go to the songwriters.

Let’s take another Sting example.

Sting released the song “50,000”, apparently as a single from his new 57th & 9th LP.  “50,000” is an introspective Sting-style tribute to David Bowie and Prince.  The album release date was September 23, 2016 and the single debuted around September 17.  Google must have gotten the track around the same time as it is listed in Google’s September 16, 2016 mass NOI filing on line 626.

50000-noi

“50,000” is a particularly good example of how bogus Google’s approach is to “address unknown” NOIs.  Google’s basis for filing the NOI on “50,000” apparently is that “50,000” is not included in either a copyright registration or other recording in the public records of the Copyright Office at the moment that Google looked for it.  What this evidently means is that “50,000” wasn’t in the Library of Congress data dump sometime prior to September 16 when Google filed its mass NOI.

It is important to remember that there is no requirement for anyone to register their works or otherwise record their works in order to enjoy the rights of a copyright owner–such as mechanical royalties.  This is true under international copyright law, not just in the U.S., so this quirk in U.S. copyright law is probably illegal and possibly unenforceable  (which is why the “address unknown” NOI filing needs to be amended or eliminated–more about that below).

So simply put–how can you take away rights from a copyright owner based on a registration requirement that the copyright owner is not required to comply with because it is a formality that is actually prohibited by law?  Sound Kafka-esque to you?  It does to me.

In Sting’s case, Google knows who Sting is.  They have other songs by Sting for which they probably sent an NOI.  They may even have a direct license with Sting’s publisher that may actually supersede or be in lieu of a statutory license.  In other words–they very well may have actual knowledge of Sting’s publisher.  Wouldn’t that be a good place to start?

Yet because a new release has not yet shown up in the Copyright Office records, Google sends an NOI and will not be required to pay royalties until–if ever–the song is included in the Library of Congress data dump.  Even though Sting is not required to register the song, Sting’s publisher may decide to register the copyright in order to take advantage of statutory damages and attorneys fees for infringement actions.

Getting a conformed copy of a copyright registration can take months–so for a single or an album, any mechanical royalties from Google under a statutory license during the new release window will never be paid.  And if any direct license does not expressly prohibit including titles in mass NOIs, there’s a good chance no new release will get mechanical royalties from Google.

What Is To Be Done?

So now we know what the problem is, how to stop it?  Not so easy to do.

1. Anticompetitive:  It should not be lost on anyone that the government has created an opportunity for companies with market power to use their leverage to the disadvantage of their competitors as well as songwriters.  It takes considerable capital to pay the filing fees  to the Copyright Office and purchase data from the Library of Congress in order to arbitrage this loophole.

2. Take Down the Recordings:  There are any one of a number of ways that the terms of a typical interactive music service license can be interpreted to allow the sound recording owner to pull recordings by at least current roster artists, especially new releases written by artist/songwriters (including co-writes) who complain to their labels.

3.  Take Down the Songs:  Direct licenses from music publishers presumably have some clause that will allow the publishers to stop mass NOI filings for their catalog, particularly of the type that creates a nonexistent distinction between versions of a song that have been retititled–not by the songwriter or publisher but by the artist or record company because the versions of the recording are different even though the song remains the same.

4.  Counterfeits or Bootlegs (including stream rips):  Statutory licenses are only available for sound recordings distributed under the authority of the copyright owner.  There are a number of NOIs that look suspiciously like bootlegs or counterfeits, some of which may have been stream ripped.  As Google is presumably sending NOIs for YouTube Red or other on-demand service.

5.  Congressional Investigation to Stop the Library of Congress Selling Data for NOIs:  The LOC has no business selling what is obviously incomplete data or misleading data to a user who so obviously is using it for a harmful purpose.  The LOC could stop that immediately if they were so instructed by the Congress, and in any event the Congress should investigate.

6. Use Webform to Update or File Your Address Including Excel File Link:  The Copyright Office has a webform for email contact by the public available here.  You can use this to file your address and link to your catalog in an Excel file (hosted on your website or blog).  Such correspondence is likely subject to FOIA (and therefore part of the public records of the Copyright Office), but you can also state in your webform that you are submitting the information with the intention that it become public and demand that your information be provided to anyone submitting a mass NOI as part of the LOC data dump.

The point that seems to have escaped Google and Amazon is that this loophole will surely be stopped, but what won’t be stopped is the complete lack of moral compass that would drive megacorporations to run roughshod over songwriters that they so aptly demonstrate.