The Economics of Recoupment Forgiveness

Can Forgiveness Be Compulsory?

There is a drumbeat starting in some quarters, particularly in the UK, for the government to inject itself into private contracts and cause a forgiveness of unrecouped balances in artist agreements after a date certain–as if by magic.  Adopting such a law would focus Government action to essentially cause a compulsory “sale” by the government of the amount of every artist’s unrecouped balance due to the passing of time for what is arguably a private benefit.

Writing off the unrecouped balance for the artist’s private benefit would essentially cause the transfer to the artist of the value of the unrecouped balance to be measured at zero–which raises a question as to the other side of the double-entry if the government also allows a financial accounting write off for the record company investor  but values that risk capital at zero.  Government action of this type raises Constitutional questions in the U.S., and I suspect will also raise those same types of questions in any jurisdiction where the common law obtains.  We’ll come back to this.  It also raises questions as to why anyone would risk the investment in new artists’ recordings if the time frame for recovery of that risk capital is foreshortened. We’ll come back to this, too.

What’s Wrong with Being Unrecouped?

Remember—being unrecouped is not a “debt” or a “loan”.  It’s just a prepayment of royalties by contract that is conditioned on certain events happening before it is ever “repaid.”   There is no guarantee that the prepaid royalties will ever be earned.

One of the all-time great artist managers told me once that if his artist was recouped under the artist’s record deal, the manager was not doing his job.  The whole point was to be as unrecouped as humanly possible at all times.  Why?  Because it was free money money bet that may never be called.  Plus he would do his best to make the label or publisher bet too high and he was never going to let them bet too low.

Another great artist manager who was representing a new artist who went on to do well before breaking up said that once he realized he was never going to be recouped with the record company it was a wonderfully liberating experience.  He’d talk them into loads of recoupable off-contract payments like tour support, promotion and marketing that made his band successful and that he didn’t share with the label.  Tour support is only 50% recoupable?  How much will you spend if it’s 100% recoupable?

Get the idea?  We’re starting to hear some rumblings about a statutory cutoff for recoupment of a term of years.  First of all, I would bet such a rule in the U.S. if applied retroactively would be unconstitutional taking in violation of due process under the 5th Amendment.  Regardless, whichever country adopts such a rule will in short order find themselves with either no record companies or with vastly different deal points in artist recording agreements subject to their national law.  (See the “$50,000 a year” controversy from 1994 over California Civ. Code §3423 when California-based labels were contemplating leaving the State.  We’re way beyond runaway production now.)

Record Company as Banker

Let’s imagine two scenarios:  One is an unsigned artist trying to finance a recording, the other is a catalog artist with an inactive royalty account.  They each illustrate different issues regarding recoupment.

Imagine you went to a bank to finance your recordings.  You told the banker I do some livestreams, here’s my Venmo account statements and I have all this Spotify data on my 200,000 streams that made me $500 but cost me $10,000 in marketing.  Most importantly of all, your assistant thinks I am really cool, if you catch my drift.

I want to make a better record and I think I could get some gigs if clubs ever reopen.  My songs are really cool.  I need you to lend me $50,000 to make my record and another $50,000 to market it.  (Probably way more.)  I don’t want a maturity date on the loan, I don’t want events of default (meaning it is “non recourse”), you can’t charge me interest, I don’t want to make payments, but you can recoup the principal from the earnings I make for licensing or selling copies of the recordings you pay for.  I’ll market those recordings unless my band breaks up which you have no control over.  As I recoup the principal, I’ll pay you in current dollars for the historical unrecouped balance.  I keep all the publishing, merch and live.  And oh, if you want you can own the recordings, but understand that I will be doing everything I can to try to get you (or guilt you or force you) to give me the recordings back regardless of whether you have recouped your “loan” which isn’t a loan at all.

Deal?

Catalog Fairness

Then consider a catalog artist.  The catalog artist was signed 25 years ago to a term recording artist agreement with $500,000 per LP on a three firm agreement that didn’t pan out.  After tour support, promotion, additional advances to cover income tax payments, the artist got dropped from their label and broke up with a $1,000,000 unrecouped balance.   In the intervening years, the artists went on to individual careers as songwriters and film composers, but none of those subsequent earnings were recoupable as they got dropped and were under separate contracts.  Another thing that happened in the intervening years was the label went from selling CDs at a $10 wholesale price through their wholly owned branch distribution system to selling streams at $0.003 each through a third party platform with probably triple the marketing costs.

The old recordings eventually dwindled below 1,500 CD units a year for a few years, and in 2005 the label cut them out, but continued to service their digital accounts with the recordings as deep and ever deeper catalog.  After a few sync placements, earnings reached zero for a couple years and the royalty account was archived, i.e., taken off line.  Streaming happened and now the recordings are making about $100 a year until one track got onto a Spotify “Gen Z Afternoon Safe Space Tummy Rub” playlist and scored 1,000,000 streams or about $600 give or take.  When the royalty account was archived, it had an unrecouped balance of $800,000 in 1995 dollars.  So the $600 gets accrued in case the catalog ever earns enough to justify the cost of reactivating the account—which means the artist doesn’t get paid for the recordings because they are unrecouped but they also don’t get a statement because they’ve had an earnings drought.  Like most per-stream payments, it would cost more to account for the $600 on a statement than the royalties payable.

Bear in mind that adjusted for inflation—and we’ll come back to that—the $800,000 in 1995 dollars would be worth $1,366,866.14 today.  But because the record company does not charge either overhead, interest, or any inflation charge, the historical $800,000 from 1995 is paid off in ever-inflated current dollars.

As the artist managers said, the artists long ago got the benefit of getting essentially a no-risk lifetime royalty pre-payment (it’s not really correct to call it a “loan” when there’s no recourse, maturity date, payments, interest rate or repayment schedule) and long ago spent the money on a variety of business and personal expenses.  Which potentially enhanced their careers so they could get that film work later down the line.  Or more simply, a bird in the hand.

Do You Really Want Monkey Points?

If you want to see what would happen if this apple cart were rocked, take a good look at a good corollary, the “net profits” definition in the film business, or what Eddy Murphy famously called “monkey points.”  Without getting into the gory details, studios will typically play a game with gross receipts that involves exclusions, deductions, subdistributor receipts, advances, ancillary rights, income from physical properties (from memorabilia like Dorothy’s slippers), distribution fees, distribution and marketing expenses, deferments, gross participation, negative costs, interest on the negative cost, overbudget deductions, overhead on negative cost and marketing costs (and interest on overhead)…shall I go on?  And then there’s the accounting.

The movie industry also has a concept called “turnaround”.  Turnaround happens when Studio A decides (usually for commercial reasons) it is not going forward with a script that it has developed and offers it to other studios for a price that allows it to recover some or all of its development costs usually with an override royalty.  Sometimes it works out well–after a very long time, the project may become “ET.”  Would artists prefer getting dropped or having their contracts put into turnaround?

The point is that while it may sound good to make unrecouped balances vanish after a date certain, people who say that seem to think that all the other deal terms will stay constant or even improve for the artists after that substantial risk shifting.  I seriously doubt that, just like I doubt that venture capitalists who fund the startups that bag on record companies would give up their 2 or 3x liquidation preference, full ratchet anti-dilution protection, registration rights or co-sale agreements.

Should 5% Appear Too Small

But did the unrecouped balance actually vanish?  Not really.  The value was transferred to the artist in the form of forgiveness of an obligation for the artist’s private benefit, however contingent.  That value may be measured in an amount greater than the historic unrecouped balance.  Is this value transfer a separate taxable event?  Must the artist declare the forgiveness as income?  Can the record company write off the value transferred as a loss?  If not, why not?  I can’t think of a good reason.  If anything, valuing the “taking” in current dollars would only correct the valuation issue and could amplify the tax liability of the transfer.

As you can see, wiping out unrecouped balances sounds easy until you think about it.  It is actually a rather complex transaction which immediately raises another question as to when it stops.  Why just signed artists?  Why not all artists?  Songwriters?  Profit participants in motion pictures or television?  Authors?  All of this will be taken into account.

King John and the Barons: Don’t Tread On Me

Setting aside the tax implication, were such government action to take the form of a law to be enacted in the United States, it would prohibit a fundamental right previously enjoyed under the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (one of the Amendments known as the “Bill of Rights”).  The “takings” clause of the 5th Amendment states “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  In fact, such government action would implicate the fundamental rights expressed in the 5th Amendment and applied against the states in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  The 5th Amendment derives from Section 39 of Magna Carta, the seminal constitutional documents in the United Kingdom (dating from 1215 for those reading along at home) and was central to the thinking of Coke, Blackstone and Locke who were central to the thinking of the Founders.

In the U.S., such a law would likely be given a once over and strictly scrutinized by the courts (including The Court) to determine if taking unrecouped balances from a select group of artists, i.e., those signed to record companies, is the only way to get at a compelling government interest in promoting culture even though the taking would be pretty obviously for the private benefit of the artists concerned and only benefiting the public in a very attenuated manner. In other words, will treating a select group of pretty elite artists (at a minimum those signed vs. those unsigned) satisfy the strict scrutiny standard applied to a government taking of private property with no compensation.  (This distinction also smacks of a due process violation which is a whole other rabbit hole.)  I suspect the government loses the strict scrutiny microbial scrub and will be required to compensate the record company for the taking at the fair market value of the unrecouped balances.

Because I think this is pretty clearly a total regulatory taking that is a per se violation of the 5th Amendment, I suspect that a court (or the Supreme Court) would be inclined to hold the law invalid on Constitutional grounds and simply stop any enforcement.

Failing that strict scrutiny standard, a court could ask if the zeroing of unrecouped balances with no compensation is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.  I still think that the taking would fail in this case as there a many other ways for the government to promote culture and even to encourage labels to voluntarily wipe out the unrecouped balances at some point such as through a quid pro quo of favorable tax treatment, changing the accounting rules or offsets of one kind or another on the sale of a catalog.

Running for the Exits

If anything, I think that government acting to cut off the ability to recoup at a date certain with no compensation (which sure sounds like an unconstitutional taking in the US) would necessarily make labels start thinking about compensating for that taking by moving out of those territories where it is given effect (or at least not signing artists from those countries).  Such moves might make artists start thinking about moving to where they could get signed.

Or worse yet, it would make labels re-think their financial terms and re-recording restrictions.  Overhead charges and interest on recording costs would be two changes I would expect to see almost immediately.  And that would be a poor trade off.

Iterative Government Choices

The choice that artists make is whether to sign up to an investor like a record company who wants a long-term recoupment relationship against pre-paid royalties.  If you don’t like a place, don’t go there and if you don’t like the deal, don’t sign.

Any government that contemplates taking unrecouped balances must necessarily also contemplate offering artists grants to make up the shortfall due to signing contractions.  This could include for example the host of grant funding sources available in Canada such as FACTOR and the many provincial music grants.  And those grants should not come from the black box thank you very much.

On the other hand, I do see a lot of fairness in requiring on-demand services to pay featured and nonfeatured artists a kind of equitable remuneration like webcasters and satellite radio do, which is paid through on a nonrecoupment basis directly to the artists in the US.  While they may criticize the system that produced the recordings that have made them rich beyond the wildest dreams of artists, songwriters or music executives (except the ones the services hire away), that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t pay over to creators some of the valuation transfer that made Daniel Ek a multibillionaire while artists get less than ½¢ per stream.

So the takeaways here are:

  1. Wiping out unrecouped balances with no compensation is likely illegal.
  1. Creating a meaningful and attractive tax incentive for record companies to wipe out an unrecouped balance conditioned on that benefit being passed through to artists is worth exploring.  (Why wait 15 years to give that effect?)  This may be particularly attractive in a time of rising taxable income at labels.
  1. Requiring the services to pay a royalty in the nature of equitable remuneration on a nonrecoupment basis is a way to grow the pie and get some relief to both featured and nonfeatured artists.  This new stream is also worth exploring.

Pandemic: Livestreaming is Silicon Valley’s Great Step Forward to the Venue DNR

Livestreaming was intended to be temporary.  It was a bridge between a pre and post COVID reality.  But it’s not.  The biggest of Big Tech companies intend it to be permanent and they mean to control it.  And you have to believe that a very high percentage of venues may not be coming back.

Live music venues are closing permanently at a rapid clip.  Cities like Austin and festivals like SXSW and ACL Fest are changed forever.  We know that the real estate developers are licking their chops at the idea of dumping those live music venues and onboarding Uber Eats, Google, Facebook or something really important.  (See “I Don’t Need Another Email Whining About COVID“)  But they are not the only ones who have no intention of helping live music recover in a venue-free future.

Facebook/Instagram is probably leading the way on this Great Step Forward, followed closely by TikTok and of course YouTube.  Facebook in particular is adopting policies to limit DJ-type listening parties on the platform.  (This very well may backfire.)  The elephant in the room is that Facebook seems to have gotten religion on music licensing after a 17 years growth binge of shredding artist rights.  While asserting “You are responsible for the content you post” Facebook also tells us “Unauthorized content may be removed.”  Why not track it and monetize it?  Because they can’t be bothered.  It does seem that Facebook intents to permit artist-branded live-streaming events which is nice of them, but it also seems like the new policy clears the way for Facebook to monetize live streaming events and take their cut.

It has become obvious that whenever audiences decide to come out of the lock down, there may not be any venues for them to go to.  (Or restaurants for that matter.)  As I have said almost from the beginning of the pandemic, Austin is about to become another college town with a Google/Facebook campus and the City government itself is just thrilled about that expanded tax base.  Cynical?  Not really.  Spend a little time getting condescended to by the City of Austin and you will get the idea that they would just as soon that live music was in the rear view mirror.  If that happens to Austin, which had styled itself as “The Live Music Capital of the World” to the great gnashing of teeth by almost every other sector starting with tech, it will happen in a host of cities around the world.

Of course Big Tech cannot be seen to be leading the charge to live music oblivion.  That would be quite impolitic (if not actionable).  But the vibe from governments in the erstwhile “music cities” like Austin, Denver, Seattle,  and even San Francisco is similar to the efforts of Spotify, Facebook, Google & Co. to support the venues that create the value and the fan base that drives traffic to the live streams they think are the future.  These politicians and Big Tech companies want to be seen to be helping, but not too much.  They don’t want to help so much that most of the venues might actually recover.

Evidence?  Talk to anyone at Facebook who has contact with artists and labels.  (And if you ever wondered who doesn’t click “Skip Ads”, it’s them.)

Facebook certainly is building its “Stars” tip jar model that is in closed beta but will be rolled out soon.   That’s partly because Facebook views live streaming as a permanent part of the data mining ecosystem that Facebook is uniquely positioned to control.  Facebook Stars will prove to be a key component of the venue free future after the COVID and Facebook duo deliver the venue DNR.  And in case you didn’t quite get how Facebook values music, a Star is worth 1¢.  That’s right–one penny.  (Which will make it easier to switch Stars scrip to Facebook Bucks aka Libra.)

Don’t forget, Tencent led the way on this “gifting” concept.  Tencent allows users (all users, subscription or ad-supported service) to make virtual gifts in the form of micropayments directly to artists they love.  (The feature is actually broader than cash and applies to all content creators, but let’s stay with socially-driven micropayments to artists or songwriters.)

Tencent, of course, makes serious bank on these system-wide micropayments.  As Jim Cramer noted in “Mad Money” :
“Tencent Music is a major part of the micropayment ecosystem because they let you give virtual gifts,” Cramer said. “If you want to tip your favorite blogger with a song, you do it through Tencent Music. In the latest quarter we have numbers for, 9.5 million users spent money on virtual gifts, and these purchases accounted for more than 70 percent of Tencent Music’s revenue.”
And that’s real money.  Tencent actually made this into a selling point in their IPO prospectus:
We are pioneering the way people enjoy online music and music-centric social entertainment services. We have demonstrated that users will pay for personalized, engaging and interactive music experiences. Just as we value our users, we also respect those who create music. This is why we champion copyright protection-because unless content creators are rewarded for their creative work, there won’t be a sustainable music entertainment industry in the long run. Our scale, technology and commitment to copyright protection make us a partner of choice for artists and content owners.

So in case you were wondering why we haven’t seen Big Tech really step up to contributing money to support venues in line with the value of the data they scrape from all the fans driven to live streaming, it’s because they don’t want live music venues to be sustainable.  They’ve been trying to break down live music for a decade and the pandemic presented the disruption opportunity for them to actually do it.

Facebook and their counterparts are getting all kinds of free content (and the corollary free data) from desperate bands in the latest example of pandemic price gouging.  Those desperate artists are now forced to consider the option of the Data Lords coin of the realm–advertising and brand integration.  The effect may well be that the only artists who survive the venue DNR are those willing to take the King’s shilling.  Welcome to the company store.

The Data Lords have finally found a way–fear of death–to get fans to substitute away from live music.  There’s nothing quite as disruptive as the threat of dying.  If you ever thought that the live experience was the last stronghold of authenticity against the onslaught of Silicon Valley disruption, you probably never thought that fear of mortality would drive the nail in the coffin of the backstage pass or burn the velvet rope.  Stars in every pot and a drone-delivered Big Box on every doorstep.

But you’d be wrong.  As we slip into the twilight days of live music and festivals, Facebook stands ready with their venue DNR orders.  And live-streaming will be driven by desperation to be the Data Lords’ venue free meal ticket.

Why is this bad?  Because if you talk to any of the label relations types at Facebook, Google or TikTok it is a name droppers paradise.  They don’t really understand how to do the careful spadework that is necessary to break an artist to have an actual career.  They have major artists handed to them after that work has already been done, and done long ago in many cases.  There may be the odd “influencer” who gets a movie or a commercial, but the jury is out on whether these platforms can build careers.  (Or whether there will be many movies for influencers to get a role in.)

Not so of venues.  We know what they do and they’ve been doing it for a long, long time.  But we have to face the harsh reality that unless something changes very quickly, the Data Lords may have just piggybacked the massive income transfer of their DMCA and 230 safe harbors into another takeover of our business.  And they’ll do it in a way that could leave the entire live music economy and workers flopping like fish on a beach.

Minding the Value Gap: The UK Parliament’s Report on Disinformation and Fake News

It’s been a rough couple weeks for Silicon Valley in Europe.  Hard on the heels of an embarrassing lobbying loss in the European Parliament with the Copyright Directive (aka “Article 13”), the UK Parliament issued a damning report on the failings of social media.  The title tells you a lot:  Disinformation and Fake News.  Headline readers will come away from the news reporting with the impression that the report is about the UK government regulating Facebook due to the manipulation of the platform by Russian trolls using active measures.  If you read the report, even just the summary, you will see that it is the work product of an eight-nation committee and it is targeted at all social media platforms and “user generated content” (or “UGC”).

Unlike US-style regulation that these companies simply ignore and pay the paltry fines, it is unlikely that Google, Facebook and others will be able to simply conduct business as usual in the UK or Europe (Brexit or no)–particularly when you see statements like the following from Tom Watson, the Labor Party’s Shadow Culture Secretary:

Labour agrees with the committee’s ultimate conclusion: the era of self-regulation for tech companies must end immediately. We need new independent regulation with a tough powers and sanctions regime to curb the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism and the forces trying to use technology to subvert our democracy.

Few individuals have shown contempt for our Parliamentary democracy in the way Mark Zuckerberg has. If one thing is uniting politicians of all colours during this difficult time for our country, it is our determination to bring him and his company into line.

Tom Watston BASCA

Considering that the corporate bot farming techniques and the corporate comms version of Marcuse-esque messaging that Google and Facebook used against Article 13 are even more insidious than the Russkie election manipulators who were the focus of the Parliamentary report, it’s all pretty breathtaking.

They’ll Take Us in a Rush

Corporate whack a mole is–or was–the ultimate de facto safe harbor and is at the heart of the value gap.  Two truths were obvious from the moment in 2006 when a lawyer from Google’s recently acquired YouTube told a bar association meeting in Los Angeles that they could either make a deal with her for weaponized UGC on YouTube or play whack a mole using the DMCA notice and takedown–that Google and their shills intended to fight every step of the way (see Ellen Seidler’s excellent take down of the take downs).

First, it was obvious that Google executives intended to enrich themselves building a business on the backs of artists and songwriters who couldn’t fight back (what I call the ennui of learned helplessness), and next that Google intended to use those grey market profits and their vast wealth from public markets in a particularly nasty way that would have made Leland Stanford proud.  Google would simply crush any opposition from any rights holder or competitor who stood up to them.  But most of all that UGC is the ultimate front end for the data profiling back end which is where the real money is made.

This 2006 display of corporate molery had special resonance for me.  I spoke at the OECD’s Rome conference on digital stuff early in 2006 where Professor Terry Fisher and Google lawyer-to-be Fred Von Lohmann essentially laid out the strategy of using UGC to overwhelm the system and the abuse of the safe harbors.  That strategy was at the heart of their humiliating loss in the Grokster case and should be seen as implementing Grokster by other means (recall that Fred did a first rate job of articulating the losing argument before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that carried the day in the 9th Circuit but failed where it mattered in the U.S. Supreme Court).

During a very spiffy dinner that probably cost enough to have provided fresh water to a million in South Sudan, Professor Fisher told the slightly boozed up crowd of bureaucrats how the world was going to work with UGC.  I was very likely the only one in the room who knew enough about Fisher and Von Lohmann and about Google’s tactics to really get the message.  I whispered to my dinner partner, “They intend to take us in a rush.”

And so they did.

Platforms Are Fit for Purpose but Their Purpose Isn’t Fit

The Parliament’s report on Disinformation and Fake News is a strong rejection of Silicon Valley data miners like Google, Amazon and Facebook.    (You could say a latter day Big Four, but the Big Three won’t let there be a fourth in the best traditions of the Big Four.)

Google is a thought leader among the aristocracy of Silicon Valley’s real-time data miners and subsidizes many other pundits who support its business model in a variety of ways.   It’s not surprising that Facebook followed the path that Google blazed with YouTube since Google got so rich doing it.

In many ways, Facebook is the ultimate UGC profiteer–and blissfully chose to largely ignore the moral malaise that UGC will inevitably bring with it.  Zuckerberg, Paige and Brin ignored these problems because The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up were making too much money–and getting away with it.  The fundamental problem is that these companies care more about enriching themselves than they care about who their users are or the content their users generate–as long as users keep generating.  It is that greed that underlies the studied lack of control designed into Google and Facebook.  It’s not that bad guys exploit a design flaw–it’s that the platforms work exactly as planned.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with the failure of Google and especially Facebook to manage their platforms to prevent bad actors from using the very tools that enriched the Silicon Valley monopolists for very odious disinformation campaigns.

Despite repeated warnings, governments have allowed these nation-state level actors to play their whack a mole game so freely that by the time democracy itself was on the line it has been difficult to regulate the monopolists.

Until now–or so we hope.  The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has rendered its final report on “Disinformation and Fake News.”  While the report nominally focuses solely on Facebook, lovers of democracy should welcome the broader hope for both its methods as well as its findings.

The International Grand Committee

The Select Committee’s methods are refreshing:

We invited democratically-elected representatives from eight countries to join our Committee in the UK to create an ‘International Grand Committee’, the first of its kind, to promote further cross-border co-operation in tackling the spread of disinformation, and its pernicious ability to distort, to disrupt, and to destabilise. Throughout this inquiry we have benefitted from working with other parliaments. This is continuing, with further sessions planned in 2019. This has highlighted a worldwide appetite for action to address issues similar to those that we have identified in other jurisdictions….

[A]mong the countless innocuous postings of celebrations and holiday snaps, some malicious forces use Facebook to threaten and harass others, to publish revenge porn, to disseminate hate speech and propaganda of all kinds, and to influence elections and democratic processes—much of which Facebook, and other social media companies, are either unable or unwilling to prevent. We need to apply widely-accepted democratic principles to ensure their application in the digital age.

The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight. But only governments and the law are powerful enough to contain them.

Let’s hope so.  In the face of well-financed resistance by some of the biggest corporations and the most devious robber barons in commercial history since the days of the Big Four railroads, our governments and law enforcement have pretty much failed so far.  That’s how we got here and that’s how the problem evolved well past private attorney general-type remedies.

The public attorneys general need to mind the value gap.  Hopefully the European governments have the spine to stand up and show America how it’s done.

 

 

Don’t Get Fooled Again: Piracy is still a big problem

I know it’s not very “modern,” but music piracy is still a huge problem.  As recently as yesterday I had a digital music service executive tell me that they’d never raise prices because the alternative was zero–meaning stolen.

Very 1999, but also oh so very modern as long as Google and their ilk cling bitterly to their legacy “safe harbors” that act like the compulsory licenses they love so much.  Except the safe harbor “license” is largely both royalty free and unlawful.  Based on recent data, it appears that streaming is not saving us from piracy after all if 12 years after Google’s acquisition of YouTube piracy still accounts for over one third of music “consumption.”  The recent victory over Google in the European Parliament indicates that it may yet be possible to change the behavior of Big Tech in a post-Cambridge Analytica world.

It’s still fair to say that piracy is the single biggest factor in the downward and sideways pressure on music prices ever since artists and record companies ceded control over retail pricing to people who have virtually no commercial incentive to pay a fair price for the music they view as a loss leader.  If the Googles of this world were living up to their ethical responsibilities that should be the quid pro quo for the profits they make compared to the harms they socialize, then you wouldn’t see numbers like this chart from Statistica derived from IFPI numbers:

chartoftheday_15764_prevalence_of_music_piracy_n

The good news is that there is a solution available–or if not a solution then at least a more pronounced trend–toward making piracy much harder to accomplish.  It may be necessary to take some definitive steps toward encouraging companies like Google, Facebook, Twitch, Amazon, Vimeo and Twitter to do more to impede and interdict mass piracy.

Private Contracts:  It may be possible to accomplish some of these steps through conditions in private contracts that include sufficient downside for tech companies to do the right thing.  That downside probably should include money, but everyone needs to understand that money is never enough because the money forfeitures are never enough.

The downside also needs to affect behavior.  Witness Google’s failure to comply with their nonprosecution agreement with the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice for violations of the Controlled Substances Act.  When the United States failed to enforce the NPA against Google, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sought to enforce Mississippi’s own consumer protection statutes against Google for harms deriving from that breach.  Google sued Hood and he ended up having to fold his case, even though 40 state attorneys general backed him.

Antitrust Actions:  Just like Standard Oil, the big tech companies are on the path to government break ups as Professor Jonathan Taplin teaches us.  What would have been unthinkable a few years ago due to fake grooviness, the revolving door and massive lobbying spending all over the planet, in a post-Cambridge Analytica and Open Media world, governments are far, far more willing to go after companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act Civil Prosecutions:  “Civil RICO” claims are another way of forcing Google, Facebook, Amazon & Co. to behave.  Google is fighting a civil RICO action in California state court.  This may be a solution against one or more of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

As we know, streaming royalties typically decline over time due to the fact that the revenues to be divided do not typically increase substantially (and probably because of recoupable and nonrecoupable payments to those with leverage).  At any rate, the increase in payable revenues is less than the increase in the number of streams (and recordings).

While it’s always risky to think you have the answer, one part of the answer has to be basic property rights concepts and commercial business reality–if you can’t reduce piracy to a market clearing rate, you’ll never be able to increase revenue and music will always be a loss leader for immensely profitable higher priced goods that artists, songwriters, labels and publishers don’t share be it hardware, advertising or pipes.

I strongly recommend Hernando de Soto’s Mystery of Capital for everyone interested in this problem.  The following from the dust jacket could just as easily be said of Google’s Internet:

Every developed nation in the world at one time went through the transformation from predominantly extralegal property arrangements, such as squatting on large estates, to a formal, unified legal property system. In the West we’ve forgotten that creating this system is what allowed people everywhere to leverage property into wealth.

What we have to do is encourage tech companies to stop looking for safe harbors and start using their know-how to encourage the transformation of the extralegal property arrangements they squat on and instead accept a fair rate of return.  My bet is that this is far more likely to happen in Europe–within 30 days of each other we’ve seen Europe embrace safe harbor reform in the Copyright Directive while the United States welcomed yet another safe harbor.

If we’re lucky, the European solution in the Copyright Directive may be exported from the Old World to the New.  And if Hernando de Soto could bring property rights reform to Peru in the face of entrenched extralegal methods and the FARC using distinctly American approaches to capital, surely America can do the same even with existing laws and Google.