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.

The Elusive Obelus: Streaming’s Problem With Denominators

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises.

No matter how much people would like to deflect it, the unvarnished per stream rate is an ever diminishing income stream.  Given the number of calculations involved for both sound recording and song, it is likely that the total end-to-end cost of rendering the accountings for the streams costs more than the royalty earned on that stream by any one royalty participant.  Solving this problem is the difference between a short-term stock-fueled sugar high and a long-term return of shareholder value for all concerned.  So now what?

If you’re someone who receives or calculates streaming royalties, you’re already familiar with the  problem of the ever-decreasing per-stream rate.  The Trichordist’s definitive “Streaming Price Bible” for 2018 confirms this trend yet again, but simple math explains the problem of the revenue share allocation.

Remember that the way streaming royalties are calculated in voluntary agreements (aka “direct deals”) revolves around a simple formula (Formula A):

(Payable Revenue ÷ Total Service Streams) x Your Streams = Per Stream Rate

Which may also be expressed as Formula B:

Payable Revenue x (Your Streams ÷ Total Service Streams) = Your share of revenue

(Formula A and B are also known as “the big pool” in the user-centric or Ethical Pool models.)

Here’s the trick–it’s in the correlation of the rate of increase over time of the numerator and the denominator.  If you focus on any single calculation you won’t see the problem.  You have to calculate the rate of change over time.  Simply put, if the numerator in either Formula A or Formula B increases at a lower rate than the denominator, then the quotient, or the result of the division, will always decline as long as those conditions are met.  That’s why the Streaming Price Bible shows a declining per-stream rate–a contrarian fact among the hoorah from streaming boosters that sticks in the craw.

Services make these accounting calculations monthly for the most part, and they are calculated a bit differently depending on the service.  This is why the Streaming Price Bible has different rates for different services, rates that vary depending on the terms of the contract and also the amount of “Payable Revenue” that the service attributes to the particular sound recordings.

The quotient will also vary depending on the copyright owner’s deal.  If you add downside protection elements such as contractual per stream or per subscriber minimums, then you can cushion the decline.

This is also true of non-recoupable payments (such as direct payments that are deemed to be recoupable but not returnable, or “breakage”).  Nonrecoupable payments are just another form of nominal royalty payable to the copyright owner, and increase the overall payout.  And of course, the biggest nonrecoupable payment is stock which sometimes pays off as we saw with Spotify.  These payments may or may not be shared with the artist.  (See the WIN Fair Digital Deals Pledge.)

So each of the elements of both Formula A and Formula B are a function of other calculations. We’re not going to dive into those other elements too deeply in this post–but we will note that there are some different elements to the formulas depending on the bargaining power of the rights owner, in this case the owner of sound recordings.

So how is it that the per-stream rate declines over time in the Streaming Price Bible?

Putting the Demon in the Denominator

Back to Formula B, you’ll note that the function “Your Streams ÷ Total Service Streams” looks a lot like a market share allocation.  In fact, if the relevant market is limited to the service calculating the revenue share allocation, it is a market share allocation of service revenue by another name.  When you consider that the customary method of calculating streaming royalties across all services is a similar version of Formula B, it may as well be an allocation of the total market on a market share basis.

Note that this is very different from setting a wholesale price for your goods that implies a retail price.  A wholesale price is a function of what you think a consumer would or should pay.  When a service agrees to a minimum per stream or per subscriber rate, they are essentially accepting a price term that behaves like a wholesale price.

For most artists and indie labels, the price is set by your market share of the subscription fees or ad rates that the service thinks the market will bear based on the service’s business goalsnot based on your pricing decision.

Why is this important?  A cynic might say it’s because Internet companies are in the free lunch crowd–they would give everything away for free since their inflated salaries and sky-high rents are paid by venture capitalists who don’t understand a thing about breaking artists and investing in talent.  You know, the kind of people who would give Daniel Ek a million dollar bonus when he hadn’t met his performance targets, stiffed songwriters for years and gotten the company embroiled in multimillion dollar lawsuits.  But had met the only performance target that mattered which was to put some cosmetics on that porker and push it out the door into a public stock offering.  (SPOT F-1 at p. 133: “In February 2018, our board of directors determined to pay Mr. Ek the full $1,000,000 bonus based on the Company’s 2017 performance though certain performance goals were not achieved…”)

But long-term, it’s important because one way that royalties will rise is if the service can only acquire its only product at a higher price.  Or not.  The other way that royalties will rise is if services are required to pay a per-stream rate that is higher than the revenue share rate.  How that increase is passed to the consumer is up to them.  Maybe a move from World Trade Center to Poughkeepsie would help.

The Streaming Price Bible is based on revenue for an indie label that did not have the massive hits we see on Spotify.  In this sense, it is the unvarnished reality of streaming without the negotiated downside protection goodies, unrecoupable or nonreturnable payments, and of course shares of stock.  While some may say the Bible lacks hits, that’s kind of the point–hits mask a thousand sins.  Ask any label accountant.

Will Consumption Eat Your Free Lunch?

Let’s say again: The simple explanation for the longitudinal decline of streaming royalties measured by the Streaming Price Bible is that the rate of change across accounting periods in the “Payable Revenue” must be greater than the rate of change in the total number of streams in order for the per-stream rate to increase–otherwise the per-stream rate will always decrease.  Another way to think of it is that revenue has to increase faster than consumption, or consumption will eat your lunch.

What if you left the formula the same and just increased the revenue being allocated?  Services will probably resist that move.  After all, when artists complain about their per-stream rate, the services often answer that the problem is not with them, it is with the artist’s labels because the services pay hundreds of millions to the labels.

We don’t really have much meaningful control over what goes in the monthly payable revenue number (i.e., the mathematical “dividend” or numerator).  What kinds of revenue should be included?  Here are a few:

–all advertising revenue from all sources
–e-commerce transactions
–bounties or referral fees, including  recoupable or non-refundable guarantees
–sponsorships
–subscription income
–traffic or tariff charges paid by telcos
–revenue from the sale of data

Services will typically deduct “small off the tops” which would include
–VAT or sales tax
–ad commissions paid to unaffiliated third parties (usually subject to a cap)

Indie labels and independent artists may not have the leverage to negotiate some of these revenue elements such as revenue from the sale of data for starters.  Other elements of the revenue calculation for indie labels and artists will also likely not include the downside protections, subscriber target top up fees and the like.

And of course the biggest difference is that indie labels (at least not in the Merlin group who may) typically do not get nonreturnable advances,  nonrecoupable payments, or stock.

Is That All There Is?

Why should we care about all this?  There is a story that is told of negotiations to settle a lawsuit against a well-known pirate site.  One of the venture capitalists backing the pirates told one of the label negotiators that he could make them all richer through an IPO than any settlement they’d ever be able to negotiate.

The label executive asked, lets’ say we did that, but then what happens?  You say we should adapt, but you’re still destroying the industry ecosystem so that there’s nothing left to adapt to.  The most we could make from an IPO would cover our turnover for a year at best.  And we would be dependent on your success, not our artists’ success.

Then what?

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Pandora Sells “Radio Loophole” at a Loss, But Sells It

In another sign that the adults may finally be in charge at Pandora, the company sold South Dakota radio station KXMZ for a reported $300,000 (after purchasing the station in 2015 for $600,000).  Why did Pandora buy KXMZ (or as it came to be known, “Radio Loophole”?)

At the time, which was during Pandora’s bad old days of what Billboard called “World War P”, Pandora was suing songwriters to lower royalty rates for their one product–music.   According to Pandora, they were not treated fairly because terrestrial radio paid lower rates to songwriters then did they as webcasters.   Apple, meet orange.  Pandora’s strong move was to buy a relatively inexpensive radio station so it could try to pass itself off as a broadcaster which it clearly wasn’t.   Hence, Radio Loophole.

Some speculated at the time that Pandora’s board might have gotten confused that the station was in South San Francisco rather than South Dakota as it is unlikely any of them had ever been to South Dakota (and it’s almost as equally unlikely they’d ever been off the 101 in South San Francisco, for that matter).

But Pandora plopped down $600,000 of the stockholder’s cash (Old Pandora’s preferred form of tender for acquisitions it seems) and then went to get the blessing of the rate court.  Kind of a knucklehead move that also unnecessarily stoked the battle fires of World War P.

Billboard WW P

Here’s a tip–there’s this thing called a “post closing condition”.  In the case of Radio Loophole, it would go something like, “I’m only buying your station if I can use it to lower what I pay to songwriters and it’s worthless to me unless I can.  So this transaction will not close until I get the rate courts’ approval which I have to accomplish within 12 or 18 months.  And here’s 10% of the purchase price for you to keep for having to stand still long enough for me to find out.  Deal?”  Not that different than a transaction being subject to FTC merger approval.

A post closing covenant (or “post closing condition”) is the precaution you take if it’s your money or you take your duty to your shareholders very seriously.  But what happens to inexperienced management with hundreds of millions of someone else’s money burning a hole in their pocket is hard to explain.

Let the Old Pandora’s disastrous acquisition of Radio Loophole and Ticketfly be examples to entrepreneurs of the honeytrap of cash in the bank.  And that loophole seeking behavior eventually catches up to you, so why do it in the first place?

With Pandora’s endorsement of the CLASSICS Act that would change the law to require webcasting royalty payments to artists whose recordings were released prior to 1972, I have to say that it feels like there’s a far more enlightened leadership at Pandora just in the last few weeks.   Not to look the gift horse in the molars, but it would be really nice if Pandora didn’t wait for the bill to pass and just started paying the statutory rate on a go-forward basis at least.

Either way, three of the gargantuan unintelligible blunders of Old Pandora are being put right–Ticketfly, pre-72 and now the sale of Radio Loophole.  Fingers crossed we have more good news to come.

 

 

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.

 

How Deep is Pandora’s Financial Hole?

Pandora 6-14-17

Given the recent minority investment from Sirius and sale of Ticketfly, it appears that Pandora is now being governed by the board and not its senior management team.  This should come as no surprise to anyone–the stock is down about 27% for the year, and is down a sharp 30% or so for the last three months.  In fact, it was down almost 5% today alone.  Some Pandora stockholders might have been asking themselves, “Where is the board?”  Hello…it’s them.

Billboard WW P
Remember World War P?

It is important to recognize that despite its checkered history with minuscule payments to songwriters and artists, Pandora does write a pretty big check every year to the industry as a whole.  After all the royalty rate discounts we’ve given to Pandora over the years, most of us feel like investors in the company, so we’d like to see that revenue stream continue for the benefit of the industry as a whole, and especially for collective licensing through SoundExchange and the audits it conducts.

However–the most rudimentary technical analysis of Pandora’s stock shows just how far either the old or new management has to go, and this is before taking into account the dilutive effects of the Sirius investment.  The company’s share price has sunk like a stone through the 200, 100, 50 and 10 day simple moving averages of its share price to close today at $7.58.  Investors Business Daily’s rankings show Pandora outperformed by 91% of other stocks.  A number of analysts have cut their price targets on Pandora since the Sirius investment, which may signal disappointment that there was no sale and Pandora is now stuck with the current management.  We’ll see.

It’s clear that the technical signals show the company has a long, long way to go to dig out of the current ditch it was driven into.  On the other hand, Pandora has just raised a ton of cash, so we hopefully will not see the company coming back to artists and songwriters hat in hand asking for yet another break on royalty rates.

But–with Sirius now holding 19% of the company on an as-if-converted basis and three board seats including the chair, I wouldn’t rule out another stab at getting the artists and songwriters to help finance Pandora’s rich overhead costs and debt service (running at approximately 48% of revenue).  Those Sirius guys ain’t playing.

Barron’s reported on Sirius Chair Greg Maffei’s commentary on streaming:

One notable media executive had some harsh words for streaming music services during a speech at a Deutsche Bank investor conference [in March]. “We think it’s a very unattractive business,” said Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei, noting the high cost of music rights. “You’ve seen that with Spotify now with 50 million users [and] still not profitable.” [emphasis mine]

Not much interest in getting the overhead down, a whole lot of interest in getting the royalties down.

So fasten your seatbelts kids, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

That’s Sooo 2000: Pandora Dumps Ticketfly Purchase, but Keeps the Integration They Could have Rented

All indications are that Pandora’s management seems to be raising cash and emerging from a latter-day Dot Bomb “money drunk.”  The latest sign is Pandora’s sale of its Ticketfly subsidiary to Eventbrite for a reported $200,000,000.  The sale comes less than two years after Pandora acquired Ticketfly for $335,000,000 in cash—a cash on cash loss of $135,000,000.

And that’s a lot of streams.  One of the problems with startups that suddenly come into the public markets with a pile of cash and inexperienced management is that they lack the cunning patience to spend it wisely and play the long game.  One big difference between the Dot Bomb public company management and the management of a more traditional public company that has operated privately at a sophisticated level for a decade or so is that very lack of sophistication.  And that shortfall of management skills is what can cause stockholders to experience these fits and starts like Pandora’s all cash acquisition and essentially immediate fire sale of Ticketfly.  (None of which is Ticketfly’s fault, by the way.)

If you remember what it was like in 1999, then you can’t forget what happened in 2000, so this should all sound familiar.   For the companies like Pandora who got to the Dot Bomb party late, imagine the disappointment in the management team when the market began crashing back to reality weeks after they formed the company.

But credit where it’s due, the company did manage to survive the long dark night of the Dot Bomb Bubble that followed while the NASDAQ Composite lost 78% of its value.  The question has always been whether Pandora’s management was still mired in the kind of thinking that drove companies over the edge in the Dot Bomb crash.

Pandora’s acquisition of Ticketfly was a prime example of Dot Bomb thinking and the inability to be frugal, patient and strategic with a pile of the stockholders’ cash.  As I’ve often said in discussion with business subscribers, integrating ticketing was a good idea for Pandora that did not require buying a ticketing company and it certainly did not require buying a ticketing company for cash.

The headline on the transaction of course is that Pandora lost money on the deal, but if anything that understates the transaction cost of the wrong turn.  A Ticketfly executive had this to say about the future of the transaction as it affects Pandora:

Our clients will have the best of the best when it comes to technology, and will of course continue to have access to Pandora’s massive audience to promote shows and sell tickets.

While this acquisition will allow Pandora to focus on its core radio and streaming businesses, it isn’t abandoning its live events strategy, and the Ticketfly – Pandora integrations aren’t going away. In fact, Pandora and Eventbrite plan to enter into a partnership to build on the work we’ve done and take it to an even broader audience of promoters, while offering listeners notifications for even more great live events.

Given that the future long term relationship with Pandora post the sale—which presumably had something to do with Pandora’s decision to acquire Ticketfly in the first place—will continue as an integration into Pandora’s platform, do you think that Pandora could have gotten a ticketing company to do that integration without paying $135,000,000 plus the cost of the integration?

Do you think maybe that ticketing company might have paid Pandora something to access Pandora’s user base and as a touch point for the artists on the service?  Wouldn’t that payment might have been a starting point for valuing the original transaction?

Even though ticketing is a potential revenue builder for Pandora, I am still deeply skeptical about how having a ticket selling function helps bands get the shows they already must have in order to be selling tickets in the first place.  Not to mention the fact that Ticketfly quite correctly seems to be focused more on the Wynn Casino that in helping an unknown band get shows outside of their home town.  I understand why Ticketfly needs the Wynn Casino, but it’s not helping independent artists get shows anymore than a heat map of streaming helps convince a talent buyer of much of anything at all.

And I am definitely skeptical if Pandora continues to wring its hands about how royalties stifle innovation as the company seeks ever lower royalties.  What if instead of spending $335,000,000 on Ticketfly, they’d paid some of that money in songwriter or artist royalties?

The question now is will Pandora’s management try to offset that mismanagement by getting the artists and songwriters to pay for it through still lower royalty rates?  I’d assign at least a 50% probability to Pandora doing the usual handwringing about how royalty rates stifle innovation to distract anyone from looking at their financials too closely which put the Bomb in Dot Com.

But this time they have no one to blame but themselves and they need to make up their $135,000,000 loss on the Ticketfly transaction from somewhere else.  Now that the founders have enriched themselves, perhaps instead of attacking the artists and songwriters who provide Pandora with the product that makes the wheels go round, maybe this time they could try to be good allies and stop suing songwriters in rate court, filing over 1,000,000 mass “address unknown” NOIs at the Copyright Office, and generally doing everything humanly possible to make it difficult to support them.

 

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.

 

Five Things Congress Can Do to Stop Tens of Millions of “Address Unknown” NOIs

Copyright reform is on the front burner again after the passing of the  Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act by a vote of 378-48.   But there’s another problem the Congress needs to fix that won’t require legislation in the short run:  The mass filing of tens of millions of “address unknown” notices under the archaic compulsory license for songs.

I’m going to assume that readers know the general background on the millions of “address unknown” NOIs filed with the Copyright Office under a loophole in the Copyright Act (Sec. 115(c)(1)).   If that is Geek to you, see my recent paper on mass NOIs for more complete analysis (or previous posts on MTS for the armchair version of the story.   The first distinction to remember is that we are only concerned in this post with song copyrights and not the sound recording.  This story implicates songwriters and publishers, not artists and record companies, and it only applies to the government’s compulsory license for songs, a uniquely American invention.

In a nutshell, Amazon, Google, Pandora, Spotify and other tech companies are serving on the Copyright Office tens of millions of “address unknown” notices of intention to obtain a compulsory license to make and distribute recordings of certain types of songs.  Under what can only be called a “loophole” in this compulsory license, a service can serve these “address unknown” NOIs on the Copyright Office if the owner is not identifiable in the Copyright Office public records.  The Copyright Office stands in the shoes of the “address unknown” copyright owner to receive and preserve these notices.

On the one hand companies like Amazon, Google, Pandora and Spotify say that they can’t find these millions of song owners, while at the same time at least some of the same companies brag about how comprehensive and expensive their song databases are (like Google’s Content ID) or their agents puff up the agent’s own massively complete song databases as “the worlds largest independent database of music copyright and related business information.”  And yet, these same companies and their agents can’t seem to find songwriters whose names, repertoire and contact information are well known, or whom they already pay through their own systems or through their agent.

The Database Double Loophole Trick

Here’s the loophole.  First, the loophole requires a very narrow reading of Section 115(c)(1) of the Copyright Act, a 40 year old statute being applied to NOIs served at a scale the Congress never intended.  If the song owner isn’t found in the public records of the Copyright Office, even if the digital service or its agent has actual knowledge of the song copyright owner’s whereabouts, the digital service can say they are not required to look further.

Even if you buy into this willful blindness, these digital services may not be looking at the complete public records of the Copyright Office.  The only digitized records of the Copyright Office are from January 1, 1978 forward, and my bet is those easily searchable records are the only records the services consult.  That omits the songs of Duke Ellington, Otis Redding, The Beatles and five Eagles albums not to mention a very large chunk of American culture.

The Copyright Office records from before 1978 are available on paper, so the pre-78 songs are still in the public records (which is what the Congress contemplated in the Copyright Act).

The identifiers are just not “there” if you decide not to look for them.  However, it is not metaphysical, it is metadata that exists in physical form.  This is the “double loophole”.

The Double Triple:  New Releases

Another category of song copyrights that will never be in the public records of the Copyright Office in their initial release window are new releases with recently filed but not yet finalized copyright registrations.  The Copyright Office itself acknowledges that it can take upwards of a year to process new copyright registrations.  This allows “address unknown” filers to bootstrap a free ride on the back of Congress during that one-year period.

No Liability or Royalties Either:  Trebles All Round

Once a company serves the “address unknown” NOI on the Copyright Office, songwriters are arguably compelled by the government to permit the service to use their songs.  Filing the “address unknown” NOI arguably allows the service to avoid liability for infringement and also–adding insult to injury–to avoid paying royalties.  If the NOI is properly filed, of course.

In current practice, a mass “address unknown” NOI is usually a single notice of intention filed with a huge attachment of song titles with the required fields, such as this one Google filed for Sting’s “Fragile”, the anthem of the environmental movement (which was clearly filed incorrectly as the song was registered long ago):

sting-fragile-google-noi

The number of mass “address unknown” NOIs being posted by the Copyright Office on an almost daily basis suggests that tech companies now view mass “address unknown” NOIs as the primary way to put one over on songwriters and the Congress, too.  Companies like Amazon, Spotify, Google, Pandora and others are using this heretofore largely unused loophole on a scale that flies in the face of Chairman Goodlatte’s many hearings in the last session of Congress on updating the Copyright Act.

This “address unknown” practice also undermines the efforts of Chairman Goodlatte and Ranking Member Conyers to modernize the Copyright Office.  Indeed, based on the very lopsided vote on HR 1695 the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Actit is clearly the desire of the overwhelming majority of Members of Congress, too.

March Spotify NOI Filings

What Can Be Done?

Congress can play a role in in providing immediate relief to songwriters by stopping the mass “address unknown” NOIs or at least requiring the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office to take steps to verify the NOIs are filed correctly.

At the moment, the government takes away property rights from the songwriters by means of the compulsory license without taking even rudimentary steps to assure the public that the “address unknown” NOI process is being implemented correctly and transparently.

Here are five steps the Congress can take to rectify this awful situation.

  1.  Stop Selling Incomplete Data:  Congress should instruct the Library of Congress to stop selling the post 1978 database until due diligence can be performed on the database to determine if it is even internally correct.  It appears that many if not all the mass “address unknown” NOI filers use the LOC database to create their NOIs.  It is also highly unlikely that this database will include new releases.  Congress can simply instruct the Librarian to stop selling the database.loc-prices-databases
  2.  Stop Accepting “Address Unknown” NOIs With Compressed File Attachments: Congress should instruct the Library of Congress and the Copyright Office to immediately cease accepting “address unknown” NOIs with compressed files as attachments for what appears to be a single NOI.  These compressed files are so large in most cases that songwriter can never uncompress them on a home computer to determine if their songs are subject to “address unknown” NOIs.  Google in particular is a major offender of filing huge compressed files.  Each compressed file contains tens of thousands of song titles.Google March NOIs
  3.  Require Accounting Compliance with Copyright Office Regulations:  Long standing regulations require that anyone relying on an NOI must file mostly and annual statements of account reflecting usage of the songs subject to the NOIs.  The tech companies serving mass NOIs are not rendering these statements and thus fail to comply with the transparency requirements of Copyright Act.  All of the “address unknown” NOIs served during 2016 are out of compliance with the regulations, and all “address unknown” NOIs served in the first quarter of 2017 are likewise out of compliance.  Congress should instruct the Copyright Office to require monthly and annual statements of account be filed with the Copyright Office for anyone who has relied on these NOIs as required by the regulations.  All statements of account should be certified in the normal course as required by the regulations, and made available to the public by posting to the Copyright Office website.
  4. Require the Library of Congress to Create a Searchable Database of NOIs:Congress should instruct the Library of Congress to create a single database maintained online that is maintained by an independent third party and is searchable by songwriters in a manner similar to a state unclaimed property office.  That database needs to be updated on a regular schedule.  Given the size of the compressed files served to date, it is essentially impossible for songwriters to determine if NOIs have been filed on their songs.  This is particularly true as the NOIs are served on an effectively random basis, so even if songwriters were able to search, they would essentially have to search all the time.
  1.  Pay Royalties Into A Permanent Trust Account:  Given that it is highly likely that the mass NOIs filed to date have a significant number of errors, it is also likely that songwriters will become entitled to payment of royalties retroactively if these errors are ever caught.  Therefore, the Congress should require that royalties should be paid to a trust account maintained at the Copyright Office and held in perpetuity like a state unclaimed property office.  Of course, it is equally likely that the song copyright owners will be entitled to terminate any purported license under 17 USC Sec. 115(c)(6).  These payments should be based on actual usage and not black box.  This is another reason why the statements for “address unknown” NOIs should be public.

What started in April 2016 as a trickle of NOIs from a handful of companies has now expanded exponentially.  Based on Rightscorp’s analysis in January 2017, some 30 million “address unknown” NOIs had been filed–and that did not include the dozens of “address unknown” NOIs filed by Spotify in March 2017 alone which themselves likely total over a million songs.

NOI Table
Top Three Services Filing NOIs

April, 2016-January 2017

Number of NOIs Per Service
Amazon Digital Services LLC 19,421,902
Google, Inc. 4,625,521
Pandora Media, Inc. 1,193,346

It is rapidly becoming standard practice for tech companies to try to pull the wool over the eyes of the Congress by leveraging an apparent loophole and they are doing it on a grand scale.

As we have seen with everything else they touch from the DMCA to royalty audits, the tech companies will continue this loophole-seeking behavior until they are forced to stop.  Since no one at the Library of Congress seems to have the appetite to right this wrong, the Congress itself must step in.

Ultimately Congress should fix the loophole through legislation, but in the meantime most of the harms can be corrected overnight by policy changes alone.