What to do with the MLC’s interest “float” on the black box?

MusicTechPolicy readers will have seen my post about the interest rate paid by the MLC on the rather sizable black box of “unmatched” funds sitting at a bank account (rumored to be City National Bank in Nashville).

That rate was modernized in the Music Modernization Act to be a floating rate: The Federal short term interest rate essentially set by the Federal Reserve. In fact, that particular federal rate is one of the lowest interest rates set by the Federal government and is the kind of interest rate you would want to be obligated pay–very low–if you knew you’d be in the business of holding large sums of money that you wanted to earn interest on yourself and make money on the spread, often called “the float.” (The black box is usually free money, so it’s actually an improvement.). For example, the bank prime loan rate is currently 5.5% that may be a good indicator of what you could get in the way of relatively risk free interest for a big lump sum–if not better for a really big lump sum, say $500,000,000.

The MLC is not, after all, the government, however much that fact might be lost on them. Why should the lowball government rate apply to the MLC instead of a competitive bank rate? Particularly when it comes to the substantial unmatched funds that songwriters and publishers are forced by the government to allow the MLC to hold and for which they control distribution–a bit of the old moral hazard there.

Indeed, you could also express that rate of involuntary saving as “prime plus x” where “x” is an additional money factor like 1%, so the rate floats upward to the songwriters’ advantage. Get some inspiration for this by looking at your credit card interest rate.

You probably have heard that the Federal Reserve is increasing the federal funds rate, and therefore all interest rates that are a function of the federal funds rate including the short term rate that the MLC is required by law to pay on the black box. The Federal Reserve is expecting to keep making significant increases in the federal interest rates in an effort to get inflation under control, which means that the MLC’s black box interest rate will also continue to increase significantly.

A quick recap: The MLC’s short term interest rate was 0.44% in January in keeping with then-prevailing Zero Interest Rate Policy (or the “lower bound”) of the Fed for the easy money years since the crash of 2008. But in August 2022 (that is, now) the MLC’s rate has increased to 2.84% monthly. The modern black box holding period in the Music Modernization Act is pretty clear:

Also recall that the black box is to be held for an arbitrarily modern period of time while the MLC attempts to locate the rightful recipients as is their statutory burden under the MMA. Different numbers are thrown around for this holding period, but a three year holding period seems to be popular and has the benefit of having been modernized in the Music Modernization Act itself (see above). Bear in mind that the first tranche of “historical” black box (“historical” means “late” in this context) was $424,384,787 and was paid in February of 2021–nearly 18 months ago.

Also recall that we were not given any information that I am aware of as to when the services paying this rather large sum of other people’s money first accrued the black box. People who line up on the shorter holding period side of the argument generally favor rapid market share distributions which tends to help the majors; people on the longer holding period of time generally favor redoubled efforts to find the people who are actually owed the money.

The third group is that the MLC should simply find who is owed the money, have the money being held earn the highest rate of risk-free interest possible, and pay all of the interest money to the correct people when found and not have this cutesy limitation on the money factor paid out for holding OPM. Their argument goes something like your government takes away my right to negotiate my own rates, tells me how much I can charge, then makes it difficult to find me but easy to use my song and now you also want to take away the money you say I’m owed and give it to rich people I don’t know before I’ve had a change to claim it and pay yourselves to not do your jobs?

So we are at the midpoint of the three year statutory holding period. Although remember that this is a two pronged holding period of the earlier of 3 years after the MLC got the cash or 3 years after the date the service started holding the money that it subsequently transferred–a different holding period which would likely end sooner than the date the money was transferred to the MLC.

Although we know the date that the money was transferred in the aggregate to the MLC we may not know exactly when the money was accrued without auditing (although you would think that the MLC would release those dates since the timing of the accrual is relevant to the MMA calculation).

According to my reading of the statute, the modernized interest rate would likely attach from the time the money was accrued by the service, so should have been transferred to the MLC with accrued interest, if any. This may be in lieu of or in addition to a late fee. Very modern.

This leaves us with a couple questions. Remember that after the holding period, the black box is to be transferred on a market share basis to all the copyright owners who could be identified based on usage, which includes usage under voluntary licenses that are not administered by the MLC.

So this raises some questions:

  1. Why should the black box be divided up amongst copyright owners who have voluntary licenses and who are not administered by the MLC? They presumably have the most accurate books and statements and may have already had a chance to recover.
  2. What happens to the accrued interest at the time of distribution? Why should the market share distribution include interest on money that didn’t belong to the recipients?
  3. The statute takes the position that the MLC must pay the interest rate but is silent on how much interest the MLC can earn from the bank holding the substantial deposit of the unmatched monies. There’s nothing that requires the MLC to pay over all earned interest.

    Here’s a rough justice calculation of 3 years compound interest at current rates with steadily increasing black box. While the holding period started at the .44% rate, I ran the numbers at the 2.84% rate because it was easier–but also left out an estimate of the increase in rates that is surely to come. Since we are at the midpoint of the holding period already, this gives you an idea:

Hypothetical chart of growth rate of unmatched funds (historical and current) over a three year period at 2.84% compounded monthly interest rate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All means all.


Please take our Songwriter MLC Awareness Survey

Please take a few minutes (4 or so) to help us understand how the Mechanical Licensing Collective and the Copyright Office is doing getting the word out about signing up with the MLC and getting paid royalties (including your share of the $424 million black box/unmatched payment that has been sitting at MLC for months).

Your response are anonymous and we’ll post the results when we get a threshold number of responses. We’d really appreciate your help!

To take the survey on Survey Monkey, click here.

The Sound and the Fury: The Copyright Office Unmatched Report’s Confused Thesis

One of the first world problems with the Copyright Office unmatched report (and frankly the legislative history) is that the Office seems to confound matching transitory royalty payments with building a permanent asset. There is an inherent tension in utilizing a cost benefit analysis to decide which songs are “worth” identifying and paying compared to which songs are “worth” identifying to build the Congressionally mandated core asset of the Mechanical Licensing Collective–the public’s musical works database.

These are two entirely different projects. The unmatched report misses the opportunity to properly distinguish them and emphasize the priority that must be given to building the gold standard musical works database–for which the services pay and in consideration for which the services received a Congressionally mandated retroactive safe harbor for the legion of past infringements. It now becomes apparent that the services were not really serious about doing the hard work and wanted to do just enough to be able to get their safe harbor.

But what about the $424 million in black box, you say? Didn’t they pay beaucoup bucks to settle up with songwriters? Yes, it’s true–the services paid songwriters with what services said was the amount of the songwriters own money that the services owed them due to extraordinarily sloppy licensing practices. Hopefully when the accounting data is made public, we will have a better idea of whether this $424 million makes sense as the semi-accurate number. If, however, it turns out that the vast bulk of the retroactive payment of $424 million accrued over the last few years, that is, since the passing of the MMA Title I safe harbor to benefit those who need it least, it will become apparent that the “historic” retroactive payment was neither historic nor particularly retroactive. Watch the Eight Mile Style case in Tennessee for some answers on this where both Spotify and the Harry Fox Agency are being sued by Eminem’s publishers.

Yet this confusion over the difference between complying with the Congressional mandate to build an authoritative musical works database and some line in the legislative history that the lobbyists inserted about “play your part” is another reason why using a cost benefit analysis for identifying long tail royalty payments makes no sense.

The MLC is charged by Congress with creating the public musical works database–an asset. The MLC is also charged with accounting for royalties–a payment. The report says “The MLC should take reasonable steps to ensure that its data is of the highest possible quality, meaning, among other things, that it is as complete, accurate, up-to-date, and de-conflicted as possible, and is obtained from authoritative sources.” But not if the cost of quality data exceeds the royalties payable in a particular month?

Payments change, assets do not. The MLC are either building a “highest possible quality asset” or they are doing the usual 80/20 “industry standard” slop that is already becoming the MLC’s go-to excuse for failure. Because rest assured–it will always be someone else’s fault. Who do you think caused that “industry standard” to exist? One of the MLC’s principal vendors, mebbbie?

The services like the Title I safe harbor just fine, but obviously no one is interested in actually building an asset of the “highest quality” which is a different enterprise than royalty accounting.

Which is it going to be? I think we all know the answer. If we let it, it will be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

What the MLC Can Learn from Orphan Works

As you may be aware, The MLC recently received $424 million as payment of the “inception to date” unmatched mechanical royalties held at a number of streaming platforms, sometimes called the “black box.” Why do we have a black box at all? For the same reason you have “pending and unmatched” at record companies–somebody decided to exploit the recording without clearing the song.

Streaming services will, no doubt, try to blame the labels for this missing data, but that dog don’t hunt. First, the streaming service has an independent obligation to obtain a license and therefore to know who they are licensing from. Just because the labels do, too, doesn’t diminish the service’s obligation. It must also be said that for years, services did not accept delivery of publishing metadata even if a label wanted to give it to them. So that helps explain how we get to $424 million. Although the money was paid around mid-February, it’s clearly grown because The MLC is to hold the funds in an interest bearing account. Although The MLC has yet to disclose the current balance. Maybe someday.

This payment is, rough justice, a quid pro quo for the new “reach back” safe harbor that the drafters of Title I came up with that denies songwriters the right to sue for statutory damages if a platform complies with their rules including paying this money. That’s correct–songwriters gave up a valuable right to get paid with their own money.

The MLC has not released details about these funds as yet, but one would expect that the vast majority of the unmatched would be for accounting periods prior to the enactment of Title I of the Music Modernization Act (Oct. 11, 2018). One reason that expectation would be justified is that Title I requires services to try hard(er) to match song royalties with song owners. The statute states “…a digital music provider shall engage in good-faith, commercially reasonable efforts to identify and locate each copyright owner of such musical work (or share thereof)” as a condition of being granted the safe harbor.

The statute then goes on to list some examples of “good faith commercially reasonable efforts”. This search, or lack thereof, is at the heart of Eight Mile Style and Martin Affiliated’s lawsuit against Spotify and the Harry Fox Agency. (As the amended complaint states, “Nowhere does the MMA limitation of liability section suggest that it lets a DMP off the hook for copyright infringement liability for matched works where the DMP simply committed copyright infringement. The same should also be true where the DMP had the information, or the means, to match, but simply ignored all remedies and requirements and committed copyright infringement instead. Spotify does not therefore meet the requirements for the liability limitations of the MMA with respect to Eight Mile for this reason alone.”)

The MMA language is similar to “reasonably diligent search” obligations for orphan works, which are typically works of copyright where the owner cannot be identified by the user after trying to find them. This may be the only aspect of orphan works practice that is relevant to the black box under MMA. Since considerable effort has been put into coming up with what constitutes a proper search particularly in Europe it might be a good idea to review those standards.

We may be able to learn somethng about what we expect the services to have already done before transferring the matching problem to the MLC and what we can expect the MLC to do now that they have the hot potato. The MMA provides non-exclusive examples of what would comprise a good search, so it is relevant what other best practices may be out there.

Establishing reference points for what constitutes “good faith commercially reasonable efforts” under MMA is important to answer the threshold question: Is the $424 million payment really all there is? How did the services arrive at this number? While we are impressed by the size of the payment, that’s exactly the reason why we should inquire further about how it was arrived at, what periods it is for and whether any deductions were made. Otherwise it’s a bit like buying the proverbial pig in the proverbial poke.

One method lawmakers have arrived at for determining reasonableness is whether the work could be identified by consulting readily available databases identified by experts (or common sense). For example, if a songwriter has all their metadata correct with the PROs, it’s going to be a bit hard to stomach that either the service or the MLC can’t find them.

Fortunately, we have the Memorandum of Understanding from the European Digital Libraries initiative which brought together a number of working groups to develop best practices to search for different copyright categories of orphan works. The Music/Sound Working Group was represented by Véronique Desbrosses of GESAC and Shira Perlmutter, then of IFPI and now Register of Copyrights (head of the U.S. Copyright Office). The Music/Sound Working Group established these reasonable search guidelines:

DUE DILIGENCE GUIDELINES

The [Music/Sound] Working Group further discussed what constituted appropriate due diligence in dealing with the interests of the groups represented at the table—i.e., what a responsible [user] should, and does, do to find the relevant right holders. We agreed that at least the following searches should be undertaken:

1. Check credits and other information appearing on the work’s packaging (including names, titles, date and place of recording) and follow up through those leads to find additional right holders (e.g., contacting a record [company] to find the performers).

2. Check the databases/membership lists of relevant associations or institutions representing the relevant category of right holder (including collecting societies, unions, and membership or trade associations). In the area of music/sound, such resources are extensive although not always exhaustive.

3. Utilise public search engines to locate right holders by following up on whatever names and facts are available.

4. Review online copyright registration lists maintained by government agencies, such as the U.S. Copyright Office.

Perhaps when the MLC audits the inception to date payments we’ll have some idea of whether the services complied with these simple guidelines.

The World is not Flat: @CISACNews and BIEM Focus on Vendor Lock-in at the MLC

One of the many U.S.-centric shortcomings of Title I of the Music Modernization Act (that created the Mechanical Licensing Collective, the safe harbor giveaway and the blanket license) is that it pretty much ignores the entire complex system of content management organizations outside the U.S. As they describe themselves, “CISAC and BIEM are international organisations representing Collective Management Organisations (“CMOs”) worldwide that are entrusted with the management of creators’ rights and, as such, have a direct interest in the Regulations governing the functioning of the Database and the transparency of MLC’s operations. CISAC and BIEM would like to thank the Office for highlighting the existence and particularity of entities such as CMOs that are not referred to in the MMA.”

I have to say at the outset that as someone who lived outside the U.S. for a big chunk of time, it’s rather embarrassing but sadly unsurprising that so little attention has been paid to the global system of CMOs and the cold fact that we are now weeks away from the January 1, 2021 deadline.

You would not be aware of this unless you read the many comments to the Copyright Office on the MLC oversight rule makings. Aside from the fact that these organizations have decades of experience with blanket mechanical licensing (which the MLC might benefit from), CISAC and BIEM should have been included in the MLC itself, particularly since the MLC promoters appear to have been handing out non-voting directorships to themselves. It is embarrassing, kind of like those Americans who think the best way to speak French is to speak English louder.

CISAC and BIEM raise excellent issues in their comments, which often are accompanied by gentle hint language indicating the points have been raised before and ignored, or at least not responded to. According to a recently posted “ex parte” letter, CISAC and BIEM have focused in on a critical issue–where is the MLC’s statutorily required database and what benefits accrue to its vendor–principally HFA which was recently reunited in the MLC with its former owners.

You can read the CISAC and BIEM ex parte letter here. (Ex parte letters essentially document private discussions by the Copyright Office on matters they are currently regulating. Ex parte letters help to build a full record on matters placed before the Copyright Office by interested parties that may or may not be addressed in regulations.)

Here’s a key excerpt that I think deserves more attention (and is not going to be covered by the trade press until the system collapses in all likelihood).

CISAC/BIEM also raised further concerns regarding potential competitive advantages that The MLC or its vendors’ access to information may have and risks that such information could potentially be used for purposes outside of Section 115 mechanicals. The USCO assured the CMOs that they were perfectly aware of this issue, which had also been raised by other parties, and considered that these concerns were being addressed in the Confidentiality Rulemaking, and that the Statute requires Regulations to prevent the disclosure or improper use of information or MLC records. The proposed Rule establishes that MLC vendors cannot use the data obtained for processing for other purposes. The USCO further confirmed that it was very much aware of the need to ensure the necessary balance and that it was still contemplating how best to resolve this, including whether there should be more regulation.

I have to say that this is not the impression I got from the first panel of “MLC week” rather that the panel seemed to think that at least any member of the public could use the data provided to the MLC for any purpose. Since the MLC’s vendors would also be members of the public ostensibly, it does seem that disconnect needs to be cleared up.

The ex parte letter continues:

The CMOs CISAC/BIEM considered that some of these concerns were based on the January 1 deadline and whether The MLC would be operating with HFA’s database or with its’ own DQI processed separate database.

This depends on the antecedent of “its” in the last clause. If you take The MLC as the antecedent, the meaning would be “or with The MLC’s own DQI processed separate database.” If you take HFA as the antecedent, the meaning would be “whether The MLC would be operating with HFA’s database or with HFA’s own DQI processed separate database.”

While I think that CISAC and BIEM meant the former, the reality appears to be the latter however nonsensical it may seem. This is because there do not appear to be two separate databases, just the HFA database that The MLC accesses through an API. The DQI operation is designed to improve the data quality of the HFA database which benefits both The MLC and HFA.

There seems to be more than a little confusion about this:


USCO noted that there are still open questions regarding this issue, as it seemed that the HFA database would be used as a starting point, but through programmes like DQI data was being updated, so it did not seem as if both databases were identical.

I would argue with this (and have). This idea that DQI was updating a database other than the HFA database sounds like there is a stand-alone musical works database as required by the statute. If so, where is it? Why does the DQI produce search results like this:

HFA DQI

The USCO reiterated that the proposed Confidentiality Rulemaking specifies the limitations imposed on proposed vendors and that The MLC had in writing acknowledged that neither The MLC nor its vendor owned the data. The USCO acknowledged that there was a lot of concern expressed about this issue and ensured the CMOs it was going to address this issue.

Ownership alone is not the only issue and misdirects attention. On the one hand, The MLC says it does not own the database (another example of drafting oversights in Title I of the MMA–ownership is one of those issues you would think would be clearly spelled out but was only referenced indirectly).

I come away from reading the ex parte letter more concerned than ever that the core issue that The MLC was tasked with by the Congress is simply not being addressed–where is the Congress’s musical works database? Remember the words of the legislative history:

“Music metadata has more often been seen as a competitive advantage for the party that controls the database, rather than as a resource for building an industry on.”