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.

 

Spotify’s “Fake Artist” Issue and Other Problems at Scale

Spotify just can’t seem to catch a break in the artist community.  A story broke on Vulture evidently based on a Music Business Worldwide post alleging (and I’m paraphrasing) that (1) Spotify commissions artists to cover hits of the day and (2) there’s a lot of sketchy material on Spotify that trades on confusing misspellings, “tributes” and other ways of tricking users into listening to at least 30 seconds of a recording.  Which means that Spotify isn’t that different than the rest of the Internet.  (Thank you DARPA, the people who gave you the Internet.  And Agent Orange.  The real one.)

Spotify of course has issued a denial that I find to be Nixonian in its parsing.  Let’s not go crazy on this, but here’s the first part, according to Billboard:

“We do not and have never created ‘fake’ artists and put them on Spotify playlists. Categorically untrue, full stop,” a Spotify spokesperson wrote in an email.

Nobody said Spotify “creates” “‘fake artists,'” and the accusation was that the fake artists were on the service AND on some playlists, not just playlists.  The allegation is that Spotify commissions recordings.

“We pay royalties — sound and publishing — for all tracks on Spotify, and for everything we playlist. [If Spotify commissioned the fake tracks, they would also “pay royalties”.]  We do not own rights, we’re not a label, all our music is licensed from rightsholders and we pay them — we don’t pay ourselves.”

Notice the switch to “rights holders” which would include either publishing or sound recordings.  If Spotify commissioned fake artists they would not need to “own rights” and they could easily have “licensed” the fake artists recordings.  Cover songs would require an…ahem…NOI for the compulsory license.  And the commission payment could go to the artist as a buyout so Spotify would “pay them”.  If the object was to increase traffic for their ad supported service, commissioning recordings would both increase traffic AND reduce the prorata share of advertising revenue by making the denominator larger for everyone with a  revenue share during that accounting period.  I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole, but there are some odd loose ends.

Leave the holes in Spotify’s denial to the side.  The core problem identified by the Vulture post is the same for Spotify as it is for Google, YouTube, Facebook, all the other Internet companies that require “scale” to succeed, and which are, one way or another, hell bent on being monopolists.  The second part of Spotify’s denial in Billboard could apply to this lack of monitoring:

“As we grow there will always be people who try to game the system. We have a team in place to constantly monitor the service to flag any activity that could be seen as fraudulent or misleading to our users.”

Maybe that “team” could have a role in “monitoring the service” for tracks before the recordings get on the service rather than after.  Noah built the Ark before the rain.

It must be said that it sounds a bit implausible that Spotify would commission this type of recording to avoid paying artist royalties on the fake tracks.  Such an affirmative act would require a commercially tortured logic because the royalty offset on those specific tracks would be so tiny that the cost of the commissioned recordings would have to be very, very low.  One guy with Garageband in Mom’s basement kind of low.  How much the prorata revenue share would be reduced is hard to know from the outside.

But even if Spotify doesn’t hire studio musicians to perform “fake hits”, it appears that they are allowing a lot of sketchy recordings onto the service.  One might ask how those recordings get there in the first place.  I would bet that the explanation is pretty much that nobody bothers to check before the recordings are posted (or “ingested” in the vernacular, if you can stand that word).

So while there is a major difference in degree of harm, there isn’t a great deal of difference between what seems to be happening on Spotify with sketchy recordings and the links to illegal materials that the Canadian Supreme Court just blocked on Google Search, promoting the sale of illegal drugs for which Google paid a $500,000,000 fine and narrowly avoided prison, ISIS recruiting for which Google lost a chunk of market cap (at least for a while), human trafficking on Craig’s List and fake news on Facebook.  Each of these services operate at scale and they seem to have the same problem:  No one is minding the store and there are no or poorly enforced standards and practices that are only enforced after the harm has occurred.

The other trait that all these companies have in common to one degree or another is that they are all at least dominant if not monopolies in their markets.

Remember–on May 12, 2014, Spotify’s director of economics Will Page gave a presentation at the Music Biz Conference in Nashville.  As reported by Billboard, Will Page gave the audience a good deal of evidence of Spotify’s domination of the online music market:

Spotify claims to have represented one out of every ten dollars record labels earned in the first quarter….Page’s claim shows the speed at which subscription services are gaining share of the U.S. market. According to IFPI data, all subscription services accounted for 10.2 percent of U.S. recorded music revenue in 2014. If Spotify had a 10-percent share in the first quarter, it’s safe to say the overall subscription share is well above the 10.2 percent registered last year.

These numbers suggest that while Spotify may have a significant share of overall U.S. recorded music revenue, Spotify is clearly dominant if not a monopoly in the global subscription market with its now 100 million plus users and probably is at least dominant if not a monopoly in the U.S. music subscription market.

So how does Apple address these problems?  If you consult the iTunes Style Guide, you’ll see that iTunes expressly prohibits the use of search terms or keywords in track title metadata (like “Rock Pop Indie Rock”) or an artist name (like “Aerosmith Draw the Line).  Audio files have to match track titles on each album delivered.  “All track titles performed by the same artist on an album must be unique, except for different versions of the same track that are differentiated by Parental Advisory tags.“  And most importantly, perhaps, “the name of the original artist must not be displayed in any artist field on the track level or the album level.”  Why these rules?  One reason might be that Tunecore has encouraged their users for years to use covers as a way of getting noticed in searches on music services (with suitable admonishments to not “trick” fans).

Let’s face it–there’s only one way to keep your service clean.  Don’t let the bad stuff on in the first place.  You may think that it should be self evident that allowing sketchy recordings, ISIS videos or human trafficking on your service is a bad thing.  You may think that it should be self evident that allowing someone to change a letter in an artist’s name to trade on their reputation is a bad thing–not that different from typo squatting.  You may think that it is self evident that promoting the sale of illegal drugs is a bad thing.  And you may think that anyone who wants to engage in commerce with the legitimate commercial community, much less the artist community, wouldn’t allow these travesties into their business.

But you would be wrong.  Probably because you don’t worship at the alter of the great god Scale.

 

 

 

The Core Flaw of Blockchain

The truth about blockchain is that at its core, it requires its regime to be enforced on rights owners in order to scale–and that is its essential flaw.

Call me a blockchain skeptic.  I agree with many of the conclusions reached by Alan Graham in his MusicTechPolicy interview, but I also think that at its core, blockchain as currently contemplated fails as an industry-wide rights registry.  Since I understand that its essential purpose is to be a reliable rights registry, it seems obvious to me that blockchain has limited application at best.

I spent a good deal of time helping some very smart people build an independent rights registry around 2005 and have thought about these issues for a long time.  (All the major labels and many indies participated in that registry.)

Based on that experience, I believe that the core value proposition of a rights registry is that it be easy to use; that the information in it be objectively verified and only changed with a proper showing of authority; that it be capable of making or directing the making of royalty payments (which means holding necessary tax information); and that it can be easily and timely updated with information for new releases.  I believe all these elements are essential and that blockchain accomplishes none of them well and some of them not at all.

A quote from Benji Rogers in MusicAlly lays out the core problem very effectively.  (Benji Rogers is a promoter of the blockchain technology and his own company Dot Blockchain–I think I have all the capitalizations in the right place, but forgive me if it’s actually dOt bLK.ch..n or something like that.)  Here’s his quotation (which I doubt that he viewed as a criticism of his product):

“Blockchains force action… If I were to make a statement about a work that I own in a blockchain, and I were to send it to you…you have three choices: yes it’s correct and I agree, no it’s not correct, or ignore it, which means it’s correct.”

What blockchain may bring to the table is something you cannot ignore, because ignoring it is the same as accepting what’s there in the table is truth… A blockchain-based system at scale could force people to work with it, in a way that exposes them to decentralisation and transparency, arguably whether they like it or not.” (emphasis in original)

In other words, organizing the world’s information whether the world likes it or not.  Sound familiar?

It is one thing if blockchain is a voluntary regime that artists and users can decide to participate in–and submit themselves to forced “decentralization and transparency” as Mr. Rogers articulates so well.  But it is entirely another thing altogether if blockchain is enforced by law.

I would not rule out that it is ultimately the goal of the blockchain investors to force songwriters and artists to submit to the blockchain as a matter of law.  This is certainly a familiar refrain if you have followed the various meltdowns over the desire of online retailers and search companies to force songwriters and artists to submit to their exploitation.  We have heard these ideas frequently over the years whether it is even safer harbors, orphan works or massive numbers of unauditable address unknown NOIs under the US compulsory mechanical license.

If you doubt that could happen, realize that two unmovable government agencies are currently allowing millions of songs to be exploited with unverified and dubious authority–the U.S. Copyright Office with mass NOIs and the Department of Justice with 100% licensing.  What’s to stop them taking the next step?

One person’s forced “decentralization and transparency” is another’s eminent domain.  So when you hear about blockchain, imagine if the blockchain bubble had the awesome power of the sovereign forcing someone else’s interpretation of truth on creators.

Especially when the time it takes to correct someone else’s interpretation of the truth as Mr. Rogers suggests their job would become will be even more uncompensated time for another free ride that will probably end the same way that DMCA notices do for the vast majority of independent artists.

They just give up because resistance really is futile.

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.

 

How Accurate are Music Subscription Service Subscriber Numbers?

All of you who subscribe to the New York Times, fly Quantas, use any of a number of mobile carriers or who are in the 6th month of your third Spotify 30 day (or 90) free trial may be interested in this post.

According to Billboard in a story titled “Spotify Officially Hits 50 Million Paid Subscribers“, the “official” announcement came from a tweet:

I found this intriguing–how did we go from “Spotify Officially Hits 50 Million Paid Subscribers” in the headline to a tweet that doesn’t really say the same thing?  Maybe like this?

screenshot_20170224-140304

First, what makes a tweet “official”?  Much less “official” totals of “paid subscribers”?  Finding out may be like asking what makes ketchup “fancy”.

w27cz

Newspaper subscriptions have long been verified by a company specializing in verifying circulation.  Television has the Nielsen ratings, music has Soundscan, and so on.  None of these systems are perfect, but they make it harder to outright misrepresent success in a business where frequently the only people who really know how well they are doing are the people who would like you to believe they are doing well.  This is nothing new, it’s as old as moral hazard.

The quest for truth leads one to independent verification services.

spotify-clown-car
A clown car for 6 million streams

Reuters reported the same story with a more subdued headline: “Spotify Says It Reached 50 Million Subscribers“.  A little more factual, a little less Kool Aid.

This is important because I have yet to find anyplace that Spotify actually says the 50 million subscribers were “paid”.  The press leaped to that conclusion, but Spotify did not say that.

And neither does Apple, a company which is already public and has to be careful what they say about the money they are making or not making.  Yet somehow nobody transforms Eddie Cue’s statement that Apple has “well past 20 million subscribers” into an “official” statement implying a verified number of “paid” subs.

Actually–it may well be that there is a significant revenue difference between “paid subscribers” and “subscribers”.  As the Music Industry Blog wrote last year:

[T]here is a more important story here: Spotify’s accelerated growth in Q2 2016 was driven by widespread use of its $0.99 for 3 months promotional offer. Which itself comes on the back of similar offers having supercharged Spotify’s subscriber growth for the last 18 months or so. In short, 9.99 needs to stop being 9.99 in order to appeal to consumers.

As Spotify has been “dominant” in the music subscription business for a while now (and yes, I mean that in an antitrust sense of “dominant”), it seems that it’s high time for someone to independently audit the veracity of the number of their subscribers.

Or would the Securities and Exchange Commission like to rely on a tweet?

 

 

Big Tech’s Latest Infringement Loophole: Mass Filings of NOIs to Avoid Paying Statutory Royalties (Part 2)

co-nois-1
“1 NOI” Means “1 Excel file for the NOIs Filed That Day, each Excel file contains tens of thousands of songs

As noted in Part 1 of this post, Google, Amazon and others are filing what are reportedly “millions” of “address unknown” NOIs with the U.S. Copyright Office.  I fully expect that Pandora will eventually do the same for its on-demand service and Spotify is likely to do the same.  Note–this type of carpet bombing of NOIs would not have helped Spotify in the David Lowery litigation because David Lowery registered his copyrights that are the subject of that litigation.

If you click here, you will find the most recent iteration of these massive NOIs, which apparently are being posted on a regular basis.  The screenshot above is the first page of these filings on the Copyright Office site, most of which came this month (September 2016).

Each Excel file can be downloaded–a word of warning, even the zipped files are large and may take a while to open on an average home computer.

Remember what you are looking at in these files–this is the list that results from comparing the list of sound recordings that the services are using to the data dump that the service purchases from the Library of Congress.  Take a tip–you’ll never find the page on the LOC website unless you know where to look, which is right here.

loc-prices-databases

Willful Blindness on Song Titles

This is an overwhelming amount of data, so in order to have any idea what is really going on, spot checking will be required.  And since it’s Google, you know there’s a scam afoot, your challenge is just to figure out which scam it is this time.  (Of course the entire exercise is a scam, but leave that to one side for now.)

Scam # 1 appears to be treating any song title that has any text in it other than the actual song title as a song for which the owner cannot be identified.  Here’s two examples from Sting in the Google 9/16/16 NOI file:

sting-fragile-google-noi

Of course, the song “Fragile” is registered, but Google’s filing claims that there is a different song “Fragile (Live)” that is not registered by that title.  Google has, no doubt, sent another NOI for the song “Fragile” (or has a direct license) and if so has actual knowledge of the song copyright owner.

And here’s the loophole–by claiming that “Fragile (Live)” is an “unknown” song, Google can try to get out of paying for the live version.  (Because how would you know that “Fragile” performed by Sting for which you know the copyright owner is the same as “Fragile (Live)” performed by Sting for which you now claim to be shocked that is the same song–unless, oh, maybe if you listened to the two?)  The government’s compulsory license says this:

sec-115-noi-unknown

If you search for live recordings in Google’s NOI filings, you will find many, many live recordings by artists such as Bob Dylan, Heart, Quincy Jones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Chicago.  And then there’s the medleys like “Hotel California Dreaming” which lists the Eagles writers with John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas.

Not to mention a ton of foreign songwriters who are under no obligation to register their songs with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Let’s also set aside for the moment whether the recordings that Google has listed on their certified filing are all lawfully distributed–some certainly look like bootlegs to me.  Of course “bootlegs” these days have to include illegal live recordings posted on YouTube and then stream ripped into mp3 files to be distributed through Tunecore, CD Baby or someone else who doesn’t pay much attention to where the recordings come from and then subsequently distributed through Google–who invented the game.

So what appears to be happening is that Google and Amazon (which has hired MRI, I believe) are playing the willful blindness game.  What can be done about it?

That will be the subject of the next and final part of this post.

 

Big Tech’s Latest Infringement Loophole: Mass Filings of NOIs to Avoid Paying Statutory Royalties (Part 1)

If the music-tech industry has one major failing from which all of their messaging and legal problems flow, it is their fascination with loopholes that predictably harm creators.  Whether it’s YouTube’s nefarious reliance on a tortured interpretation of the DMCA safe harbors that bears no relation to the law, Pandora and SiriusXM’s bone headed refusal to pay statutory royalties on pre-72 sound recordings (not to mention Pandora’s purchase of a radio station in a failed attempt to pay songwriters lower royalties), Spotify’s absurdly unnecessary collision with Taylor Swift over windowing, the MIC Coalition’s ridiculous manipulation of the Department of Justice on 100% licensing, or Amazon’s bizarre fascination with compulsory licenses for which songwriters have no audit right, these companies rival each other in the undignified pursuit of loopholes.

And in particular, loopholes that hurt songwriters who can’t afford the litigation and lobbying machine that is always the not-so-veiled threat brought by all these companies.  The latest debacle is no different–mass filings of NOIs to avoid paying mechanical royalties because of a loophole that is detritus left over from the 1909 Copyright Act that is being manipulated to benefit the rich Silicon Valley companies at the expense of songwriters.

Yes, that’s right.  They’d rather pay enormous sums in filing fees that vastly exceed any royalties payable just to get out of paying royalties at all.  You have a better chance of recovering an old utility deposit from a state unclaimed property office than you have of getting mechanicals once you fall victim to this latest move.

I have been reliably informed that Google, Amazon and Music Reports among others are filing “millions” of “address unknown” NOIs with the Copyright Office based on a database that these companies are purchasing for tens of thousands of dollars from the Library of Congress (remember that the Copyright Office is under the jurisdiction of the Library of Congress).  And by the way–once they file this NOI, they don’t pay royalties until the copyright owner can be identified in the records of the Copyright Office.  Regardless of how easily the copyright owner could be found in other readily accessible databases.

Mystified?  I will explain.  Rest assured, you’re not the only one who is surprised.  And remember that bit about the utility deposit, we’ll come back to that one.

As you read this post, remember one thing–it didn’t have to be this way.  This is all happening for the same reason.  Google, Amazon, Spotify, and likely soon Pandora (for its yet-to-be-launched on demand service) are all far more likely to take the legalistic and aggressive route rather than reach out to the songwriting community to work cooperatively to find a solution.

One music tech executive told me, we decide what’s fair and then we jam it down your throat.

That doesn’t work.

Mechanical Licensing and the Compulsory License

For one reason or another, the U.S. Government has a tradition of being very interested in regulating songwriters.  The Copyright Act of 1909 established the baseline rules that compel songwriters to license their songs and sets the terms on which those songs are licensed including the royalty rate.

Even if you are not troubled by this degree of attention that is probably the original wage and price control, it would be nice if the USG is going to pay enough attention to songwriters that they set the price at which they can license their work, that the same USG not forget to raise that rate for 60-odd years.

That’s right–the government set the mechanical rate in 1909 at 2 cents and refused to raise it until 1978 (as part of the 1976 Copyright Act revision).  Adjusted for inflation, that 2 cent rate would now be about 80 cents.  Instead, it’s been 9.1 cents for the last 10 years.

The current compulsory license law was crafted in 1909 and slightly amended in 1976, and amended again a couple times to include the concept of “digital phonorecord deliveries” which essentially makes that compulsory applicable to streaming.

The 1976 Act also got rid of the copyright registrations that formed the basis of copyright under the 1909 Act with the exception of requiring a registration to sue for statutory damages and attorneys fees in a copyright infringement lawsuit.  (Not quite that straight a line, but that’s where we ended up.)

But here’s the twist–the compulsory license rules are a notice based system.  A music user who intends to use a song that is subject to the compulsory license must send a notice to the copyright owner.  These notices are called a “notice of intention” or “NOI”.  If you’re going to require an NOI, then how do you deal with copyright owners who cannot be found?

There was an easy answer to this that derives from the registration requirements–look them up in the Copyright Office.  If the copyright owner can’t be identified in the records of the Copyright Office, then the music user can send a notice to the Copyright Office which the Copyright Office then publishes.  Just like when your state publishes a list of unclaimed utility deposits, closed bank account balances, etc.

Now we all know that nobody uses the records of the Copyright Office to find a copyright owner, or if they use those records they don’t use them exclusively.  Most people will look first at the PRO databases, cue sheets, publisher websites, other materials like that.  When all else fails, then they look at the Copyright Office.  This is partly due to the lag time between filing a copyright registration and receiving a conformed copy of that registration (which is when it is “official”).

There is also another public record maintained by the Copyright Office called the “recordation section”.  This is where people file documents relating to works of copyright, such as a notice of assignment or a mortgage of copyright (which is kind of like a UCC-1 financing statement).  The recordation section requires paper filings and typically only ingests a handful of titles from a large acquisition.  That results in a filing of “‘Yesterday’ and 10,000 other songs” or something along those lines.

In other words, the recordation section is not all that reliable either–and neither is dispositive because there hasn’t been a registration requirement for decades.  Is it a good practice to register?  Yes.  Is it required to have valid copyright?  No.

And it’s particularly not required for non-US songwriters.  In fact, there’s a good argument that a registration requirement in order to enjoy your rights (such as the statutory mechanical royalty, however poorly handled by the government) is actually barred by the Berne Convention’s prohibition on formalities.

Yet, the U.S. Copyright Act allows a valid compulsory license to issue for a copyright owner who may be listed in the PRO databases, may be a foreign copyright owner, or be under license (even direct license) for other songs with the same music user–if that copyright owner of a particular song cannot be identified from the public records of the Copyright Office–as determined by the music user.

Now why is this a moral hazard that should not be resolved by the music user?

Because the Copyright Act also provides that the music user filing that “address unknown” NOI is not required to pay royalties until that copyright owner is identifiable in the public records of the Copyright Office.

And who decides if the NOI is properly filed for the right song title?  That’s right–the music user.  Who is incented to play games with the song metadata?  That’s right–the music user.

So what comes next should be of no surprise given the bad advice that these giant companies receive about their artist and writer relations.

Continued in Part 2.