Who Owns The MLC Database of Songs?

If you’ve been following the evolution of the “aircraft carrier” revision of the U.S. Copyright Act styled the “Music Modernization Act,” you will remember that America now has a blanket license for the mechanical reproduction of songs (or will have as of 1/1/21).  The “MMA” comes in three parts (or as I say three and one-half):

  • Title I which establishes the blanket license, a willing-buyer willing-seller standard for mechanical royalty rate setting, the Mechanical Licensing Collective (called the “MLC”), the all-important safe harbor for Big Tech’s massive infringement of songs, and authorized the creation of the “musical works database” which is the subject of this post;
  • Title I-1/2 which gives certain small benefits to ASCAP and BMI;
  • Title II which provides meaningful relief and largely fixes the pre-72 loophole that the Turtles sued over (formerly the CLASSICS Act); and
  • Title III which gives producers a statutory basis for SoundExchange royalties, another truly meaningful change.

I supported Title II and Title III, but I have lots of bones to pick with Title I, not the least of which has to do with the musical works database.  A lot of my issues have to do with what I perceive as sloppy drafting and a mad rush to “get a bill” at all costs which has led to a strong need to “fix” a lot of “glitches” in Title I itself (such as the failure to dovetail the major change in the compulsory mechanical from a per-song basis to a blanket basis. This in turn has an affect on other copyright provisions such as the termination right for songwriters which is now having to get solved–maybe–through the caulking of regulations to cover sloppy workmanship.  (Caulk cracks.)

For those of us who sweep up behind the elephants in the circus of life, I fear that the musical works database of other people’s things is an 11th Century solution to a 21st Century problem–a list of things that will be very difficult to get right and even more difficult to keep right, not unlike William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book.  Static lists of dynamic things necessarily are out of date the moment they are fixed.  We are going to discuss Title I musical works database today from a very simple threshold question:  Who owns it?

Spoiler alert:  The public owns it.  This is logical, but like so many things in the drafting of Title I, the drafting is glitchy, which is what you call it if you’re in a good mood.  I apocryphally attribute the term “glitch” when applied to massive Internet data breaches to the Fathers of the Internet who not only failed to take care that the herd was protected but also created a never ending series of data breaches.  That, in turn, birthed the entire Internet security industry–you know, “glitch” protection. (Looking at you, Vint Cerf.)

When you consider that the most valuable asset of the MLC is going to be the song database, and this database of other people’s things must be created by the efforts of potentially hundreds of thousands of songwriters given no choice in the matter, ownership matters.  It would be a bit much for the U.S. Congress to require all this only to enrich one U.S. corporation controlled by the U.S. publishers by leveraging a compulsory license to create a very valuable private asset.  Particularly one paid for by other people that might then get taken and given to a replacement MLC.  (There’s that “taken” word again.)  That’s typically not what they do.

Let’s also remember that on paper, the MLC does not pay a penny for the cost of its operations, including the creation of the database.  The entire cost of the MLC’s operations is borne by the users of the blanket license through an organization called the Digital Licensee Coordinator.  (If you’re thinking what’s with these names, I know, I know.  Forget it, Jake, it’s Washington.)

This database ownership issue has been raised a couple times, and no one has answered it.  I made it part of a recent comment I filed with the Copyright Office in the current rule making for regulations implementing Title I.  Maybe they’ll get around to answering the question this time.  After a while, you have to wonder why they have not.

A side note demonstrating both that ownership matters and that The MLC is thinking about ownership:  a service mark registration for “The MLC”.  (A service mark is a kind of trademark.)  There is a difference between “the MLC” and “The MLC”.  That’s because “the MLC” is the organization envisioned by the Congress that has to be redesignated (think “re-approved”) by the Copyright Office every five years.  On the other hand, “The MLC” refers to “The MLC, Inc.” which is the corporation created by the super popular proponents of Title I who were designated the first MLC and who style themselves “The MLC” using the definite article.  But if I told you that there was a difference between “the MLC” and “The MLC” would you find that confusing?

The clear implication of the definite article seems to be that they don’t envision any future in which they will not be the MLC, i.e., will not be redesignated.  They also probably don’t envision a future where a different corporation would be designated the MLC and The MLC would be looking for something to do.  Maybe they know something we don’t, but there it is.

This also raises some interesting trademark questions should The MLC seek to prevent a successor from trading under the name “MLC”, enough to stop The MLC from claiming a proprietary interest in the statutory description.  That mark is arguably descriptive and probably should be denied.  In fact it’s so descriptive it actually asserts a private intellectual property interest in the statutory language that describes the organization created by statute.  Sort of like asserting a trademark in “TVA” or “ICC” or “FOIA”.

MLC TM Registration

Let’s be clear about who owns the Congressional database.  As you will see, the musical works database does not belong to the MLC or The MLC and if there is any confusion about that, the Copyright Office should clear it up right away (which would save having to go to other avenues to do the same thing).  There really isn’t a practical alternative to the Copyright Office jurisdiction.  Congress gave the Copyright Office broad regulatory powers over the MLC (and, therefore, The MLC).

The public “musical works database” that Congress envisioned in Title I of the Music Modernization Act is largely a crowdsourced asset.  Congress has asked the world’s songwriters or copyright owners to spend considerable time preparing their catalogs in whatever format The MLC and the DLC determine is good for The MLC (with the Office’s blessing through regulations).  There inevitably will be quality control and accuracy review costs invested by the world’s songwriters and copyright owners in making sure that their catalogs are correctly reflected in the musical works database.  “Copyright owners” may also include sound recording copyright owners asked to contribute their ISRCs or other data that they, too, have invested considerable expense in creating and maintaining.

Unfortunately, the transaction cost to the songwriter and copyright owner for participation in The MLC and crowdsourcing Congress’s database is an unfunded mandate at the moment.  From a commercial perspective, the dynamic evolution of data is a potentially limitless expense, yet we have both this unfunded mandate which will spike in the early years but continue on a rolling basis essentially forever.  Yet the MLC’s administrative assessment appears to be capped at a fixed increase by a settlement agreement.  Again, a “glitch.”  Still, MLC executives seem positively giddy about their prospects with all the relief of someone who got tapped for lifetime employment with a pension (no doubt) while the songwriters these leaders are to serve are having the fight of their lives.

Yet, it seems clear that at the time of passing Title I, Congress had no intention of using a public law to create a private asset.  Neither was their intention to use the law to leverage the creation of an asset for private ownership by whoever the head of the U.S. Copyright Office designated to be the MLC, regardless of how “popular” they might have been.

The creation of the musical works database is replete with hidden costs paid or incurred by songwriters and copyright owners.  Neither the Congress nor the Copyright Royalty Judges  were asked to directly address these hidden costs of creating the musical works database.   (The Copyright Royalty Judges (or “CRJs”) are relevant because they approve the DLC’s financial contribution to the MLC through the “Administrative Assessment.”  The assessment is intended to cover the “collective total costs” which includes broad categories of cost items related to the database.)  And as usual, these costs appear to have gone straight over the heads of the Congressional Budget Office in their mandated assessment of the costs of Title I.

Even so, the MMA Conference Report from Congress addresses the cost issue head on:

The [Congress] rejects statements that copyright owners benefit from paying for the costs of collectives to administer compulsory licenses in lieu of a free market. Therefore, the legislation directs that licensees should bear the reasonable costs of establishing and operating the new mechanical licensing collective. This transfer of costs is not unlimited, however, since it is strongly cabined by the term ‘‘reasonable.’’[1]

It will be impossible for the “new mechanical licensing collective” to fulfill its statutory duties or build the complete musical works database to which the United States aspires without songwriters and copyright owners around the world doing the intensive and costly spade work to prepare their data to be exported to The MLC.[2]  It is clear that the reasonable costs of preparing and exporting that data should be borne by The MLC[3] as part of the “Administrative Assessment.”[4]  This material cost clearly is covered by the definition of “collective total costs”[5] and so was, or should have been, included in the current Administrative Assessment,[6] unless the intention was to cover The MLC’s side of these costs and force songwriters and copyright owners to eat their side of the same transaction.  If that is the case, it would be helpful for the Copyright Office to clarify that intention in the name of transparency through their broad regulatory authority.

If there is another drafting glitch there, it is worth noting that the CRJs clearly contemplated revisiting the Administrative Assessment  on their own motion for good cause.[7]  If there were ever good cause, the staggering cost of registering potentially millions of songs would be it.[8]

It should be clear that no one’s intention was for the services to pay to create the musical works database and for the songwriters and copyright owners to labor to export their data to make the musical works database complete, only to have The MLC claim ownership of the musical works database, particularly if The MLC were not redesignated as the MLC following the five-year review by the Copyright Office.  That unhappy “take my ball and go home” arbitrage event is foreseeable and would entirely cut against the “continuity” contemplated by Congress.[9]

It is critical that the Copyright Office clarify in regulations that neither The MLC nor any other MLC owns the musical works database.  In fact, the MMA clearly states that “if a new entity is designated as the mechanical licensing collective, [the Office shall] adopt regulations to govern the transfer of licenses, funds, records, data, and administrative responsibilities from the existing mechanical licensing collective to the new entity.”[10]  Since The MLC will have to transfer the musical works database and the other statutory materials to the new MLC if they fail to be redesignated, there should be no misconceptions that The MLC “owns” the database and could withhold all or part of it.[11]  Because The MLC is just An MLC.

It should also be made clear that any MLC or DLC vendor does not obtain an ownership interest in any copy of all or part of the musical works database they may obtain for any reason.

This should be an easy ask of the Copyright Office.  Watch this space to find out if it is.

          * * * * * * * * *

[1] Report and Section-by-Section Analysis of H.R. 1551 by the Chairmen and Ranking Members of Senate and House Judiciary Committees, at 1 (2018) at 2 (emphasis added).

[2] This effort is referred to as “Play Your Part™” a business process trademarked by The MLC available at https://themlc.com/preparing-2021.

[3] I would point out that the way The MLC should work—and in the end probably will end up functioning as a practical matter–is that The MLC needs to be able to handle however songwriters ingest their data.  Instead, it appears that The MLC is trying to dictate to all the songwriters in the world how they should assemble their song data before they register with The MLC. If The MLC wants to shift that burden, they should expect to pay for it.  Otherwise, this is exactly backwards.

[4] 17 U.S.C. §115 (d)(7)(D).  The Administrative Assessment is what makes the MLC different from other PROs or CMOs where members bear their own cost of participation.  The Administrative Assessment is to cover the entire cost of creating the musical works database, not just The MLC’s startup or overhead costs.  If nothing else, another way to treat these out of pocket costs is as a contribution to the operating costs of The MLC by songwriters and copyright owners that should be offset against future Administrative Assessments.

[5] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (e)(6).

[6] Order Granting Participants’ Joint Motion to Adopt Proposed Regulations, In re Determination and Allocation of Initial Administrative Assessment to Fund Mechanical Licensing Collective (U.S. Copyright Royalty Judges Docket No. 19-CRB-0009-AA (Dec. 12, 2019)).

[7] The CRJs included this footnote in their ruling on the administrative assessment (emphasis added):  “The Judges have been advised by their staff that some members of the public sent emails to the Copyright Royalty Board seeking to comment on the proposed settlement agreement. Neither the Copyright Act, nor the regulations adopted thereunder, provide for submission or consideration of comments on a proposed settlement by non-participants in an administrative assessment proceeding. Consequently, as a matter of law, the Judges could not, and did not, consider these ex parte communications in deciding whether to approve the proposed settlement. Additionally, the Judges’ non-consideration of these ex parte communications does not: (i) imply any opinion by the Judges as to the substantive merits of any statements contained in such communications; or (ii) reflect any inability of the Judges to question, [on their own motion without a filing from a participant] whether good cause exists to adopt a settlement and to then utilize all express or reasonably implied statutory authority granted to them to make a determination as to the existence…of good cause [to reject the settlement now or in the future].”   Order Granting Participants’ Joint Motion to Adopt Proposed Regulations, In re Determination and Allocation of Initial Administrative Assessment to Fund Mechanical Licensing Collective (U.S. Copyright Royalty Judges Docket No. 19-CRB-0009-AA (Dec. 12, 2019) n.1 (emphasis added)).

[8] There is a simple solution to determining these costs to songwriters and copyright owners.  The Copyright Office could designate several metadata companies who could compete to handle the various steps of creating and exporting metadata to The MLC, such as in the CWR format, for example North Music Group and Crunch Digital have such tools.  To avoid picking winners and losers and to preserve competition, the Office could alternatively establish a benchmark of quality control or some other criteria for becoming an approved company.  The costs charged would likely vary depending on the size of the catalog, but The MLC need only pay the invoice of these companies which would be included in the Administrative Assessment.  Obviously, the entity performing such work should be independent of The MLC, the DLC or any of its members, or any of their respective vendors.  This would, of course, introduce the concept of competition into the monopoly which may interest no one but might benefit everyone.

[9] See H. Rep. 115-651 (115th Cong. 2nd Sess. April 25, 2018) at 6 (hereafter “House Report”); S. Rep. 115-339 (115th Cong. 2ndSess. Sept. 17, 2018) at 5 (together with identical language, hereafter “legislative history”) (“Although there is no guarantee of a continued designation by the collective, the Committee believes that continuity in the collective would be beneficial to copyright owners so long as the entity previously chosen to be the collective has regularly demonstrated its efficient and fair administration of the collective in a manner that respects varying interests and concerns. In contrast, evidence of fraud, waste, or abuse, including the failure to follow the relevant regulations adopted by the Copyright Office, over the prior five years should raise serious concerns within the Copyright Office as to whether that same entity has the administrative capabilities necessary to perform the required functions of the collective.”)

[10] 17 U.S.C. § 115 (d)(3)(B)(ii)(A)(II).

[11] It seems that if an incumbent MLC that was not redesignated and continued to operate, it would almost unavoidably compete with the newly designated MLC but with a substantial leg up.  I realize there have been some statements made about The MLC taking on work beyond the blanket license, such as voluntary licenses.  That additional work might require additional investment, or a sharing of the total collective costs by third parties.  I have not addressed that allocation as I for one would like to see The MLC stick to their knitting and succeed at the job they are obligated to do, and, frankly, paid to do, before worrying about expanding into profitable roles for the non-profit corporation.   It does seem that if The MLC is not redesignated, there would not be much for them to do once they transfer the public’s assets to the new MLC.

Strategic Licensing: @CrunchDigital “Sandbox” Offers Music-Tech Startups a Customized Licensing and Reporting Solution

I always impress on music tech startups that their licensing strategy roadmap is just as important as their product development roadmap.  Both are interdependent and neither should get too far out ahead of the other.  This is almost always met with resistance and a recitation of the popular cant that “copyright is broken”, music has a “market failure” or some similar incantation of a Potter-esque invisibility cloak–the end result being a satisfaction of the dopamine induced desire to rush to market.

Not only does that cloak not exist, invoking it does not help you protect your business from devastating claims downstream.  You’re not starting your company to pray for failure so no one finds you and decides if you’re worth suing.

But–you know you have a functioning market when the market itself produces a privately funded entrepreneurial solution to a market misallocation.  Crunch Digital is just that solution–and a solution that could solve through bespoke direct licensing the inefficient cycle of litigation that has become necessary to at least try to force the market back on the rails, especially for songwriters.

As Billboard reported last week:

Crunch Digital, which helps technology companies handle accounting and payments for the music they use, today announced that it’s launching Crunch Digital Sandbox, a platform that will expedite for app developers the process of licensing music from big labels and publishers. The idea isn’t to negotiate the kinds of complicated contracts needed by big online music distributors — just to quickly create what Crunch Digital founder Keith Bernstein calls “an experimental license” so they can prove their concepts.

Crunch will not license music itself. Rather, it will bring together startups with rightsholders that are participating in the Sandbox program, including BMG Rights Management. “Sandbox strikes the perfect balance, allowing startups to properly license music while ensuring that songwriters are fairly compensated,” says Keith Hauprich, BMG general counsel and senior vp business and legal affairs, North America. “This new model squarely addresses a long-standing concern of the industry.”

The problem that most music tech startups have with getting started is almost always the licensing piece followed closely by their accounting obligations.  I often hear complaints of high transaction costs of music licensing that inhibits innovation.  I have just as frequently seen music-tech startups completely underestimate the complexity of royalty accounting for both songs and sound recordings, especially songs.  And unless you are trying to create the black box, that’s bad.

Some startups just ignore the licensing and wait to get sued.  This is unfair to those who seek to do it right, and creates the false impression that licenses cannot be obtained, and that the industry is litigious and a bad investment.  That perception is not good for anyone and almost guarantees that innovation will be smothered.

Once a startup launches at scale without all licenses, the startup has created an unfixable problem and potentially endless litigation in a room of mirrors.  By “without all licenses”,  I don’t necessarily mean that the service has no licenses, just that it has no licenses for a significant number of works, such as songs.  There is a tendency at tech companies to view low earning songs as not being entitled to fair treatment, or at least not as worthy of fairness as the hits.  They often learn the hard way that users don’t get to call that moral hazard and that the law protects all songs, even if the songs happen to be a small percentage of a particular service’s revenue.

Tracking down all those songs creates a problem that is a cross between the stone of Sisyphus and the labors of Hercules.  Crunch’s Sandbox service helps startups solve that complex problem.

Crucially, the rights owners participating in the Sandbox appear to be offering a wide variety of works and not just a handful of lesser known songs and recordings.  The Sandbox could allow startups to launch their business in a safe environment without spending undue resources on licensing and reporting–instead, focusing on their product which I would suggest is what they should be doing.

And the Sandbox brings this equilibrium without any public money, amendment to the Copyright Act or loophole seeking behavior.  If successful, the Sandbox will help startups get launched properly, keep startups from reinventing the wheel on royalty reporting, avoid litigation and get artists and songwriters paid.

I’m pleased that Keith Bernstein of Crunch Digital will be on a panel I am moderating at SXSW next March (2018) “Getting to Beta Without Getting Beat Up“.

 

Must Read by @adamleealter: Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked

27gillibrand_span

Remember when Senator Ron Wyden (D-Google Data Center) asked the Big Tobacco CEOs whether they thought nicotine was addictive?  In one of the more dramatic moments in the Senate’s history, each of the CEOs denied that nicotine was addictive.

And then it turned out that Big Tobacco had been scientifically engineering tobacco to make it as addictive as possible.  Oops.  If you haven’t seen The Insider you really should, as you will better understand the problem with corporations profiting from stimulating addictive behavior.  And that is the real problem–it’s not that one thing or another is more or less addictive.  It is that corporations know that their product is addictive and they try to make it even more addictive than it already is.  They conduct secret research and make secret product modifications to enhance its addictiveness for one reason and one reason only–to make money off of human misery.

And then they tell us “Don’t be evil.”

Dr. Adam Alter’s new book suggests that the same type of Senate hearing could well be held on another type of addiction–addiction to smartphones, social media and the Internet.  And wouldn’t it be great if Senator Wyden could reprise his Big Tobacco performance from so many years ago, except this time with Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and many, many more.

Wyden Tobacco

In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Professor Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, documents the rise of behavioral addiction and how Big Tech designs its products to leverage these addictions for profit.

If you doubt the behavioral addiction to social media and your smartphone, try this experiment.  Try only using your phone for phone calls for 36 hours.  Just check your email on your computer.  No email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google on your phone for 36 hours.  Sleep with your phone in another room, and don’t touch it until after breakfast.  See how you react.

Do you really think that Big Tech hasn’t studied these issues?  Do you really think that this study of addiction is qualitatively or morally different than Big Tobacco’s use of various chemicals to increase the addictive attributes of nicotine?  As Dr. Alter demonstrates, behavioral addictions are just as real–and profitable–as substance addictions.

And don’t forget that Big Tech studies us, their users, in real time and continually.  When the study sample is the size of all the billions of users of monopoly platforms like Google and Facebook, that data is very, very predictive.  For example, Facebook data lord Adam Kramer (more about him shortly) said in an interview that Facebook’s large user base was one of the reasons he joined Facebook:

Q: Why did you join Facebook?

A: Facebook data constitutes the largest field study in the history of the world. Being able to ask–and answer–questions about the world in general is very, very exciting to me. At Facebook, my research is also immediately useful: When I discover something, we can use this to make improvements to the product. In an academic position, I would have to have a paper accepted, wait for publication, and then hope someone with the means to usefully implement my work takes notice. At Facebook, I just message someone on the right team and my research has an impact within weeks if not days.

Q: What are some of the interesting questions you’ve answered since you’ve been here?

A: Do emotions spread contagiously? What do the words we choose have to say about how we are and who we are?

A 2014 study commissioned by Facebook “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” written by Adam D. I. Kramer of Facebook’s “Core Data Science Team” and two academics from Cornell further demonstrates the power of Facebook’s data set.

The study concluded:

Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments, with people transferring positive and negative emotions to others….

In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.

These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.

If Facebook is studying something as sophisticated as “emotional contagion through social networks” in a study that we know about, what do you think they are studying that we do not know about?  Is it more or less likely that these huge companies are creating studies like the Brown & Williamson tobacco study on adding addictive agents like ammonia and coumarin to cigarettes, or Ford’s infamous “Pinto memo” analyzing the cost/benefit fixing the Pinto’s exploding gas tank?

Dr. Alter devotes the first few chapters of Irresistable to the history and scientific foundations of the study of addiction.  You may find this exposition a bit dry, but stick with it.  The background is well applied in his detailed discussion of Big Tech’s dependence on addiction.

Alter lays out some of the most important issues of our time that affect both adults and children indiscriminantly.  In one of the first books of its kind, Dr. Alter arms us with the knowledge to combat this attack on our sensibilities.

It is important to note that when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, he forbade his own children from using it.  If anyone knew what he was doing and what the risks were, it would have been Steve Jobs.  He probably forbade them from smoking, too. My bet is that it was for the same reasons.

As Dr. Alter noted in a recent Business Insider video:

There’s a school in Silicon Valley that doesn’t allow the use of any tech. It’s called the Waldorf School and it’s fascinating because the school has no computers, no iPads, no iPhones. They try to minimize tech altogether and so people enjoy a lot of time face-to-face, they go outside a lot. What’s interesting about this school is 75% of the students there are the children of Silicon Valley tech execs, which is striking. These are people who, publicly, will expound on the wonders of the products they’re producing and at the same time they decided in all their wisdom that their kids didn’t belong in a school that used that same tech.

@KRSfow: Future of What Podcast on the Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act

 

Episode #94: Recently, a bill was introduced by Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner which calls for the creation of a comprehensive database of compositions and recordings. The “Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act” claims to make things easier for coffee shops, bars and restaurants who want to license music to play in their establishments. To many in the music industry, the bill seems like a wolf in sheep’s clothing with the potential cause big problems. On this episode we dig deep into the bill with Future of Music Coalition’s Kevin Erickson and attorney Chris Castle.

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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.