The Music Modernization Act’s New Burdens for Labels Identifying Unmatched Songs

The Music Modernization Act is definitely the gift that keeps on giving.  It seems like every time I read it, a new toad jumps out from under a rock.

The latest one I found is a new burden the MMA places on all sound recording owners, large and small, to help the digital services comply with their obligation to locate song copyright owners in order for the services to keep the new “reachback” safe harbor also referred to as the “Limitation on Liability”.  This is the retroactive safe harbor given effect on January 1, 2018 regardless of when the bill actually is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President.

Here’s the relevant clause (at pages 100-101 of the House bill):

REQUIREMENTS FOR LIMITATION ON LIABILITY.—The following requirements shall apply on the enactment date and through the end of the period that expires 90 days after the license availability date to digital music providers seeking to avail themselves of the [reachback safe harbor]:

‘(i) No later than 30 calendar days after first making a particular sound recording of a musical work available through its service via one or more covered activities, or 30 calendar days after the enactment date, whichever occurs later, a digital music provider shall engage in good-faith, commercially reasonable efforts to identify and locate each copyright owner of such musical work (or share thereof). Such required matching efforts shall include the following:

(I) Good-faith, commercially reasonable efforts to obtain from the owner of the corresponding sound recording made available through the digital music provider’s service the following information:

(aa) Sound recording name, featured artist, sound recording copyright owner, producer, international standard recording code, and other information commonly used in the industry to identify sound recordings and match them to the musical works they embody.

(bb) Any available musical work ownership information, including each songwriter and publisher name, percentage ownership share, and international standard musical work code.

And yes, that is a double “good-faith, commercially reasonable” predicate–a drafting bugaboo of mine.  I guess it means really, really, really good faith and absolutely positively commercially reasonable since they said it twice.

So what this means is that labels are required to provide to digital services a lot of song ownership information that they may or may not have.  For example, if the label licenses in a sound recording and puts the publishing payments on the licensor (very common practice) the information might be “available” but it is just not available to them.

Note that despite the fact that “good faith” and “commercially reasonable” are repeated twice for emphasis, those concepts modify the efforts of the digital service and not the efforts of the label to respond.  (Not surprising, if you believe as I do that the MMA was largely written by the lobbyists for the services and not the publishers or songwriters.)

At a minimum, the clause should be revised to extend the “good faith” and “commercially reasonable” modifiers to the label’s efforts to provide song information.  Having said it twice, why not three times?

There’s also no procedure for how this request is to be made or responded to, nor is there reimbursement of the costs incurred by the label in complying.  There’s also no limitation on liability for the label if it provides the service what turns out to be incorrect information.

Of course, what should really happen is that the entire paragraph (bb) should simply be struck.  It has long been the practice of record companies to refuse to provide publisher information to digital services and it has long been the practice of digital services to not ask for it.

In all likelihood, the services will engage a third party to do their song research, which is covered in the very next clause:

(II) Employment of one or more bulk electronic matching processes that are available to the digital music provider through a third-party vendor on commercially reasonable terms, but a digital music provider may rely on its own bulk electronic matching process if it has capabilities comparable to or better than those available from a third-party vendor on commercially reasonable terms.

Taking a long look at the clause, it seems reasonable to simply strike the entire clause (I) and keep the labels out of it as has long been the practice, and require the services to either use their own systems or hire a vendor.  And that’s where there should be some criteria for what constitutes a proper vendor.  If there’s going to be any work done by the labels, then–as advertised–the digital services should pay the label’s cost of compliance as part of the assessment and the label should have no liability if they happen to not have the song information “available”–in a commercially reasonable manner.

We all want the MMA to work, but we also all want to avoid unfunded mandates imposed by the federal government that create unintended consequences.

@hypebot: @SoundExchange Launches Music Data Exchange To Connect Label, Publisher Metadata

SoundExchange’s new Music Data Exchange (MDX) is a promising idea that gets at a big part of the real problem with mass infringement of songs by digital services.  It also gives some hope of actually reducing the “pending and unmatched” (or “black box” in the vernacular) at the source–before the songs are infringed.

Regardless of what the Music Modernization Act’s proposed blanket license and new retroactive safe harbor for infringing services may do, if the song ownership data isn’t available pre-release, it is unlikely that the proposed Music Licensing Collective will result in more efficient payments to songwriters subject to the blanket license.

When I worked at A&M Records, I established a policy of enforcing requirements in producer and artist agreements that writer and publisher information (including splits) be delivered to A&R Administration along with every new recording as part of the larger label copy process.  A&R Administration then was able to send the full publisher and song metadata for the recording to the Copyright Department so that there was no need (or much less need) for them to chase down the information on new releases.  That’s not only extremely inefficient, it also makes their job exceptionally frustrating and Kafka-esque.

This required putting some sensitive English on the ball, so to speak, about enforcing our contracts with the most important people on the label–the artists and producers.  But it was a simple pitch–let’s get this right so that songwriters get paid properly.  That resonated.

This policy resulted in A&M having the lowest pending and unmatched in the industry–to the point that on audit some people thought we were hiding something.

On balance, the downside of denying the black box slush fund just didn’t compare to the upside of making sure our songwriters got paid (many of whom also were our artists).  While I’m glad that the plan worked for A&M at the time, what’s really needed in an era of massive infringement by digital services is an industry-wide solution that takes away that excuse.

Nobody likes litigation, but it has become a last resort when faced with people who just don’t seem to care and would rather buy themselves a new safe harbor than do the right thing.  MDX may offer that opportunity and solution.

Hypebot recently published an interview with SoundExchange’s Jonathan Bender that gives a clear explanation of the goals and functionality of the service.  I think it’s a solution that everyone should support.

And use.

…[I]t occurred to us that we were addressing a problem after it happened. We said, “Isn’t there a way to address the problem before it happens? Before you get to the point where you have settlements and lawsuits and unhappy writers and publishers?”

That was the core idea of Music Data Exchange – to create a centralized, rational process for labels to request publishing data and for the publishers to respond to those requests on a central site…

In one of my first meetings with one label’s copyright department I asked, “How do you get the publishing data?” They said they generate a report of all their new releases each week, typically hundreds of recordings, hand it to their copyright people, and then they commence to email publishers they know asking “is this your song?”

That’s just one label. Add hundreds of labels and hundreds of publishers to that, and thousands of recordings a week. It’s no surprise that it’s a mess.

Read the post on Hypebot.

 

How to Fix The Music Modernization Act’s Flawed “Audit” Clause

Доверяй, но проверяй

The famous old Russian proverb reminds us to trust but verify.  That’s been the story in the record business since the cylindrical disc.   All the “modernization” in the world will not soothe songwriter’s genetic suspicion of their accounting statements.

The collective to be established by the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) undertakes the obligation to handle other people’s money.  It quickly follows that those whose money the collective handles need to be able to verify their royalty payments from time to time.  This has been an absolutely standard part of every royalty-based agreement in the music business for a good 50 years if not longer.

But like every aspect of the MMA, one has to always remember that while all songwriters may be equal, some songwriters are more equal than others.  The MMA creates a two tier system–those who opt out of the compulsory blanket license by the mutual agreement of a rights owner and a digital service in the form of a voluntary agreement and those who do not.  Those who do not have this opt-out right appear to receive payment directly from the collective instead of directly from the service–adding another set of hands and transaction costs.  (It must be said that this group receiving payment under the compulsory blanket license will presumably also include those who currently have a voluntary license with digital services that is not renewed in future.)

The collective undertakes the responsibility of accounting should anticipate concerns of songwriters regarding verifying the accuracy of the statements and payments it renders.  However, the MMA provides no supervisory oversight and in my view has a rather punitive black box clause that allows “unmatched” royalties to be paid on a market share basis to publishers, and then on to their lucky songwriters pro rata.  This suggests that everyone who is in that lucky songwriter’s chain, like managers, business managers and lawyers working on a percentage basis may also get a share of these black box distributions in compensation.

So on the face of it, the MMA creates a relatively large category of people who have an economic interest in the black box.  You can be cynical and think that they have an interest in the black box being as large as possible (meaning the accounting controls are as weak as possible), or you can agree with five-time Grammy winner Maria Schneider that if the “lucky” songwriters actually knew that they were being paid with money that belonged to the “unlucky” songwriters, they would be angry about that unfairness.  Emphasis on the “actually knew”.

Or you could say, let’s not go either direction–let’s set up transparency and controls so that the incentives are properly aligned to create the smallest black box possible.  No publisher needs the writer-relations headache of suspicious minds, and the collective should do what it can to be above reproach.  Here are a couple solutions to increase the trust level:  Add oversight of the collective by the Office of the Inspector General (as a quasi-governmental organand at least  designated by the Copyright Office and operating under the control of the Copyright Office, and also tighten up the audit clauses in the MMA to treat songwriters auditing the collective the same as the collective is treated by the digital services.

The Inspector General

One way to make sure that the collective–a quasi governmental organization in my view–is run honestly is to make it subject to oversight review by one of the U.S. Government’s many Inspectors General.  Rick Carnes of the Songwriters Guild of America suggested this to Rep. Doug Collins at the University of Georgia Artist Rights Symposium in a question from the floor.

For example, the Library of Congress (currently where the Copyright Office is housed) has an Inspector General.  Since the Copyright Office has a lot to do with the creation and periodic review of the collective, they could save themselves a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests from angry songwriters by having an Inspector General  review the collective annually (or better yet, in real time).

My understanding is that giving an IG jurisdiction over the collective will require some enabling legislation, but I think it’s something well worth looking into.  It would give the songwriters of the world a true-blue fiduciary to represent their interests as well as comfort that they had a line of appeal with some teeth short of expensive litigation.

Audits

The Inspector General is not in the current draft of the MMA, but audits are–both audits of the collective by songwriters and audits by the collective of digital music services.  We’ll focus on audits of the collective in this post.  It should be said that under the current compulsory license now in effect (i.e., pre-MMA), songwriters get no audit right, so the fact that there is an audit right at all is an incremental improvement.

Unfortunately, the MMA’s audit right still keeps songwriters away from auditing the right party–the digital services–and keeps that upstream data away from them.  Plus, all audits under MMA appear to be subject to confidential treatment.  I don’t think there’s a good reason to keep these secret.  If a smart auditor finds a flaw in the collective’s accounting systems, that flaw should be disclosed and there should be an automatic true up of everyone affected.

But first, let’s realize what an “audit” actually is.  It is a term of art in the music business and really means a “royalty compliance examination” which is solely focused on making sure that statements and payments rendered conform to the contract concerned, or in this case, the statutory requirements of the compulsory blanket license.

(It also must be said that as Maria notes, the MMA specifically exempts the collective from any responsibility for incompetent royalty accounting other than “gross negligence”, which usually means blatant indifference to a legal duty or something along those lines–assuming the collective’s board or employees actually have a legal duty to account correctly which it may not.)

The person conducting a royalty audit is typically not a certified public accountant as there is nothing about conducting this examination that requires a knowledge of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”), financial accounting, or Sarbannes Oxley compliance.  It is, in fact, quite rare for a royalty audit to be conducted by a CPA, and I’ve even had lawyers conduct an audit because the analysis involved is mostly that of contractual, or statutory, interpretation.  Analysis of music industry-specific contracts is typically not part of the training of CPAs.  So even if an auditor is a CPA, the skills needed to conduct the audit are typically learned through on the job training.

What is very common, however, is for someone on the receiving end of the audit to try to require the auditor be a CPA, arguably to increase the cost of the audit on the person owed money.  CPAs often bill at higher rates than do royalty auditors, which creates a disincentive for audits.  What is also common is for lawyers to think that every time they draft a clause about anyone conducting anything having to do with accounting, that they need to limit the person doing that examination to a CPA, because…well, because…  This is what I call stupid lawyer tricks, and the CPA requirement is something that is routinely negotiated away in record deals and publishing deals if you have an ounce of leverage.

Here’s the preamble of the MMA’s audit clause for audits of the collective:’

A copyright owner entitled to receive payments of royalties for covered activities from the mechanical licensing collective may, individually or with other copyright owners, conduct an audit of the mechanical licensing collective to verify the accuracy of royalty payments and distributions by the mechanical licensing collective to such copyright owner

Remember–copyright owners under the compulsory are not allowed to audit the service, although the collective may audit the service.  (And, of course, voluntary agreements are governed by their terms regarding audits and are not subject to the compulsory.)

Limiting the audit right to “copyright owners entitled to receive payments” means that if songwriters have an administration or co-publishing agreement, they will probably not be able to conduct an audit of the collective (even if their administrator or co-publisher is a board member of the collective).  Because the audit is limited to “verifying the accuracy” of prior payments, the audit of the collective will not be able to look “upstream” to the service making the payment and may not be able to look at payments made to the collective, just the payments by the collective.

The audit shall be conducted by a qualified auditor, who shall perform the audit during the ordinary course of business by examining the books, records and systems of the mechanical licensing collective, as well as underlying data, according to generally accepted auditing standards and subject to applicable confidentiality requirements prescribed by the Register of Copyrights…

Sounds good, right?  A “qualified auditor” is a defined term, however:

QUALIFIED AUDITOR.—The term ‘qualified auditor’ means an independent, certified public accountant with experience performing music royalty audits.

Again, I don’t think that the auditor needs to be both a CPA and have experience.  Experience is enough.  For example, if the auditor has performed audits for members of the collective’s board of directors, perhaps that would be enough.

The qualified auditor shall determine the accuracy of royalty payments, including whether an underpayment or overpayment of royalties was made by the mechanical licensing collective to the auditing copyright owner(s); provided, however, that before providing a final audit report to such copyright owner(s), the qualified auditor shall provide a tentative draft of the report to the mechanical licensing collective and allow the mechanical licensing collective a reasonable opportunity to respond to the findings, including by clarifying issues and correcting factual errors.

This clause is a problem.  First, the auditor is hired–and has a professional duty–to find underpayments of royalties.  That’s what they look for.  The auditor does not have a duty to do the collective’s work for it and find overpayments.  The auditor is not hired to find overpayments, they are hired to find underpayments.

The collective should hire its own accountants to review its royalty statements, and it surely will do so if it gets an audit notice.  Otherwise the US Government is placing a heavy burden on the auditor and the copyright owners to look for overpayments as though the auditor played the role of a public financial accounting firm looking for accuracy on behalf of stockholders.

Plus, the requirement to force that auditor to give the collective the audit report before giving it to the people who hired that auditor is a bit much.  Fair enough to meet and confer at the work paper stage to make sure there weren’t inaccuracies in the analysis, but that should not place any prohibition on whether the auditor’s own client can see the report first.

If this is really the role that the Government wants the auditor to play, then by all means let’s make any miscalculations by the collective available to the public and publish them in the Federal Register.  Let’s not have the auditor’s findings subject to any confidential treatment.  If that brings down a host of other audits or a need to restate millions of royalty payments, then so be it.  Because we are not just looking for underpayments we are searching for the truth, right?

I don’t think so.  And the next part of the audit clause shows why:

The auditing copyright owner(s) shall bear the cost of the audit. In case of an underpayment to the copyright owner(s), the mechanical licensing collective shall pay the amounts of any such underpayment to the auditing copyright owner(s), as appropriate. In case of an overpayment by the mechanical licensing collective, the mechanical licensing collective may debit the accounts of the auditing copyright owner(s) for such overpaid amounts, or such owner(s) shall refund overpaid amounts to the mechanical licensing collective, as appropriate.

Like so many other parts of the MMA, this is essentially an “ad terrorem” clause, or a right coupled with a penalty if it is exercised.  What I think this means is that regardless of how much the underpayment might be–including both a material and nonmaterial amount–the songwriter bears 100% of the cost of the audit.  The songwriter’s auditor has to look for overpayments (and bill their client for that extra review), and if the auditor finds any, the auditor has to report the overpayment.  The songwriter then not only has to repay that amount (whatever “as appropriate” means), but also pay for the expense of finding it.

Compare this to the rights of the collective when auditing a digital music service:

The mechanical licensing collective shall pay the cost of the audit, unless the qualified auditor determines that there was an underpayment by the digital music provider of 10 percent or more, in which case the digital music provider shall bear the reasonable costs of the audit, in addition to paying the amount of any underpayment to the mechanical licensing collective. In case of an overpayment by the digital music provider, the mechanical licensing collective shall provide a credit to the digital music provider.

So what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.  When the collective is auditing upstream, the collective gets the benefit of that standard underpayment penalty.  That means that the service has to pay for the cost of the audit if the underpayment exceeds a fixed percentage, in this case 10%.  If there is an overpayment, the collective never has to repay the overpayment, just credit the account with an offsetting amount.

There should be no obligation on the part of the songwriter to have to find overpayments and if an overpayment is found in the normal course, it should simply be credited (which is the effect of the collective’s audit clause on songwriters downstream).

Songwriters should get the same underpayment protection on audit costs that the collective enjoys.

Appointing an Inspector General and cleaning up the audit clause would certainly make the MMA more fair for songwriters than it currently is.

 

EU Songwriters Say Show Me the Plan on Music Modernization Act

The European Composer & Songwriter Alliance has raised an interesting question to Congressman Doug Collins in a recent letter regarding the Music Modernization Act:

A few other questions that are of concern to songwriters: Where is the business plan for the collective? A century of practice is to be changed without even a business plan that the governed have a chance to review?

This is, of course, an excellent point.  The controversial Music Modernization Act creates a new mechanical royalty collective in the U.S. that follows the curious approach of essentially codifying a chunk of what would normally be found in a combination of organizational formation documents, by-laws or a voting agreement.   The bill mandates a fixed number of governing boards and even designates the category of person who can fill board seats, both voting and nonvoting.  (And any change in those boards would literally require an Act of Congress.)

There is considerable detail in the bill about the new collective with two major exceptions:  No one is tasked with creating a business plan for the collective’s operation as the ECSA officers note in their letter to Rep. Collins.  Neither is there any hint at what the initial operating budget would be or what it would cover.

Good news–this is an easy fix.  I would worry that given that it’s government work, a business plan for the collective will come from one of the big consulting firms at a high cost–guaranteeing that no one who is both unconflicted and who has actually done work in the area will come within a county mile of the project.  I am not the right person to ask about the big consulting firms as I’ve found their work product to be consistently worthless over the years.  That brings the joy of consistency, but the disappointment of overpaying for useless work.

The budget should also be established for the first few years, if for no other reason than the digital services are supposed to pay for the collective under the MMA.  If the cost is $100,000,000, you don’t want to find out that the services will only pay $500,000 once the bill is passed and it’s too late.  If there is a meeting of the minds on the operating costs, it’s being kept pretty quiet inside the smoke filled rooms.  If there isn’t a meeting of the minds, DiMA could shut down the collective as fast as a stop payment.

But still, it’s better to have a plan than to have no plan at all which seems to be the current state of affairs–abandoning a “century of practice” as our European friends remind us.

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.

Blackstone Acquires SESAC: Is it all about one-stop shopping or is it the data?

“[P]rivate equity funds affiliated with Blackstone” yesterday announced the purchase of SESAC from another private equity group, Rizvi Traverse Management.

We hold our breath to see what the monopolists in the MIC Coalition will do about the sale.  In light of the new administration, it will be an interesting test of both to see if the monopolists in the MIC Coalition run to the nanny state again to try to stop the sale on some grotesquely hypocritical antitrust theory and equally interesting to see if the new administration entertains that idea.  It is almost a certainty that there will be a new head of the antitrust division of the Justice Department, so we’ll see.

But assuming that the sale goes through, it’s worth noting the story that Blackstone is telling in its press release.  We probably think of SESAC as being all about songwriters and publishers.  Songwriters did not get mentioned until the last couple sentences of the third paragraph of Blackstone’s press release.

It seems pretty clear from the press release that what Blackstone is valuing is the licensing infrastructure and data in SESAC followed closely by SESAC’s ability to do one-stop shopping on music licenses after its acquisition of HFA.  (The MIC Coalition has already complained to the DOJ about that.)  Remember–one-stop shopping was one of the improvements in the job killing ASCAP and BMI consent decrees that songwriters were interested in seeing implemented to empower ASCAP and BMI.

It is also worth noting that part of this value is that SESAC is not under the job-crushing regulations from the Department of Justice that have set wage and price controls on songwriters for 75 years.  That means that SESAC can actually engage in free market negotiations–real ones, not the ASCAP and BMI rate court version where judges in a faraway Eastern city pretend to set free market rates in a performance rights market that has effectively never been entirely free.  No wonder MIC Coalition likes other people’s consent decrees.

So while we know that it’s really all about the songwriters and relationships, investors seem at least as interested if not more interested in organizations that can offer licenses that contribute to solutions for the complexities of music licensing–preferably outside of the government mandated compulsory or near compulsory legacy licensing structure that seems to lumber on.

This is good news both for SESAC and for its competitors, and in the end we hope it’s also good for songwriters, too.  DOJ please take note.