Postdicting the Future: Five Things Congress Could Do for Music Creators That Wouldn’t Cost the Taxpayer a Dime from The Hill

[This is a July 30, 2013 summary from The Hill of my series that first appeared in the Huffington Post on July 26, 2013–let’s see how I did after the Music Modernization Act.]

1.  Create an Audit Right for Songwriters for Compulsory Licenses:  One of the oldest compulsory licenses in the Copyright Act is the “mechanical license”, the statutory mandate forcing songwriters to license songs that dates from 1909.  The government mandates the license and also mandates the rate that songwriters are paid—from 1909 until 1977 that rate was set at 2¢ per recording.  Although that rate was eventually indexed to inflation leading to the current 9.1¢ minimum, songwriters had to dig out of a deep hole.

Getting paid is another story.  This statutory license requires songwriters be sent “statements of account” for royalties—but songwriters are not allowed to conduct a “royalty compliance” examination (called an “audit”).  The law requires a company officer and a CPA to certify the company’s statements—a practice rarely complied with.  As recently demonstrated by Aimee Mann’s lawsuit against Medianet, if songwriters don’t get paid there’s not much they can do except sue—a costly process.

The government tells the songwriter “trust—but don’t verify.”  This is an easy fix.  Congress could give songwriters an audit right as they did for stakeholders in the contemporary digital performance compulsory license for satellite radio and Internet radio.

2.  Allow Artists and Songwriters to Opt Out of the Compulsory License:  The recent blow-up regarding the so-called “Internet Radio Fairness Act” and the related ASCAP and BMI rate court proceedings should let the Congress know that there are many artists and songwriters who want to be able to decide who gets to license their songs.  Again, the digital performance compulsory license allows copyright owners to control “interactive” uses of their works—why not at least do the same for the mechanical license as well?

3. Require Digital Royalties for pre-72 Sound Recordings:  Sound recordings did not receive federal copyright protection until 1972.  When the Congress established the digital performance royalty, it seemed to clearly apply to all recordings and did not arbitrarily exclude recordings prior to 1972.  However, this “gotcha” is used by SiriusXM and others to avoid paying great American artists whose records were released before 1972—jazz, R&B and rock legends get nothing.  Congress could fix this “gotcha” and secure a fair share of digital performance royalties to these authors of our musical heritage.

4.  Require All Unpaid Statutory Mechanical Royalties Be Paid to the State Unclaimed Property Offices:  As Aimee Mann’s alleged in her lawsuit against the white label provider Medianet, witnesses stated that 23 percent of the songs used by Medianet are unlicensed—which could easily be millions of songs if true.  And there are likely a number of digital music services that are arbitrarily holding unpaid royalties in an unauthorized “escrow.”

It seems that there could be substantial royalties controlled by the very retailers who must pay songwriters under the law, a potentially significant moral hazard.  Congress could require that any “escrowed” royalties be paid over under State unclaimed property laws—a lawful “escrow.”

5.  Require that Online and Offline Videos Follow the Same Rules:  As online video platforms become available through Internet enabled home televisions, attention should be paid to a frequently overlooked category of songwriter—the film and television music composers.  Current reporting by online video platforms makes it difficult for score composers to be paid for their work.  The Congress may well ask whether those who seek to replace television should be held to the same licensing standards as television.

These are but a few ideas the Congress could be addressing that might make a difference in the lives of artists and songwriters and would cost the taxpayer very little.  All leverage existing structures and bureaucracies, eliminate “gotchas,” and help to reduce the unintended consequences of government mandated compulsory licensing.

Postdicting the Future: Five Things Congress Could Do for Music Creators That Wouldn’t Cost the Taxpayer a Dime Part 4: Fixing Unmatched Songwriter Royalties

[In 2013, I wrote 5 articles on Huffington Post titled “5 Things Congress Could Do That Wouldn’t Cost Taxpayers a Dime”. After the MMA, how did I do on predictions?  These posts were written from a 2013 perspective.]

The US is alone in the world in maintaining a compulsory license for songs. The government forces songwriters to license their songs at a rate approved by the government and then has rather flimsy rules about how songwriters actually get paid. These flimsy rules, I suggest, have resulted in unknown amounts of royalties not finding their way to songwriters, particularly under compulsory licenses used by on-demand digital music services.

There’s an easy fix for this — the same rule that was applied against record companies and music publishers for unclaimed royalties in the past: Pay the money to state unclaimed property offices. If songwriters are getting ripped off by brand sponsored piracy on the unlicensed sites, then let’s at least make sure they get paid on the licensed services.

The Compulsory License for Songs

When the Congress established the compulsory license in 1909, the legislative body was concerned that granting exclusive rights in “mechanical royalties” for songs in piano rolls might create a monopoly if a single publisher could buy up the market in songs. However real that concern might have been at the time, the most common complaint from digital music services about songs is that the music publishing market is too fragmented, so it seems that argument is no longer relevant.

One of the big users of compulsory licenses is, of course, Google Play. Concern about the antitrust lusting of songwriters is particularly difficult to comprehend in a world in which the same government allows Google to buy and subsidize YouTube with monopoly rents, buy Double Click to achieve a dominant position in online advertising, and is given a pass by the FTC for antitrust violations. But those songwriters…boy, we have to keep a close eye on them.

Unsupervised Digital Music Services

So what appears to be happening is this: Digital music services use the compulsory license and its labyrinthine regulations — often with notices that are too late, accountings that are noncompliant and data that is just incorrect. To give you a sense of scope, digital music services often offer 20 million or so recordings, all of which contain the co-equal copyright in the song being recorded. Songs and recordings of songs have to be separately licensed for on-demand streaming services (especially the popular “cover recordings”). Songs are frequently co-owned — so the service using the compulsory license must notify a minimum of 20 million songwriters of their use of the song and often two or more writers per song. So let’s just call it tens of millions of licenses.

The digital music services must then track the use of these songs and recordings and match the usage to licenses obtained. There inevitably will be songs for which the writers cannot be found. So even if you assume that these companies can get to the matching stage without making any mistakes at all, what happens when there is usage — and therefore payable royalties — for songs that the service is unable to match — even for the most honest of reasons.

How Digital Music Services Pay Themselves Free Money

Add to this problem another problem — digital music services frequently try to dupe songwriters — the ones they have found — into agreeing that the service need only account to them if the songwriter has over a certain amount in payable royalties — somewhere between $50 and $250 depending on the service. (Google Play, for example, has a $100 minimum threshold — unilaterally imposed — on all international and “friction free” electronic payments.)

To put some math on this, realize that there are about 20 million songs typically available in a broad based retail offering such as Google Play or Spotify. Assume that on average 50 percent achieve $25 in earnings in a given calendar quarter accounting period. (This is consistent with both the “long tail” power law type sales distribution and the miniscule royalties paid to songwriters by these services.)

If a service holds royalty payments from songwriters until payable royalties exceed $25 (such as Google Play’s $100 default threshold as stated in their “Publisher Statement of Account Preference”), this means that the service could then be sitting on up to $250,000,000 in interest-free money. Free money that they theoretically may never have to pay out and only have to pay out when the service determines that the songwriter’s account is payable. Free money that is not permitted under the compulsory license rules for songs.

And that’s one service.

This policy of withholding royalties is fraught with moral hazard and practical problems: The heirs of one songwriter recently tried to sort out these payments and were told they needed to hire a lawyer to deal with the highly litigious digital music service. They couldn’t afford a lawyer so guess what happens to the unclaimed monies? And then there’s the statute of limitations.

Unmatched and Unclaimed Royalties

But there’s another problem with the digital music services — if they service cannot match usage (and earnings) to a royalty recipient in their systems, what happens then? Particularly with monies based on a share of advertising revenue that is distributed proportionately based on usage?

In this example, if in one month all songs were played 100 times and your song was played 10 times, then you would get 10/100 (or 10 percentt) of the advertising pie for that period. But — if there were actually 120 songs played during that period but only 100 could be matched, what happens to the other 20 that were unmatched? There is a growing belief that what happens is that the services don’t count the 20 unmatched songs, and divide the pie up based on the 100 they are able to match.

That means — there are 20 songs that were exploited but that are never paid and are not on the books. Even though there should be no songs on the service that were unlicensed because the compulsory license applies. If this seems high, remember that MediaNet’s lawyers acknowledged in a declaration cited in the current case by Aimee Mann against MediaNet that 23 percent of the millions of songs on the service are unlicensed.

By not counting the unmatched (and probably also unlicensed) songs, a service could argue — albeit fallaciously — that it had no “unallocated” royalties as it allocated all payable royalties to songs it could match and did not accrue any unpaid royalties. If I’m right about this, services are overpaying the matched songs with a share of revenue from the unmatched songs (in our example, 10/120 or 8-1/3 percent instead of the overpayment of 10/100 or 10 percent).

Because the Congress does not allow songwriters to audit the digital music services, there is no real way to know whether this is happening or the degree to which it is happening. If 23 percent of the MediaNet songs are unlicensed, royalties payable on any activity on these songs seems like it should at least be accrued until the songwriters can be found.

This is, of course, why states have unclaimed property statutes. In 2004, then Attorney General Eliot Spitzer chased record companies and music publishers for unpaid royalties for artists who could not be found for a variety of reasons, some plausible, some not so plausible. Spitzer forced the royalties to be paid—like utility deposits, dividends, abandoned bank accounts, the works—to the state unclaimed property office where the monies are held forever and where somebody eventually tries to track down the rightful owner.

Of course — there is a chance that if the digital music services did this voluntarily they might be admitting that they were using unlicensed songs and they want to keep a good eye on those kinds of admissions. So they will come up with many excuses for why they should not be subject to the same laws as everyone else. It is, after all, the Internet, and you know how that can be.

An Easy Fix for Congress: Pay unclaimed money to people who deal with unclaimed money

Even if the Congress does not establish an audit right for songwriters for mechanical royalties as they have for rights holders under the more contemporary webcasting compulsory license and the Audio Home Recording Act, it would be quite simple for the Congress to clarify once and for all that unpaid royalties — whether for the unmet minimum thresholds unilaterally imposed by digital music services, unknown addresses for songwriters, or any other reason — should be paid to the state unclaimed property offices in the state of the songwriter’s last known address or at least the state where the company does business.

Companies that want to take advantage of the compulsory license rules for songs shouldn’t also get to make their own rules to take advantage of songwriters.

Postdicting the Present: Five Things Congress Could Do for Music Creators That Wouldn’t Cost the Taxpayer a Dime Part 3: Create an Audit Right for Songwriters

[In 2013, I wrote 5 articles on Huffington Post titled “5 Things Congress Could Do That Wouldn’t Cost Taxpayers a Dime”. After the MMA, how did I do?  These posts were written from a 2013 perspective.]

Once a song is distributed to the public with the permission of the owner of the copyright in the song, the U.S. Copyright Act requires songwriters to license songs for reproduction and distribution under a “compulsory license.” This license is typically called a “mechanical license” because it only covers the “mechanical reproduction” of the song and does not, for example, include the right to use the song in a YouTube video or a motion picture, create a mashup or reprint the lyrics of the song.

When the Congress first developed the compulsory mechanical license in 1909, the concern was that “the right to make mechanical reproductions of musical works might become a monopoly controlled by a single company.” This monopoly never came to pass, and given the fragmentation in music licensing in the current environment, is unlikely to ever come about.

The user of the compulsory license (or “licensee”) has to comply with the rules for these licenses — including an obligation to account and pay royalties. If the licensee fails to comply, then the songwriter can in theory terminate the license, although making that termination stick usually requires an expensive copyright infringement lawsuit.

The bare compulsory license was not widely used before the advent of Internet music services — and then became something of a weapon of its own — music services bought into the “long tail” theory and tried to clear millions of songs overnight by massive mailings of notices of their intention to use the work. Given that songs are frequently co-written, this required sending huge numbers of notices. Behind each notice — supposedly — is a royalty account and statement of usage as required by law.

So if you’re following, songwriters suddenly were required to license to services they did not ask to be included in (unlike artists recording “cuts” the songwriter solicited), and only a limited paper trail to confirm the accuracy of royalty payments.

Trust, But Don’t Verify

Intuitively, you are probably thinking that songwriters would have the right to make the licensee provide evidence to demonstrate if this morass actually resulted in correct payments, right? Checking the evidence is called a “royalty compliance examination” or an “audit”. Since there is no “auditor general” of compulsory licenses appointed by the Congress, it would seem strange to believe that the intent of Congress was to codify the moral hazard of allowing the person doing the paying to examine their own books.

And yet, in the current practice, the fox is squarely among the chickens. This is because the government requires that the licensee merely “certifies” their own statements (i.e., promises the statements are true). This certification is done on a monthly basis by an officer of the licensee and annually by the licensee’s CPA. And songwriters are told “trust me.”

The Industry Standard

It’s safe to say that this certification process is drastically different than any industry-standard mechanical license. There is a long history of audits in the music business — the State of California even passed legislation in 2004 protecting the artist’s right to audit record companies. But when it comes to songwriters, the federal government forces songwriters to take the compulsory license, tells them the royalty rate they are to be paid, but does not permit songwriters to audit the licensee.

Instead, the government permits the licensee to “certify” their own statements (i.e., promises the statements are true). This certification is done on a monthly basis by an officer of the licensee and annually by the licensee’s CPA. And songwriters are told “trust me.”

The Blanche Dubois Approach to Royalty Accounting

As Blanche Dubois said in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” and until the Congress updates this certification business model, that’s exactly what songwriters are expected to do, too.

The compulsory license requires certification by the licensee on a monthly basis and by a CPA on an annual basis.

An officer of the licensee is to include this certification oath with the songwriter’s monthly statement:

“I certify that I have examined this Monthly Statement of Account and that all statements of fact contained herein are true, complete, and correct to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, and are made in good faith.”

The Annual Statement of Account requires this certification by a Certified Public Accountant for the licensee:

“We have examined the attached “Annual Statement of Account Under Compulsory License For Making and Distributing Phonorecords” for the fiscal year ended (date) of (name of the compulsory licensee) applicable to phonorecords embodying (title or titles of nondramatic musical works embodied in phonorecords made under the compulsory license) made under the provisions of section 115 of title 17 of the United States Code, as amended by Pub. L. 94-553, and applicable regulations of the United States Copyright Office. Our examination was made in accordance with generally accepted auditing standards and accordingly, included tests of the accounting records and such other auditing procedures as we considered necessary in the circumstances.”

Do you think that the CPA has in fact examined millions of annual statements? Does the CPA’s risk manager or insurance carrier know that the CPA is certifying to a multitude of songwriters that the CPA has actually “examined the attached “Annual Statement of Account…” when it is highly unlikely that the CPA has done any such thing?

Congress crafted this language in a much simpler time. Remember — there are now millions of these statements every month. Do you think that the certification oath could possibly be true every time? Some of the time? How would you find out?

Certification is a One-Way Street

This certification runs only one way — the government only offers licensees and CPAs the opportunity to certify that the books are correct, not that they are incorrect. Under current practice, if a company or CPA is squishy about how accurate their books and records are, songwriters typically get no certifications at all and just an uncertified royalty statement if they are lucky.

What conclusion should be drawn from a failure to certify? Why not provide an alternative certification — that the licensee’s books and records cannot be certified. While it may be unrealistic to think that companies would ever disqualify their own books, it is not unrealistic to think that a CPA might choose this option on the annual statement of account given the CPA’s licensing responsibilities.

And it is definitely not unrealistic to think that the company’s books would be more likely to be accurate if the company knew that this disqualification option were available to the CPA. But the simplest thing Congress could do is to create an audit right for the compulsory license.

Let’s Keep it Simple

Chairman Goodlatte has said he intends to update the Copyright Act to bring it into line with the digital age. The Congress already allowed audits for the compulsory license for sound recordings and the webcasting royalty established under Section 114. This mechanism that Congress created in the recent past is working quite well.

Chairman Goodlatte could borrow heavily from the audit rights for the Section 114 compulsory license for sound recordings, and allow songwriters to conduct group audits under Section 115 to avoid a multiplicity of audits.

These changes would bring help bring song licensing into the 21st century and allow songwriters to enjoy greater confidence that they are being paid properly. Creating an audit right under Section 115 compulsory licenses would allow market forces to work to align the incentives toward better payments for songwriters.

Postdicting the Present: Five Things Congress Could Do For Music Creators That Wouldn’t Cost the Taxpayer a Dime Part 1: Pre-72 Sound Recordings

In 2013, I wrote 5 articles on Huffington Post titled “5 Things Congress Could Do That Wouldn’t Cost Taxpayers a Dime”. After the MMA, how did I do?

Artist Rights Watch--News for the Artist Rights Advocacy Community

[This series first appeared in the Huffington Post on July 26, 2013–lets see how I did now that music is all modern and chrome.]

In this and future posts, I will be addressing five things the Congress could do for music creators that are easy to do and that would help develop an online market for music. First up is a slightly esoteric, but important area: royalties paid by companies like SiriusXM for sound recordings made before 1972.

Many of us in the music business know that songwriters and recording artists are financially worse off under the “new boss” than they were under the “old boss.” We have watched older artists “die on the bandstand” because the royalty or residual income they had counted on to support them in their retirement began evaporating with the arrival of the Internet in their lives. We have watched younger artists and songwriters essentially…

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More Evidence of DPO Conflicts: Is Spotify’s Stock Buyback Plan Taking it to the Shorts?

Spotify is experiencing the joys of being a public company–or at least a quasi public company if you count public companies as ones whose shares are actually held by the public as in Mrs. & Mr. America.  But both analysts and investors have to always remember that Spotify did not conduct an IPO in the traditional sense where an underwriting syndicate of bankers bought a block of shares from the company that the syndicate then resold to the public.  This is why Spotify’s recently announced $1 billion stock buy-back program bears closer scrutiny.

Instead they conducted a DPO, a direct public offering which is unusual and radically different than an IPO.  The DPO has an essential conflict–the sellers of shares are insiders in the issuer and have an incentive to keep the stock price high and to manipulate that stock price however they can.  Like through a stock buy back after less than a year of trading, for example.

From a financial markets point of view, that DPO makes almost everything about Spotify’s stock a different analysis than a market traded IPO–including Spotify’s recently announced stock buy back.  Stock buy backs happen all the time, particularly in declining markets.  But what is unusual is for a company that’s still in its first year of operating as a public company whose shares are largely traded by insiders and is a money losing company to take the odd step of using $1 billion of the shareholders money to buy back stock.

Or maybe not so unusual if the shareholders whose money it is are both the sellers of those shares and the beneficiaries of the stock buy back–as they try to find a bigger fool to sell the shares to in the retail market.  Another core problem with DPOs is that you don’t have an independent body setting the opening price as you would with an underwriting syndicate.  DPOs have to get an opening price from somewhere–so Spotify’s pricing problem started with the SEC and NYSE allowing Spotify to price at its last privately traded price (as some shares of Spotify traded in what used to be called a “Rule 4(a)(1)1/2” exemption for resale of restricted stock, now codified in Section 4(a)(7) of the Securities Act by the FAST [Breakfast at Buck’s] Act–a bit of a gloss but OK for our purposes here).

So by letting Spotify use the private market for restricted stock as a proxy for a market price, at a minimum the SEC and the NYSE assume that the rights, preferences and privileges of an unregistered share of Spotify stock are the same as a share of registered SPOT.  They’re not.  They also assume there are no price distortions from the relatively low number of unlegended restricted shares available in the private market.  They also assume that there’s nothing odd about a company like Spotify–staring down relatively slam dunk infringement lawsuits of significant value and in a money-losing business run from 10 floors of the World Trade Center like it was Apple or something–pricing way above the opening prices of Amazon, Facebook, Google and so on.

If that sounds cynical, it really isn’t once you understand the dynamics of a DPO compared to an IPO.  The DPO produces a market effect that is similar to the business model of Larry Ellison’s famous 1999 “HeyIdiot.com” parody of an Internet company:

HEYIDIOT.COM is tightly focused on selling just one product. Elegantly enough, that product is the stock of HEYIDIOT.COM, which will be offered to you for sale on-line at our web site of the same name. Buying the stock is simple, you can buy as much stock as you want with the only rule being that each new purchase must be executed at a successively higher price.  We call it a cash portal.

We’re seeing the result of the DPO come home to roost in Spotifyland which looks something like this:

 

Spotify 11-16-18 Basic
SPOT 11-6-18

After a run up in the stock price–on low volume and with no meaningful news–the stock retraces its steps and suggests its testing lower lows.  It’s hard to say what “price support” there is for a stock that’s had less then a year of trading, but let’s just say that if it broke through $100 to the downside, there would be rending of garments and closer examination of executive compensation unless Spotify executives could continue to blame artists for “high” royalties.

Also note that three out of four of Spotify’s biggest volume days were to the downside, and that the stock has been trading down, essentially, since August.Spotify 11-16-18 Volume

 

We can also assume that at these low trading volumes, the shares have gradually been accumulating in the trading accounts of Mrs. & Mr. America which also means that there are potentially more and more shares available to short sellers–the buy high sell low crowd that I discussed back in March.

short_sell_example

In fact, there are a few November 30 puts in the $115 range already.  Daniel Ek has announced he’ll be selling Spotify shares with a value of about $20 million on a monthly basis for a while.  You have to notice that those board-approved sales are overlapping with the board-approved Spotify stock buy back that will help to support the higher price point while insiders dump their shares.  This is another inherent conflict problem with the whoe DPO concept–but when you have the 1:10 voting power over your board as does Mr. Ek, many things are possible.

It’s nice work for a “cash portal.”

Ethical Pool: More for few or fewer for more – The Results of a Comparative Study on Pro Rata and User Centric Distribution Models from Finland

I call my version of “user centric” royalties the “ethical pool”.  Since I posted my short paper on the ethical pool, I’ve been hearing from people who were interested in the method.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive on the topic, our friends at the Finnish Musicians Union sent a link to a study they commissioned comparing the differences between the user centric model and what we call the “Big Pool” or the prorata distribution model.

In the alternative user centric model, the right holder’s compensation is based on the number of listening times of an individual user: how many different tracks the user is listening and how many times. If the user concerned would listen to only one track, would his/her whole monthly fee be paid to the track’s right holders. Therefore, the difference compared to the pro rata model is that it would, in principle, increase the compensation of the right holders of less listened tracks, and, on the other hand, reduce the compensation of the most listened music….

The study was carried out during April–October 2017 by Dr. Pradeep Durgam of Aalto University. The writing of the report and some further analysis was done by Consultant, Dr. Jari Muikku of Digital Media Finland.

Spotify provided the research material, which consisted of premium users’ listening times in March 2016. The user data was completely anonymous and was only given to the researcher Pradeep Durgam. The study concerned only the so-called premium user service, and the researcher did not have information about the compensation paid by the advertisers.

One difference between the Ethical Pool and the Big Pool approach is that while the Big Pool would be the default if a fan did nothing, subscriber revenue for fans electing the Ethical Pool would be removed entirely from the Big Pool at the election of the subscriber and the music available in the Ethical Pool would be selected by the artist.

There is no reason why the artist could not be in both, but with different recordings.  That “extended windowing” could be offered to artists who want to stay in the Big Pool with some tracks but also want to be in the Ethical Pool with other tracks.

So even though the “More for Few” study doesn’t take these wrinkles into account, it is extremely valuable research and statistical analysis on the user-centric model.

You can read the study itself at this link.   A big thank you to Lottaliina Pokkinen who is the Head of Legal Affairs for the Finnish Musicians Union whom I met at the recent AFM/FIM Streaming Economy conference in Los Angeles.  That conference was one of the best I’ve participated in.   It was also the only one I’ve been to that focused on the effect of streaming on performers.  Kudos to Ray Hair of the American Federation of Musicians and John Smith of the International Federation of Musicians for having the over-the-horizon vision to host the two-day event.

Saddle Up: The Role of the Copyright Office Examiners in the “Noncommercial Use” of Pre-1972 Recordings under the Music Modernization Act

Now I never said that Music Modernization Act was a self-licking ice cream cone.  That was someone else.  Neither did I say it was the gift that keeps on giving.  That wouldn’t have been me–it’s just getting started, after all.  Too soon.

We are now having a look at the first of what will no doubt be many, many regulations to be issued by the Copyright Office that will actually implement the MMA.  Wakey wakey.

Thanks to Senator Ron Wyden’s last minute looney tunes shakedown when the MMA was limping across the finish line in the Senate,  the Copyright Office has circulated a notice of inquiry for the first MMA regulations promulgated by the Copyright Office.  This time it’s regulations under Title II of the MMA for the new “license” request for “noncommercial” uses of pre-72 sound recordings.   Never heard of this “license” before?  Didn’t know it was in the MMA?  Get used to it.  If you’re like most people, you didn’t read the 200 page MMA before it passed, but you would do well to read it very carefully now that it is the law of the land.

The coming wave of regulations to be released by the Copyright Office will be your last chance to eject from the twilight zone–but file it under “M” for “maybe”.  Because the die is cast and the Rubicon is crossed.

It must be said, of course, that the only reason we are having this discussion is because Google’s data farming Senator Ron Wyden threatened to put a hold on the MMA literally at the 11th hour and conducted an entirely predictable but no less grotesque legislative shakedown that is so typical of his Wydeness.

This didn’t come from the members of the House of Representatives who voted unanimously for the pure CLASSICS Act and it didn’t come from the other 99 members of the Senate who would have voted for the same House bill.  No, this came from Senator Wyden and his motley crew from Public Knowledge, aka the Google shillery, the nutty professors and, we must assume, with the blessing of at some of the members of the Digital Media Association.

I want you to remember that after the entire industry burns thousands of productivity hours (not to mention lawyer time) in trying to define this stick in the eye.  This is pure Google and pure, unadulterated Wyden.  (We might call this the “Wyden loophole” but when it comes to loopholes, Senator Wyden is as fecund as the shad so that description wouldn’t narrow it down much.)  Plus it’s the kind of “registration-based” thinking that is straight out of the Samuelson “Copyright Principles Project” and the much ballyhooed American Law Institute Restatement of Copyright, not to mention Lessig and Sprigman.  But after all the handwringing, the pre-72 license is a big victory for the Restatement crowd and it’s the law of the land.

So–the MMA includes a Google “license” request for pre-72 recordings that allows a sound recording owner of a pre-72 recording to approve or disapprove a request for a noncommercial use of that recording.  Sounds simple, right?  Not so simple as the Copyright Office notice of inquiry confirms.  It’s a ridiculously complicated loophole that may ultimately lead to no license being issued–and that’s when the handwringing will really begin.

However ridiculous this whole thing is, it is the law, so we must deal with it.  We will have more to say about the proposed regulation in coming days, but a couple points jump right out–most importantly, the obligation on the user to clear the song in the recording before burdening either the Copyright Office or the sound recording copyright owner with a no-money clearance request.

Realize that there are at least two copyrights in any sound recording–the song being performed (the “©”) and the recording of that song (the “℗”).  The “pre-72” issue only applies to the sound recording copyright–which did not enjoy federal copyright protection prior to 1972.  (The MMA gives a partial federalization of state law copyright–beyond the scope of this post.)

But–musical works (aka songs) enjoyed all kinds of federal copyright protection prior to 1972, so the fact that a sound recording might be subject to the new loophole created by Senator Wyden says nothing about the song.  So how does this fit together?

First, the Copyright Office needs to play a real vetting role in this process before the sound recording copyright owner even receives the request and there should be no direct communications between user and copyright owner.  Let’s not repeat the mass “address unknown” NOI mistake.

Recall that the Copyright Office failed to vet any of the millions of “address unknown” NOIs for compulsory song licenses which allowed many of those notices to be filed improperly (in the millions, I would guess which sure sounds like a crime).   This was such a debacle that it gave Big Tech a leg up in passing the MMA, rather than fix the mistake.  We do not need a repeat performance of that catastrophe or even a curtain call.

But perhaps more importantly, there is no reason for anyone to spend a minute on these requests unless the user requesting the pre-72 license for a pre-72 sound recording can show that they have already obtained the rights for any musical work embodied in the pre-72 sound recording.  All those hidden costs were well-covered in the CBO review of the MMA…oh, wait.  They weren’t at all.

And, of course, when the MMA’s super-duper global rights database for every musical work ever written or that ever may be written is up and running in less than two years from now, it will be super duper easy to find these pre-72 songs, right?  For free?

So why should anyone spend any time on a sound recording request if the song rights have not already been obtained since the sound recording is unusable without the song clearance and the song license is not included in the Wyden loophole? (So presumably an arms length market rate unless a compulsory license applies depending on the use, say sync or mechanical.)  And there’s certainly no reason for a user to pay a Copyright Office examiner to review an application that cannot be consummated because the user has been unable to obtain the song rights.  That would be unfair to the user.

If the user wishes to assert fair use as a defense to the rights of the song owner, then presumably they’d also assert fair use against the sound recording owner, too, so they problaby would not even apply.

Hence every application for the pre-72 use would almost by definition require a song license unless the work is already in the public domain (such as recordings of the traditional classical repertoire).  Determining whether the song is in the public domain is exactly the kind of work the user should be paying the Copyright Office examiner to confirm.

So I’d say this “song first” approach makes sense, although I’m willing to be educated otherwise.

 

Don’t Get Fooled Again: Piracy is still a big problem

I know it’s not very “modern,” but music piracy is still a huge problem.  As recently as yesterday I had a digital music service executive tell me that they’d never raise prices because the alternative was zero–meaning stolen.

Very 1999, but also oh so very modern as long as Google and their ilk cling bitterly to their legacy “safe harbors” that act like the compulsory licenses they love so much.  Except the safe harbor “license” is largely both royalty free and unlawful.  Based on recent data, it appears that streaming is not saving us from piracy after all if 12 years after Google’s acquisition of YouTube piracy still accounts for over one third of music “consumption.”  The recent victory over Google in the European Parliament indicates that it may yet be possible to change the behavior of Big Tech in a post-Cambridge Analytica world.

It’s still fair to say that piracy is the single biggest factor in the downward and sideways pressure on music prices ever since artists and record companies ceded control over retail pricing to people who have virtually no commercial incentive to pay a fair price for the music they view as a loss leader.  If the Googles of this world were living up to their ethical responsibilities that should be the quid pro quo for the profits they make compared to the harms they socialize, then you wouldn’t see numbers like this chart from Statistica derived from IFPI numbers:

chartoftheday_15764_prevalence_of_music_piracy_n

The good news is that there is a solution available–or if not a solution then at least a more pronounced trend–toward making piracy much harder to accomplish.  It may be necessary to take some definitive steps toward encouraging companies like Google, Facebook, Twitch, Amazon, Vimeo and Twitter to do more to impede and interdict mass piracy.

Private Contracts:  It may be possible to accomplish some of these steps through conditions in private contracts that include sufficient downside for tech companies to do the right thing.  That downside probably should include money, but everyone needs to understand that money is never enough because the money forfeitures are never enough.

The downside also needs to affect behavior.  Witness Google’s failure to comply with their nonprosecution agreement with the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice for violations of the Controlled Substances Act.  When the United States failed to enforce the NPA against Google, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sought to enforce Mississippi’s own consumer protection statutes against Google for harms deriving from that breach.  Google sued Hood and he ended up having to fold his case, even though 40 state attorneys general backed him.

Antitrust Actions:  Just like Standard Oil, the big tech companies are on the path to government break ups as Professor Jonathan Taplin teaches us.  What would have been unthinkable a few years ago due to fake grooviness, the revolving door and massive lobbying spending all over the planet, in a post-Cambridge Analytica and Open Media world, governments are far, far more willing to go after companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act Civil Prosecutions:  “Civil RICO” claims are another way of forcing Google, Facebook, Amazon & Co. to behave.  Google is fighting a civil RICO action in California state court.  This may be a solution against one or more of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

As we know, streaming royalties typically decline over time due to the fact that the revenues to be divided do not typically increase substantially (and probably because of recoupable and nonrecoupable payments to those with leverage).  At any rate, the increase in payable revenues is less than the increase in the number of streams (and recordings).

While it’s always risky to think you have the answer, one part of the answer has to be basic property rights concepts and commercial business reality–if you can’t reduce piracy to a market clearing rate, you’ll never be able to increase revenue and music will always be a loss leader for immensely profitable higher priced goods that artists, songwriters, labels and publishers don’t share be it hardware, advertising or pipes.

I strongly recommend Hernando de Soto’s Mystery of Capital for everyone interested in this problem.  The following from the dust jacket could just as easily be said of Google’s Internet:

Every developed nation in the world at one time went through the transformation from predominantly extralegal property arrangements, such as squatting on large estates, to a formal, unified legal property system. In the West we’ve forgotten that creating this system is what allowed people everywhere to leverage property into wealth.

What we have to do is encourage tech companies to stop looking for safe harbors and start using their know-how to encourage the transformation of the extralegal property arrangements they squat on and instead accept a fair rate of return.  My bet is that this is far more likely to happen in Europe–within 30 days of each other we’ve seen Europe embrace safe harbor reform in the Copyright Directive while the United States welcomed yet another safe harbor.

If we’re lucky, the European solution in the Copyright Directive may be exported from the Old World to the New.  And if Hernando de Soto could bring property rights reform to Peru in the face of entrenched extralegal methods and the FARC using distinctly American approaches to capital, surely America can do the same even with existing laws and Google.

Arithmetic on the Internet: The Ethical Pool Solution to Streaming Royalty Allocation

“Sick of my money funding crap.”
A Fan’s Tweet

Subscription services are one of the few secular trends in the current economy that is not yet reactive to trade wars or interest rates.  Subscription services are found in many areas of the economy, but music drives some of the big ones like Spotify, Amazon and especially the razor-and-razorblades plays like Apple.  But per-stream royalties do not come close to making up for the CD and download royalties they cannibalize.   Not only do subscription retail rates need to increase, but it’s also time for a major change in the way artist’s streaming royalties are calculated from what is essentially a market share approach to one that is more fair.   (Listen to the Break the Business podcast discussion about the Ethical Pool that I had with Ryan Kairalla.)

Artists’ dismal streaming royalties on music subscription services are largely based on a simple calculation:  A per-stream payment derived from a share of the service’s revenue prorated by number of streams.  Artists get a portion of a service’s monthly revenue (at least the revenue the service discloses) based on a ratio of your plays to all the plays.  Your plays will always be a lot smaller than the total plays.  (This is essentially what Sharky Laguana referred to as the “Big Pool.”)

Sounds simple, but mixed with the near-payola of Spotify’s playlist culture and Pandora’s “steering” deals, it’s really not.  Negotiating leverage allows big stakeholders to tweak the basic calculation with floors, advances (aka breakage), nonrecoupable payments that help cover accounting costs, and other twists and turns to avoid a pure revenue share.

It also must be said that stock analysts and venture investors always—always—blame “high” royalties for loss-making in music services.  This misapprehension ignores high overhead such as Spotify’s 10 floors of 4 World Trade Center or high bonus payments such as Daniel Ek’s $1,000,000 bonus paid for failing to accomplish half of his incentive goals stated in the Spotify SEC documents (p. 133 “Executive Compensation Program Requirements”).

Of course all these machinations happen behind the scenes.  Fans are not aware that their subscription pays for music they don’t listen to and artists they never heard of or don’t care for.   Plus, it’s virtually impossible for any label or publisher to tell an artist or songwriter what their per-stream rate is or is going to be.

Fans Don’t Like It:  A New Wave of Cord Cutters?

So neither fans nor artists are happy with the current revenue share model. Given that the success of the subscription business model is keeping subscribers subscribing, the last thing the fledgling services need are cord cutters.

Many artists will tell you that the playlist culture and revenue share model are destructive.  Dedicated fans often don’t like it  either (after they understand it) because it gives the lie to supporting your favorite artist by streaming their music.  Artists don’t like it because unless you have a massive pop or hip hop hit, all you can aspire to is a royalty rate that starts in the third decimal place from the right if not the fourth.  This is compounded for songwriters.   (See Universal Music Publishing’s Jody Gerson on streaming royalties for songwriters.)

Simply put, if a fan pays their subscription and listens to 20 artists in a month, that fan likely believes that their subscription is shared by those 20 artists and not by 200,000 artists, 99.99% of whom that fan never listened to and probably never will, similar to Sharky’s “Subscriber Pool.”  (You can take a survey here.)

This is why some artists like Sharky Laguana (and their managers) have begun arguing for replacing the status quo with “user-centric” royalties that more directly correlate fan listening to artist payments.  I have a version of this idea I call the “Ethical Pool.”  

How Did We Get Here?

How in the world did we get to the status quo?  The revenue share concept started in the earliest days of commercial music platforms.  These services didn’t want to pay the customary “penny rate” (as is typical for compilation records, for example), because a fixed penny rate might result in the service owing more than they made–particularly if they wanted to give the music away for free to compete with massive advertising supported pirate sites.

Paying more than you make doesn’t fit very well with a pitch for a Web 2.0, advertising driven model:  All you can eat of all the world’s music for free or very little, or “Own Nothing, Have Everything,” for example.  It also works poorly if you think that artists should be grateful to make any money at all rather than be pirated.

Revenue share deals for big stakeholders have some bells and whistles that leverage can get you, like per-subscriber minimums, conversion goals, top up fees, limits on free trials, cutbacks on “off the top” revenue reductions, and the percentage of revenue in the pool (50%—60%-ish).  Even so,  the basic royalty calculation in a revenue share model is essentially this equation calculated on a monthly basis:

(Net Revenue * [Your Streams/All Streams])

Or ([Net Revenue/All Streams] * Your Streams)

In other words all the money is shared by all the artists.

Sounds fair, right?

Wrong.  First, all artists may be equal, but on streaming services, some are more equal than others.  Regardless of the downside protection like per-subscriber or per-stream minima, the revenue share model has an inherent bias for the most popular getting the most money out of the “Big Pool.”  (This is true without taking into account the unmatched.)

And of course it must be said that the more of those artists are signed to any one label, the bigger that label’s take is of the Big Pool.  So the bigger the label, the more they like streaming.

Conversely, the smaller the label the lower the take.  This is destructive for small labels or independent artists.  That’s why you see some artists complaining bitterly about a royalty rate that doesn’t have a positive integer until you get three or four decimal places to the right.  Why drive fans away from higher margin CDs, vinyl or permanent downloads to a revenue share disaster on streaming?  

Yet it increasingly seems that we are all stuck with the nonsensical streaming revenue share model.

Do Fans Think It’s Wrong?

There’s nothing particularly nefarious about this—them’s the rules and rev share deals have been in place for many years, mostly because the idea got started when the main business of the recorded music business was selling high margin goods like CDs or even downloads.  Low margin streaming didn’t matter much until the last couple years.

It was only a question of time until that high margin business died due to the industry’s willingness to accept fluctuating micropennies as compensation for the low-to-no margin streaming business.  (I say “no margin business” because the costs of accounting for streaming royalties may well exceed the margin—or even the payable royalty—on a per-stream basis when all transaction costs are considered as Professor Coase might observe.) 

So understand—the revenue share model is essentially a market share distribution.  Which is fine, except that in many cases, and I would argue a growing number of cases, when the fans find about about it, the fans don’t like it.  They pay their monthly subscription fee and they think their money goes to the artists they actually listen to during the month.  Which is not untrue, but it is not paid in the ratio that the fan might believe.  Fans could easily get confused about this and the Spotifys of this world are not rushing to correct that confusion.  

Here’s the other fact about that rev share equation: over time, the quotient is almost certain to produce an ever-declining per-stream royalty.  Why? 

Simple.  

If the month-over-month rate of change in revenue (the numerator) is less than the month-over-month rate of change in the total number of streams or sound recordings streamed on the service (the denominator), the per-stream rate will decline over those months.  This is because there will be more recordings in later months sharing a pot of money that hasn’t increased as rapidly as the number of streams.

As the number of recordings released will always increase over time for a service that licenses the total output of all major and indie labels (and independent artists), it is likely that the total number of recordings streamed will increase at a rate that exceeds the rate of change of the net revenue to be allocated.  If there are more recordings, it is also likely that there will be more streams.

So streaming royalties in the Big Pool model will likely (and some might say necessarily will) decline over time.  That’s demonstrated by declining royalties documented in The Trichordist’s “Streaming Price Bible” among other evidence.

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Thus the fan’s dissatisfaction with the use of their money is already rising and is likely to continue to rise further over time.

User-Centric Royalties and the Ethical Pool

How to fix this?  One idea would be to give fans what they want.  A first step would be to let fans tell the platform that they want their subscription fee to go to the artists that the fan listens to and no one else.  This is sometimes called “user-centric” royalties, but I call this the “Ethical Pool”. 

When the fan signs up for a service, let the fan check a box that says “Ethical Pool.”  That would inform the service that the fan wants their subscription fee to go solely to the artists they listen to.  This is a key point—allowing the fan to make the choice addresses how to comply with contracts that require “Big Pool” accountings or count Ethical Pool plays for allocation of the Big Pool.   Remember–the Ethical Pool exists along side the Big Pool, not to the exclusion of the Big Pool.  If the fan did not opt in to the Ethical Pool, the default would be the Big Pool.  Don’t miss this point, lots of people do.

Artists also would be able to opt into this method by checking a corresponding box indicating that they only want their recordings made available to fans electing the Ethical Pool.  The artist gets to make that decision.   Of course, the artist would then have to give up any claim to a share of the “Big Pool.”

Existing subscribers could be informed in track metadata that an artist they wanted to listen to had elected the Ethical Pool.  A fan who is already a subscriber could have to switch to the Ethical Pool method in order to listen to the track.  That election could be postponed for a few free listens which is much less of an issue for artists who are making less than a half cent per stream.

The basic revenue share calculation still gets made in the background, but the only streams that are included in the calculation are those that the fan actually listened to.  If the fan doesn’t check the box, then their subscription payment goes into the market share distribution as is the current practice, but their musical selection is limited to “Other than Ethical Pool” artists.

That’s really all there is to it.  The Ethical Pool lives side by side with the current Big Pool market share model.  If an Ethical Pool artist is signed, the label’s royalty payments would be made in the normal course.  The main difference is that when a subscriber checks the box for the Ethical Pool, that subscriber’s monthly fee would not go into the market share calculation and would only be paid to the artists who had also checked the box on their end.

One other thing—the subscription service could also offer a “pay what you feel” element that would allow a fan to pay more than the service subscription price as, for example, an in-app purchase, or—clasping pearls—allow artists to put a Patreon-type link to their tracks that would allow fans to communicate directly with the artist since the artist drove the fan to the service in the first place.  I’ve suggested this idea to senior executives at Apple and Spotify but got no interest in trying.

The Ethical Pool is real truth in advertising to fans and at least a hope of artists reaping the benefit of the fans they drive to a service.  There are potentially some significant legal hurdles in separating the royalty payouts, but there are ways around them.

I think the Ethical Pool is an idea worth trying.

UPDATE:  I want to emphasize a couple points that seem to keep coming up in discussions about Ethical Pool.

Ethical Pool exists as an option to the Big Pool. If a fan doesn’t select the Ethical Pool, the default is the Big Pool. The Ethical Pool is a different pot of money that the Big Pool and is divided among fewer artists.  Both exist at the same time.

If artists who are not rewarded by the Big Pool can offer their music at a higher margin somewhere other than the big platforms, they may just skip the Ethical Pool altogether and simply drive fans to the higher margin sites in more of a direct to fan relationship.

The two essential points of the Ethical Pool are (1) the Big Pool is a hyperefficient concentration of revenue to a small number of artists that trends toward a market share allocation and will always fail to reward niche and developing artists, and (2) that if the artist wants to be on the big platform, they may have a better shot at getting a higher royalty with the Ethical Pool than the Big Pool.