Defiance or Collaboration? The Role of the Presidential Signing Statement in MLC Board Appointments

Even though they have a long history, Presidential Signing Statements are not exactly front and center in every civics class or constitutional public law class in America.  You may be hearing about them for the first time now.  But that doesn’t mean they have not been an important part of Constitutional law-making and jurisprudence.

Presidential Signing Statements were first used by President James Monroe in 1822 in the form of a “special message” to the Senate. Presidents Andrew Jackson, John Tyler and Ulysses Grant also issued signing statements, but they were used infrequently until the 20th Century.  Then their use picked up quite a bit starting with President Theodore Roosevelt and continuing to the present day.  So the use of Signing Statements is quite bipartisan.  While Signing Statements may not themselves have any actionable legal effect, they should not be ignored, either.

The MMA Presidential Signing Statement

Not surprisingly, there is a Presidential Signing Statement accompanying the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) specifically relating to Title I and at that specifically relating to the MLC board appointments.  The relevant language is:

One provision, section 102, authorizes the board of directors of the designated mechanical licensing collective to adopt bylaws for the selection of new directors subsequent to the initial designation of the collective and its directors by the Register of Copyrights and with the approval of the Librarian of Congress (Librarian). Because the directors are inferior officers under the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, the Librarian must approve each subsequent selection of a new director. I expect that the Register of Copyrights will work with the collective, once it has been designated, to ensure that the Librarian retains the ultimate authority, as required by the Constitution, to appoint and remove all directors.

Let’s explore why we should care about this guidance.

According to Digital Music News, there have been changes at the Mechanical Licensing Collective, Inc. (“MLCI”) the private non-profit permitted under Title I of the MMA:

[I]t appears that two separate MLC board members are jumping ship.  The details are just emerging and remain unconfirmed, though it appears that two members — one representing indie songwriters and the other on the publishing side — are out of the organization.

Because the board composition of MLCI is preemptively set by the U.S. Copyright Act along with many other aspects of MLCI’s operating mandate, the question of replacing board members may be arising sooner than anyone expected.  As MLCI is a creature of statute, it should not be controversial that law-makers play an ongoing role in its governance.

The Copyright Office Weighs In

The Copyright Office addressed board appointments for MLCI in its first request for information for the designation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective (83 CFR 65747, 65750 (December 21, 2018) available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2018-12-21/pdf/2018-27743.pdf):

The MLC board is authorized to adopt bylaws for the selection of new directors subsequent to the initial designation of the MLC. The Presidential Signing Statement accompanying enactment of the MMA states that directors of the MLC are inferior officers under the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, and that the Librarian of Congress must approve each subsequent selection of a new director. It also suggests that the Register work with the MLC, once designated, to address issues related to board succession.

When you consider that MLCI is, for all practical purposes, a kind of hybrid quasi-governmental organization (or what the Brits might call a “quango”), the stated position of the President, the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office should not be surprising. 

Why the Controversy?

As the Songwriters Guild of America notes in comments to the Copyright Office in part relating to the Presidential Signing Statement (my emphasis):

Further, it seems of particular importance that the Executive Branch also regards the careful, post-designation oversight of the Mechanical Collective board and committee members by the Librarian of Congress and the Register as a crucial prerequisite to ensuring that conflicts of interest and bias among such members not poison the ability of the Collective to fulfill its statutory obligations for fairness, transparency and accountability. 

The Presidential Signing Statement, in fact, asserts unequivocally that “I expect that the Register of Copyrights will work with the collective, once it has been designated, to ensure that the Librarian retains the ultimate authority, as required by the Constitution, to appoint and remove all directors.”

SGA regards it as a significant red flag that the NMPA-MLC submission to the Copyright Office devotes the equivalent of ten full pages of text principally in attempting to refute this governmental oversight authority, and regards the expression of such a position by NMPA/MLC as arguably indicative of an organization more inclined towards opaque, insider management control than one devoted to fairness, transparency and accountability.

So the Presidential Signing Statement to the MMA is obviously of great import given the amount of ink that has been spilled on the subject.  Let’s spill some more.

How might this oversight be given effect and will it be in the public record or an informal process behind closed doors?  Presumably it should be done in the normal course by a cooperative and voluntary collaboration between the MLC and ultimately the Librarian.  Minutes of such collaboration could easily be placed in the Federal Register or some other public record on the Copyright Office website.  Failing that collaboration, it could be done by either the Department of Justice (unlikely) or by individuals (more likely) asking an Article III court to rule on the issue.  

Of course, the issue should not delay the Copyright Royalty Judges from proceeding with their assessment determination to fund the MLC pursuant to the controversial voluntary settlement or otherwise.  One could imagine an oversight role for the CRJs given that Congress charged them with watching the purse strings and the quantitative implies the qualitative.  The CRJs have until until July 2020 to rule on the initial administrative assessment and appeal seems less likely today given the voluntary settlement and the elimination of any potential objectors. 

Since the Title I proponents drafted the bill to require a certain number of board seats to be filled by certain categories of persons approved by Congress in a Madisonian balance of power, the Presidential Signing Statement seems well grounded and furthers the Congressional mandate.

Yet there is this conflict over the Presidential Signing Statement.  What are the implications?

A Page of History is Worth A Volume of Logic

The President’s relationship to legislation is binary—sign it or veto it.  Presidential Signing Statements are historically used as an alternative to the exercise of the President’s veto power and there’s the rub. 

Signing Statements effectively give the President the last word on legislation as the President signs a bill into law.   Two competing policies are at work in Presidential Signing Statements—the veto power (set forth in the presentment clause, Article I, Sec. 7, clause 2), and the separation of powers. 

Unlike some governors, the President does not enjoy the “line item veto” which permits an executive to blue pencil the bits she doesn’t like in legislation presented for signature.  (But they tried–Line Item Veto Act ruled unconstitutional violation of presentment clause in Clinton v. City of New York, 524 U.S. 417 (1998).) The President can’t rewrite the laws passed by Congress, but must veto the bill altogether.  Attempting to both reject a provision of a new law as unconstitutional, announce the President’s intention not to enforce that provision AND sign the bill without vetoing it is where presidents typically run into trouble.

Broadly speaking, Presidential Signing Statements can either be a President’s controversial objection to a bill or prospective interpretive guidance.  Signing Statements that create controversy are usually a refusal by the President to enforce the law the President just signed because the President doesn’t like it but doesn’t want to veto it.  Or to declare that the President thinks the law is unconstitutional and will not enforce it for that reason—but signed it anyway.  

The President can also use the Signing Statement to define or interpret a key term in legislation in a particular way that benefits the President’s policy goals or political allies.  President Truman, for example, interpreted a statutory definition in a way that benefited organized labor which was later enforced by courts in line with the Signing Statement.  President Carter used funds for the benefit of Vietnam resisters in defiance of Congress, but courts later upheld the practice—in cases defended by the Carter Justice Department.  The practice of using Presidential Signing Statements is now routine and has been criticized to no avail for every administration in the 21st Century including Bush II, Obama and now Trump. 

Since the 1980s, it has become common for Presidents to issue dozens if not hundreds of Presidential Signing Statements during their Administration.  So it should come as no surprise if the Department of Justice drafted up the statement for the MMA prior to it being presented to the President to be signed into law.  (See the American Presidency Project archives https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/presidential-documents-archive-guidebook/presidential-signing-statements-hoover-1929-obama)

Defiance or Collaboration?

What does this mean for the MMA?  The President certainly did not call out the statutorily required board membership of the MLC as an unconstitutional overreach that he would not enforce.  To the contrary, the MMA Signing Statement expresses the President’s desire that the legislation comply with the requirements of the Constitution.  

Moreover,  the MMA Presidential Signing Statement is not a declaration about what the President will or won’t enforce but rather interprets a particular section of a long and winding piece of legislation.  (Title I principally amended Section 115 of the Copyright Act—now longer than the entire 1909 Copyright Act.)  This kind of interpretation seems to be consistent with the practices of prior Presidents of both parties, not an end-run around either the veto power or separation of powers.

Failing to acknowledge the admonition of the signing statement would seem an unnecessary collision both with long-standing jurisprudence and with a sensible recommendation from the President of how the Librarian, the Copyright Office and the Justice Department expect to approach the issue in collaboration with the MLCI.  That’s possibly why the Copyright Office restated the Signing Statement in the RFP.

Title I of the MMA is a highly technical amendment to a highly technical statute.  A little interpretive guidance is probably a good thing.  Collaboration certainly makes more sense than defiance.

Should the Copyright Office’s Best Practices Shine Sunlight on the Unmatched?

[This post first appeared in the MusicTechPolicy Monthly newsletter.  Become an email follower of this blog to get your copy.]

We’ve all heard that the digital music services are sitting on a pile of cash in unmatched statutory mechanical royalties also known as the “black box”.  No one knows how much because Title I of the Music Modernization Act does not require them to disclose the unmatched sums being held as of the enactment date (October 11, 2018–a year ago), much less a bring down of the current amount.  And unsurprisingly, no service has voluntarily disclosed how much they are holding.

One may ask, why can’t you just look up on the financial statements of at least the public companies how much they are accruing for their share of the black box?  Good luck with that.

The monies owed to the unmatched “known unknowns” is probably the number one question the services don’t ask their third party reporting agents.  And because of the well known agency principle that “notice of a fact that an agent knows or has reason to know is imputed to the principal if knowledge of the fact is material to the agent’s duties to the principal,” these services likely know as a matter of law how much is in their principals’ respective black boxes or at least what they couldn’t match.  (Restatement (Third) of Agency Sec. 5.03.)

Fortunately, the Copyright Office is tasked with establishing best practices for distributing these unmatched black box monies through regulations to implement these and other provisions of the Music Modernization Act, such as the late fee for non-compliant services.

The Copyright Office has also announced the “kick off” of its study of unclaimed royalties study to be held in Washington, DC on December 6.  This will be great for Washington area songwriters, as well as convenient for the lobbyists and lawyers, but everyone else will have to wait for the transcript and video which unfortunately (and perhaps incredibly) will not be live streamed.  Even so, these pending regulations and the upcoming mandated study on matching are the best chance songwriters have had for a generation to get a straight count on unmatched mechanicals.

There are two currently existing standards that the Copyright Office can reference for examples of industry best practices-the SoundExchange unclaimed royalty search for new members and the Lowery-Ferrick Spotify class action Songclaims portal powered by Crunch Digital.  It seems inescapable that these claiming standards should be guideposts for both the Copyright Office and the Copyright Royalty Judges.

Having such clear cut standards–already operational so not theoretical–is fortunate because it seems obvious that the Congress is both concerned with the black box distributions not being gamed and also intends to exercise its statutory authority to retain oversight over the Mechanical Licensing Collective’s operations.  In fact, Senator Grassley specifically stated in his questions for the record following the Copyright Office oversight hearing that:

The success of the Music Modernization Act (MMA) will depend, to a large extent, on the effective and efficient operation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC). The MMA included provisions to ensure that there was robust ongoing oversight of the MLC by both the Copyright Office and Congress, and that the new MLC would be accountable to the stakeholders.”

This is in addition to the oversight role of the Copyright Royalty Judges with respect to the Administrative Assessment and at least budgetary aspects of the MLC’s operations that inevitably will turn the quantitative into the qualitative.

During her July 30 testimony at the Copyright Office oversight hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Register of Copyrights Karyn Temple was peppered with questions about the black box from Members of the Committee, including Representatives Ted Deutch, Sheila Jackson-Lee and Chairman Jerry Nadler.

These months after the hearing, the gravamen of the Committee’s questions were crystalized in yet another copyright infringement suit brought against Spotify, this time by Eminem’s publishers.  The key theory of the suit is that Spotify is out of compliance with the conditions for the new safe harbor for copyright infringers that is one of the central themes of the MMA.  The Copyright Office can use the complaint as another guidepost for best practices to be compassed by their new regulations.

As drafted, Title I is an invitation for litigation, so it should be no surprise that the independent publishing community stepped forward to sue as that was the only way to find out what was going on behind the curtain.  However, as Senator Grassley emphasized, Congress charged the Copyright Office to establish regulations to implement Title I and gave the Copyright Royalty Judges a defacto oversight role through their approval of the MLC’s budget.

  1. Copyright Office Regulations

The Copyright Office is in the process of drafting regulations for a number of areas in Title I.  The Copyright Office therefore is in a unique position to avoid a maelstrom of litigation by adopting regulations that shine light on the unmatched, recognize industry practices by SoundExchange and Crunch Digital, and accomplish simple goals.  This is not hard.

Regulations should require iterative public disclosure to accompany the iterative matching  required by Title I.  Remember-many of these services are the biggest, smartest and richest companies in the history of commerce.  They know something about these systems as they all have to one degree or another developed significant in-house expertise.

However, it is crucial to have the unmatched actually administered by an unrelated and trusted infomediary.  This could be done by repurposing existing searchable databases for unclaimed funds while simultaneously disclosing to the public the amounts owed for each song.

Balance the Checkbook:  Immediate Public Release of Trial Balance and Monthly Updates of Unmatched

Each service currently participating in the Initial Administrative Assessment proceeding before the Copyright Royalty Judges should disclose an aggregate trial balance of the total sums they are holding in their respective unmatched accounts.  This total number should be made public as well as the methodology used to calculate it.  Nothing should or needs to be redacted.

The services should update that initial disclosure on a monthly basis.  The monthly calculation should show the month’s starting balance of unmatched royalties, how much was paid out during the month, how much was added during the month, and the remaining balance at the end of the month.  This simple calculation would allow songwriters to know what monies were being held with no intermediaries.  It’s as simple as balancing a checkbook.

Unmatched Lookup

If the services know the total sums, they should also be able to disclose the sound recording titles at least, if not the artist names, ISRCs, other metadata for the recordings of the songs that comprise the totals.  These services should be able to provide a simple web-based look-up so that songwriters could know if their songs are included in a service’s unmatched accrual.

Cost Reimbursement

It is becoming increasingly obvious to independent publishers that there will be significant resources and costs required to deliver their data to the MLC and claim their unmatched.   Those transaction costs of delivering data to the MLC-without which the imagined global rights database would not be functional enough to distribute the black box effectively-are incremental to publishers who have been doing business prior to the MMA and the MLC.

These incremental costs are easily identifiable and should be invoiced to the MLC by rights owners to be included in the next administrative assessment and reimbursed by the services.

Future Licensees

Any future licensee (blanket or nonblanket) should also be required to comply with these obligations and disclosures.

2.  Role of the Copyright Royalty Judges

The Copyright Royalty Judges are currently conducting a proceeding to establish the initial “administrative assessment” for the MLC.  The rules of the proceeding require the MLC and the Digital Licensee Coordinator to attempt to reach a voluntary agreement on the amount of the assessment.  If they fail, the CRJs will determine it for them.  The voluntary negotiation is divided into two periods: July 8 to September 6, and then September 7 to January 28.

The parties have failed to reach an agreement in the first period already, so a very basic assessment of probabilities means there’s less than a 50% chance they will agree during the second period.  If they fail to reach an agreement by February 17th, the CRJs will commence a hearing to reach the decision for them.  (One could argue that the likelihood of a voluntary agreement increases with the passing of time, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at this point-it seems to be going the opposite direction.)

Remember-the MLC is supposed to have their imagined global rights database up and running and be fully operational and able to render statements shortly after January 1, 2021, or a little over 14 months from now.  At this point, it seems that there is a greater than 50% probability that Congress will have to amend the MMA to extend the deadline.  Presumably something has happened in the last year to advance the ball.

Crucially, there is an inextricable link between the amount of the administrative assessment and what the MLC intends to do with the money.  Two of those functions will be (1) the MLC’s own efforts at matching whatever is unmatched when the Digital Licensee Coordinator delivers the unmatched accounts (and presumably transaction logs) from the services to the MLC after January 1, 2021, and (2) ingesting data for the imagined global rights database.

Unmatched Best Practices and Disclosures

The CRJs should take a very close look at both the startup and the operating budget for the MLC as well as the underlying assumptions, processes and vendors for those functions to take on the U.S. accounting burden for the entire world.  It should be obvious that the services have a great deal of experience in licensing copyrights and operating royalty systems.

The CRJs should also consider whether they have the authority to address the nexus between the best practices to be adopted by those seeking to rely on the retroactive safe harbor, payments of the newly matched prior to 1/1/21 and public reporting of both accrued unmatched royalties and claiming before and after 1/1/21.  I think they do and they probably have an obligation to do so that is at least as great as the obligation on the Copyright Office.<

Sufficiency of Funding and Sufficiency of Allocation

As Senator Grassley has asked, the CRJs need to address what happens if the process fails to hit the deadlines as part of their determination of the administrative assessment.  Each passing day makes it more likely that the entire procedure will grind to a halt before statements can be rendered.

This concerns both the DLC funding the MLC sufficiently, but it also depends on the MLC allocating those sums appropriately across its operations–and the quantitative implies the qualitative.  Moreover, the CRJs need to fashion a procedure for relief that can be taken up inexpensively by any copyright owner that has a good faith belief they have simply not been accounted to. An example would be someone who was being paid under a statutory license (NOI or modified compulsory) prior to January 1, 2021 whose statements then drop to zero thereafter or who simply receive no statements at all.

While the Register said in response to Rep. Deutch during the Copyright Office oversight hearing that both MLC and AMLC had agreed with the Copyright Office interpretation that unclaimed funds are not to be distributed before 2023, the MLC’s actual statement on the issue is more nuanced.  The judges need to take this into account and leave nothing to the imagination in their determination.

3.  Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant

As Mr. Justice Brandeis taught us in Other People’s Money-And How Bankers Use It,“sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Songwriters are in need of both.

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.

What Does the New MLC Candidate Mean for the Copyright Office?

Nate Rau reports in The Tennessean that there is a new group competing to be the “Mechanical Licensing Collective” under the Music Modernization Act.  I would expect there will be at least one more group come forward in the coming weeks.  This competition was easy to expect, but it does call to account the short time frames for setting up the MLC in the Music Modernization Act.  Those time frames fail to take into account the potential delaying effects of competition.

Multiple competitors also suggests that whoever wins the designation of the Copyright Office should be looking over their shoulder before the 5 year review of the MLC’s performance by the Copyright Office.  It’s likely that whoever is the runner-up in that designation pageant will still be around and may be critical of the winner when that 5 year review comes around.

It’s also worth noting that no one seems to be very interested in the music services’ counterpart to the MLC, being the “Digital Licensee Coordinator” or the “DLC”.  Whoever ends up getting to be the DLC is also going to be subject to a 5 year review, likely to be side by side with the MLC’s review.

As it now seems like there may be hard feelings on the part of the runner up for the MLC, this would be a good time for the Copyright Office to come up with objective criteria for both the selection of a winner and the definition of success when the 5 year review comes up.  It appears from the statutory language that Congress intends for the Copyright Office to come up with these criteria, and the clearer and more transparent the criteria, the less likely it will be for hard feelings to result in a meltdown.

The review of both the MLC and the DLC are governed by the same language in the Music Modernization Act:

Following the initial designation of the [mechanical licensing collective/digital licensee coordinator], the Register shall, every 5 years, beginning with the fifth full calendar year to commence after the initial designation, publish notice in the Federal Register in the month of January soliciting information concerning whether the existing designation should be continued, or a different entity meeting the criteria described in clauses (i) through (iii) of subparagraph (A) shall be designated. Following publication of such notice, the Register shall—

“(I) after reviewing the information submitted and conducting additional proceedings as appropriate, publish notice in the Federal Register of a continuing designation or new designation of the [mechanical licensing collective/digital licensee coordinator], as the case may be, and the reasons for such a designation, with any new designation to be effective as of the first day of a month that is not less than 6 months and not longer than 9 months after the date on which the Register publishes the notice, as specified by the Register; and

“(II) if a new entity is designated as the [mechanical licensing collective/digital licensee coordinator], adopt regulations to govern the transfer of licenses, funds, records, data, and administrative responsibilities from the existing mechanical licensing collective to the new entity.

The Congressional mandate to the Copyright Office is very broad–“soliciting information” could mean just about anything even remotely germane.  Given that the Copyright Office is to designate each of these crucially important offices empowered by Congress and to then measure their competency five years from now, it does seem that the Copyright Office would do well to give both the MLC and the DLC notice of what’s expected of each of them, and to do so before the designation is made.

For example, record keeping regarding customer service responsiveness, accuracy of the ownership database, overbudget or underbudget spending, complaints by songwriters, matching rates, number of audits of services undertaken, audit recoveries and distributions and executive compensation might all be relevant in the case of the MLC.

Some of these same criteria might be relevant for the DLC, although the DLC would have its own issues not common to the MLC.  These might include responsiveness of the DLC to potential blanket licensees, confidential treatment of competitive information, fair allocation of the assessment and communication with all licensees, especially the significant nonblanket licensees.

The Copyright Office would do well to recall the “seven anonymous amici” from the Microsoft antitrust litigation who were so dependent on Microsoft and so afraid of retaliation that they could not even use their own names to file an amicus brief in the case.  If the Copyright Office intends to have a candid assessment of either the MLC or the DLC, it might be a good idea to make an anonymous comment process available to competitors who fear retaliation.

If the Copyright Office makes a nonexhaustive list of qualities that constitute a successful completion of the five year trial period at the beginning of that period rather than the end, it might make succesful completion more likely.

Save the Date! NYC Music Business & Law Conference November 16

I’m honored to be included in a panel at the New York State Bar Association’s annual Music Business & Law Conference on November 16 with truly awesome panelists.

11:50am-12:50 pm      Music Modernization Act (US) / International Developments

The Music Modernization Act could be the most consequential copyright legislation in a generation. This panel will describe what it does, what it doesn’t do, how it affects current business and legal practices, and its effect on domestic and international copyright holders.  Bring your questions.

Panelists:
Marc Jacobson, Esq. (Moderator)
Chris Castle, Esq. – CC Legal Firm and Music Tech Solutions Blog
Charlie Sanders, Esq. – Counsel-Songwriters Guild of America
Alexander Ross, Esq. – Wiggin LLP (UK)
Christine Pepe, Esq. (IP, Music, and Digital Law Consultant)

Read Highlights of Managing Change Under the Music Modernization Act’s Music Licensing Collective in the current issue of the Texas Entertainment & Sports Law Section Journal by Chris Castle.

Read Meet the New Boss:  Tech Giants Rely on Loopholes to Avoid Paying Statutory Royalties with Mass Filings of NOIs at the Copyright Office from the American Bar Association, Entertainment & Sports Lawyer (Spring 2017) by Chris Castle.

 

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.

 

HFA is Getting Blamed Unfairly

 

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A Friend In Need

When you’ve been around as long as the Harry Fox Agency, you’re going to make some enemies, screw some things up, over react and over reach.  You’re also going to do a lot of things right, make some friends and do some good.  But most of all, you’re going to be the whipping boy for your client’s enemies, screwups, overreacting and over reaching.

From one whipping boy to another, that’s just not fair and anyone who has ever tried to do anything really hard with data in the music business knows it.  So pish and pshaw on those who gang up on HFA in the debate on the Music Modernization Act.  Let’s look at the facts.

When HFA developed the first digital download mechanical license in the late 1990s, the current crop of critics were nowhere to be seen.  Was it a perfect solution?  Not entirely, no.  But it did work and business got done and songwriters made money.  We were all feeling our way along the digital precipice and making it up as we went along.

I will go out on a limb here and say that if it weren’t for people like HFA’s Ed Murphy, it’s entirely possible that there would be no “streaming mechanical” at all.  That would be the same Ed Murphy who stepped up and licensed Napster’s effort at a p2p subscription service in 2001.  Again, the current crop of critics were nowhere to be seen.

Here’s another fact that you won’t hear about.  When it came time to mete out justice to a massive infringer record company who had been ripping off Texas singer-songwriters for years and years, it was HFA who stood with us.  Not because they made money, not because there was some pot of gold for them–there wasn’t and they didn’t.

They did it because it was the right thing to do.

They may not be choir boys, but they have their moments.  When we really needed them, they showed up for Texas songwriters.  And that’s how we measure friendship in my part of the world.

HFA is often blamed for the Spotify meltdown which in its own way led directly to the controversial safe harbor in the Music Modernization Act.  You can tell that’s true because the MMA’s proponents never talk about the safe harbor except to say that they negotiated away the rights of all the world’s songwriters in some “grand bargain,” the grandness of which elludes me almost as much as the legitimacy of consent.

The fact that Spotify chose to go forward without all the rights necessary to do business is not HFA’s fault.  It is Spotify’s fault.  If Spotify has an issue with HFA, that’s between them.  Ultimately, Spotify knew what it was doing and I seriously, seriously doubt that HFA told them otherwise.  I won’t believe it without both pictures and tapes.

Another fact is that the clearance problems that Spotify and some other HFA clients have were set in motion well before SESAC’s acquisition of HFA in 2015.   If anything, HFA’s been doing it better and cleaner after the acquisition in my opinion.  So if there is blame to go around, then the blame should go all the way around.

You may hear some pretty nasty comments about HFA now that its parent’s parent company is lobbying for a seat at the table on the Music Modernization Act.  Pay them no mind.  If SESAC and HFA had been dealt in at the beginning of the MMA process–which it sounds like they were not along with a lot of other people who should have been there, too–then there’d be some actual evidence that they were reneging on a commitment instead of no evidence that a commitment was ever made.  If you’re going to bet the farm, don’t take silence as consent.

Bashing HFA won’t fix the failure to include them, and I for one think it’s really unfair.  The solution isn’t dealing them out, the solution is embracing SESAC and HFA by respecting their efforts to make MMA a better bill that will have a greater chance of flourishing.

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.

Will DOJ Consent Decree Review Obviate Any Rationale for the Music Modernization Act?

Let’s be clear–one reason why there are problems with mechanical licensing in the US is the loophole created by the government consent decrees that block ASCAP and BMI from issuing a “unilicense” for both performances and streaming mechanicals.  I have argued for years that PROs should be allowed to administer existing statutory mechanical licenses for services that they already license on the performance side of the song.  Personally, I think it is the main reason for creating the situation (such as the mass address unknown NOIs) that gets abused by the services like other loopholes.

I’m not alone in making this argument for “bundling” rights to be administered by PROs: According to the Copyright Office Music Licensing Study (pp. 103-104):

“NSAI, for example, opined that ‘[t]he most efficient path to digital service providers obtaining necessary licenses would be to allow the PRO’s to license and collect mechanical royalties;’” “NMPA suggested that bundled rights could be sought directly from the music publishers that own and administer the song in question.   But the PROs suggested that their existing structures could be leveraged to facilitate bundled licensing on a blanket basis, if only the consent decrees were amended.”

My view is that bundling should occur at the pubisher level and also at the PRO level for all publishers who do not license directly.

Remember–streaming mechanicals track the exact same song, the exact same use, the exact same copyright owners, the exact same transactions and the exact same services as the PROs already license on the performances.  The PROs already have the most comprehensive ownership databases for songs and those databases are immediately accessible.  This is likely to remain true for a long time.

The ASCAP and BMI consent decrees have been in place for decades.  We accept them as a fact of life, something of an immovable object.  For example, the only part of the Music Modernization Act that affects ASCAP and BMI relates to changes that these PROs evidently would like to make to the consent decrees but cannot get the Justice Department to address.  (“Part” may be overstated–it’s about 1-1/2 pages out of the 151 page bill.)

But–what we were told at the outset of the MMA is that legislation to sunset the consent decrees would never pass due to the lobbying power of the digital media companies, the broadcasters, and the general business establishments.  The MIC Coalition, in other words.  And supposedly we can’t beat them, so we need to give up on that idea and take what we’re given and like it.  (Good thing that guy was not at the Alamo, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Thermopylae or the Battle of Britain.  Horatius he ain’t.)  This is, of course, entirely the wrong approach–if that thinking is not the ennui of learned helplessness, what is?  As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

No one considered what would happen if the consent decrees actually went away either entirely or substantially because the DOJ wanted them to.  If that happy event came to pass, I would suggest that there would be little to nothing in the Music Modernization Act of any value or relevance to ASCAP and BMI.  If anything, the collective established by the MMA is or could easily become a direct competitor of all the PROs which is likely why the broadcasters are “positively neutral” on the bill.  I seriously doubt that any of them anticipated the consent decrees might go away.

Makan Delrahim, the new head of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, may have just obviated any reason why the PROs should support the MMA or perhaps whether the MMA is even relevant.

During a speaking engagement on March 27 at Vanderbilt Law School, Mr. Delrahim gave us some insights into his plans for the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees in a discussion with Professor Rebecca Allensworth.  As reported in Broadcasting & Cable he said:

“As public agencies we need to take a look and see if those consent decrees are still relevant in the marketplace,” which he was clearly signaling was up for debate. “If they have solved the competitive problem,” he said, “they could become anticompetitive tools over time[.   I]f they were not necessarily the best ideas at the time, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for them to stay.”

Mr. Delrahim has put his finger right on the problem.  In my view, the consent decrees have become weaponized–for example, the last head of the Antitrust Division was closely linked to Google and after an ostensible review of the consent decrees, suddenly launched into the absurd “100% licensing” episode to the great–albeit short lived–satisfaction of the MIC Coalition.

Not only is there serious competition in the PRO marketplace unlike it was in 1941 when the ASCAP consent decree started, the 2015 SESAC acquisition of the Harry Fox Agency actually demonstrates that if left alone, the marketplace will close the mechanical license loophole that the MMA purports to solve.   There is no longer a need for the consent decrees, rate courts, none of it.

This isn’t to say that the PROs should get an exemption from the antitrust laws, far from it.  But it does mean that the broadcasters, the MIC Coalition and the Digital Media Association should not be allowed to play with the “anticompetitive tools” of the entire consent decree apparatus.

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So it appears that Mr. Delrahim thinks there’s actually a chance that the consent decrees could go away.  If that happens, the PROs will have a golden opportunity to close the mechanical licensing loophole without all of the apparatus of the MMA.  In that new world, the major publishers would possibly not have to continue to use pretzel logic to administer the rights in their catalogs and the PROs could provide coverage on everything else.

And unlike the MMA, that world would actually be getting the government further out of the lives of songwriters.  It would avoid songwriters being beholden to the DiMA fox that would at least financially control the collective’s chicken coop.

It would also put to rest the ridiculous premise that the biggest corporations in commercial history need the government to protect them from songwriters–corporations that are themselves subject to antitrust enforcement, at least in Europe.  And that may be the other shoe Mr. Delrahim could be dropping.

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