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Copyright Law, Capitol Hill and the Music Business: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

On Wednesday, I attended a luncheon sponsored by the Association of Independent Music Publishers. Like last month’s AIMP lunch, the room was packed with my PRO, music publishing and copyright lawyer colleagues. This time it was for a panel discussion on copyright reform and the music business. The panel, moderated by attorney Michael Sukin, consisted of Jacqueline Charlesworth, General Counsel of the US Copyright Office, Steve Marks, General Counsel of the RIAA and David Israelite, President of the NMPA.

Charlesworth, who started the discussion with a brief PowerPoint recap of recent developments, joked that she was asked by Sukin to sit between Messrs. Marks and Israelite – and she did. In the past, RIAA and NMPA were perhaps more frenemies than besties, with sometimes divergent interests. Charlesworth summarized the various House hearings on copyright and the music business as well as the Copyright Office’s music licensing study which is still in progress. She said there is a consensus that Section 107, the current fair use statute, does not need to change as the four statutory factors were adequate guidance for the courts.

Charlesworth also gave a recap of the hearing regarding Section 512 DMCA takedown notices, with most agreeing that the process doesn’t work. She also addressed the status of the proposed Songwriter Equity Act, which I’ve previously discussed, and the RESPECT Act, which would provide that pre-1972 recordings (which are not protected under federal copyright law) would be subject to the statutory licenses for streaming recordings. This would mean that online services would have to pay royalties regarding the streaming of recordings of classics from the Big Band era to the Beatles and beyond. Recently, two courts have determined that even absent federal copyright protection such royalties would need to be paid under California state law.

Steve Marks discussed royalty payments to labels by streaming services and the disparity among them. He said Pandora pays about 50 cents per user per month in royalties to labels whereas Spotify pays $7 per user per month. One is on a statutory license for a non-interactive service (i.e., users can’t select individual songs) whereas the other is interactive, and therefore subject to market rates. You can guess which is which. He said this disparity doesn’t make sense since the user experience is similar and the distinctions between interactive and non-interactive are increasingly blurred. He agreed that the current music licensing “system” is broken, using as an example of one instance where 1500 separate licenses were needed for one 20-song album. I’m thinking that’s an awful lot of split copyrights and samples to be cleared.

Both Marks and Israelite stressed that statutory rate-setting provisions should be amended to reflect a free market benchmark, i.e., what a willing buyer and seller would negotiate. Marks also stated that with respect to music services he favored pursuing new licensing models, including blanket, collective and bundling of rights. He also stated that both labels and publishers should be paid directly by services (i.e., no pass-throughs) with all rights holders having audit rights.

Israelite stressed that like health care reform and immigration reform, copyright reform means different things to different constituencies. To what he characterized as “extreme academics”, copyright reform means looking at copyright through the prism of the public good and getting material into the public domain as quickly as possible. They and their Silicon Valley funders believe that copyright duration should be shortened and that fair use and application of compulsory licenses should be expanded.

By contrast, Israelite said most of the creative community view copyright as a property right that needs to be strongly protected in order to incentivize creators to create new works. Historically, Israelite pointed out, copyright reform had always been about strengthening copyright protections.

Israelite spoke eloquently on the stifling effect statutory and Consent Decree regulations have on songwriters and music publishers, pointing out that labels have about 8% of their income regulated while publishers have 75% of theirs subject to Congressional or Consent Decree oversight. As a result, Pandora pays 50% of its revenue to labels but only 4% of its revenue to publishers who are subject to rates dictated by statutes and Consent Decrees. The panelists all touched upon the current Justice Department review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, a topic I discussed here.

Very little of the discussion covered new ground. However, what was interesting was the degree of mutual support that RIAA and NMPA had for their respective interests. For example, Israelite expressed strong support for copyright protection for pre-1972 recordings and a terrestrial public performance right for sound recordings. Similarly, Marks expressed support for Consent Decree reform and to amend the Copyright Act in Sections 112 and 114 to have rates regarding musical compositions set using a fair market benchmark.

This more closely united front is undoubtedly the result of common perceived “enemies” that did not exist historically such as Google/YouTube, Apple/iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and anti-copyright academics such as Lawrence Lessig. None were singled out by name. And of course, the music industry needs these online services as much as they need the content that labels and publishers provide.

While none of the panelists felt that major changes to copyright law as a whole would be forthcoming anytime soon, they did feel that some changes with respect to music could happen in 2015. And something else to watch is RIAA and NMPA’s working on ways to address “micro-licensing” issues: license requests that often aren’t handled because the dollar value is too low to justify the administrative costs. Finding a way to effectively deal with these micro-licenses potentially lead to many millions in additional revenue while helping users whose requests are too often ignored.