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BMI Rate Court Judge KO’s DOJ on 100% Licensing

In what had been scheduled to be a mere pre-motion conference, the federal district judge overseeing the BMI Consent Decree, Louis L. Stanton, decided to hold a hearing on Friday, September 16. He then issued a six-page Opinion and Declaratory Judgment, ruling against DOJ’s interpretation of the decree which would have required 100% or “whole work” licensing:

The phrase in Art. II (C) of the Consent Decree defining BMI’s repertory as “those compositions, the right of public performance of which [BMI] has… the right to license or sublicense” is descriptive, not prescriptive. The “right of public performance” is left undefined as to score or form, to be determined by processes outside the Consent Decree. The Consent Decree neither bars fractional licensing nor requires full-work licensing.

Please read my prior post for more background, including a discussion on what is meant by the 100% or whole work licensing sought by the Justice Department as opposed to the fractional licensing regime under which ASCAP, BMI and the rest of the music industry operate.

Both BMI and ASCAP have operated on a fractional licensing basis for all of the 75 years since the consent decrees were entered into, offering licensees for only that percentage of a particular work that each respective performing rights organization (PRO) controls pursuant to its agreements with its member copyright owners and pricing their licenses accordingly. And both PROs declared the Court’s decision to be a major victory for songwriters.

After a brief recitation of the facts, including DOJ’s outlining its position last month and BMI’s seeking a declaratory judgment in support of fractional licensing, Judge Stanton began his discussion by stating: “Nothing in the Consent Decree gives support to the  [Antitrust] Division’s views.” He went on hold that the BMI Consent Decree “does not address the possibilities that BMI might license performances of a composition without sufficient legal right to do so, or under a worthless or invalid copyright, or users might perform a composition licensed by fewer than all of its creators.” The Court supported its conclusion by relying on Section XIV (D) of the Consent Decree, which reads as follows:

Nothing in this Article XIV shall prevent any applicant from attacking the aforesaid [rate court] proceedings or in any other controversy the validity of the copyright of any of the compositions in defendant’s repertory nor shall this Judgment be construed as importing any validity or value to any of said copyrights.

The Court construed this provision to mean that “[q]uestions of the validity, scope and limits of the right to perform compositions” are left, like the redress of copyright infringement, to determinations outside of the application of the Consent Decree. Neither DOJ in its statement, nor the Copyright Office in its memorandum addressing 100% licensing, nor BMI in its application for a declaratory judgment, cited Section XIV (D).

Judge Stanton then distinguished the situation where he had ruled in the Pandora case that the BMI decree forbids the partial withdrawal of rights by publisher members (i.e., where BMI would not be authorized to license performances online services like Pandora, leaving the publishers to license such services directly.  With regard to “partial withdrawal,” the Court, quoting its prior decision in the Pandora case, stated that “[t]he BMI Consent Decree requires that all compositions in the BMI repertory be offered to all applicants” that seek a license.

Judge Stanton’s quick and summary rejection of 100% licensing gives BMI a knockout victory over DOJ. However, this is not the end of the matter. ASCAP is governed by a separate but very similar Consent Decree that is overseen by its own Rate Court judge, Denise Cote, also of the Southern District of New York. Either ASCAP or DOJ could seek a declaration from Judge Cote, who could rule contrary to Judge Stanton. Similarly, DOJ could appeal Judge Stanton’s decision to the Second Circuit, regardless of whether Judge Cote rules on the issue. Moreover, as DOJ’s review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees encompassed several other issues besides 100% licensing, ASCAP has already started the process of seeking relief from Congress – something even DOJ suggested. BMI beat DOJ in the first battle but the war wages on.

The Question Songwriters Should Ask Obama at SXSW

This Friday, President Obama will be delivering the keynote address at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. Although originally just a music conference, SXSW now has three overlapping sections, Interactive, Film and Music. While it is doubtful that the President will be taking questions from the audience, songwriters and other musicians who may attend the Interactive portion of the should question him about what his Justice Department has proposed to do to them.

For over a year the Justice Department has been undertaking a review of the decades-old consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, neither of which has been amended since the dawn of the digital age. Those of us who represent songwriters and publishers had been cautiously optimistic that the restrictions would be lessened. Indeed, in February 2015, the Copyright Office, in its comprehensive music licensing study and report, Copyright and the Music Marketplace (the “Music Study,” which I summarized and critiqued here), recommended several modifications.

However, last summer DOJ, of its own initiative, threw in a monkey wrench when it asked for comment on the possibility of ASCAP and BMI licensing entire works even where either performing rights organization (PRO) had only been assigned a portion of the copyright to the particular song by its members. This is referred to as “100% licensing.” Traditionally, music publishers and the PROs that represent them only license the percentage of the rights in a particular song that they own, which is referred to as “fractional licensing.”

On January 29, in response to a January 12 request of Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the Register of Copyrights, Maria A. Pallante, issued a 29-page report, replete with footnotes, Views of the United States Copyright Office Concerning PRO Licensing of Jointly Owned Works (the Report). The Report addresses the PROs and joint licensing more specifically than was done in last year’s Music Study. On February 4, Rep. Collins forwarded the Report to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch for consideration by the Antitrust Division, which has oversight over the PRO consent decrees and is conducting the review of them.

In short, the Copyright Office stated in no uncertain terms that DOJ’s proposed 100% licensing scheme is a really bad idea that is based upon a misunderstanding of both the Copyright Act and plain old contract law, as well as long-standing music industry custom. The Copyright Office’s takedown of DOJ’s proposal is impressive. I’ll give you a few highlights below.

The Office believes that an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require these PROs to engage in 100-percent licensing presents a host of legal and policy concerns. Such an approach would seemingly vitiate important principles of copyright law, interfere with creative collaborations among songwriters, negate private contracts, and impermissibly expand the reach of the consent decrees. It could also severely undermine the efficacy of ASCAP and BMI, which today are able to grant blanket licenses covering the vast majority of performances of musical works – a practice that is considered highly efficient by copyright owners and users alike.

And that was just the top of page three! The Report goes on to discuss the divisibility of individual copyright rights and that the default rule is that each joint owner of a work may license the entire work subject to a duty to account to the other owners for their proportionate share of the proceeds. Against that backdrop, the Report states:

While the 1976 Act establishes default rules for joint works, it must be remembered that they are subject to the Act’s express provision that a copyright, and the exclusive rights thereunder, can be divided and separately owned. As a leading treatise explains, the default rules within the Act are merely a” starting point, “ with collaborators… free to alter this statutory allocation of rights and liabilities by contract.”

Addressing industry custom among co-writers of songs, the Report also noted:

The co-authors of jointly created musical works often enter into agreements that define the percentages of copyright ownership of each co-author and provide that each will retain control over his or her “share” of the work. For example, a typical clause might stipulate that each contributor “shall administer and exploit only [his or her] respective ownership share” of the work. The “administration” of the copyright is commonly understood in the music industry to encompass the right to issue licenses and otherwise exploit the song and collect royalties from those uses.

Turning specifically to the interpretation of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, the Report stated:

Even setting aside the express mandate of the Copyright Act, the decrees – like any contract – must be interpreted in light of the prevailing customs of the industry. Thus, while the consent decrees require ASCAP and BMI to license users to publicly perform their respective “repertoires,” each consent decree describes those repertoires in a manner that can, and should, be read consistently with the practice of fractional licensing.

Again turning to basic contract principles, the Report stated:

The PROs’ practice of fractional representation is consistent with the basic legal precept that one cannot validly convey rights to more than what one owns or controls….. Accordingly, the ability of ASCAP or BMI to license public performances for their respective members’ works is ultimately constrained by the terms of songwriter, publisher and administration agreements entered into by those members, which, as explained above, typically reflect understandings of divided ownership and fractional licensing.

And these choice comments only get us about half way through the Report! It goes on in this vein and addresses the practical concerns that ASCAP and BMI do not have contractual privity with non-members and are not able to account to any non-members for their interests in a 100% licensing regime. Here’s the heart of what I submitted to DOJ last November during the public comment period – about 27 pages shorter than the Report but making many of the same points:

While it is true that absent a written agreement to the contrary, an author of a joint work may license 100% of the rights in that work subject only to a duty to account to that author’s co-writers for their share of the proceeds, that is not how the music industry operates. For decades, songwriters and publishers have routinely entered into, and continue to enter into agreements where each party separately administers that party’s interest – and only that party’s interest — in the particular song.

In the area of synch licensing, music supervisors and other music clearance professionals know that they need to obtain permission from all parties that separately administer a portion of the copyright in the song. Similarly, mechanical licenses are issued on a fractional basis where multiple publishers separately administer their interest in a particular work. ASCAP and BMI likewise administer only their shares in the song and price their licenses accordingly.

ASCAP and BMI operate on a fractional licensing basis because contractually they cannot license greater rights than they are granted by the underlying rights holders, the music publishers. To require ASCAP and BMI to license on a 100% basis not only flouts decades of industry practice but vitiates the myriad agreements voluntarily entered into by songwriters and music publishers . It would also require songwriters and publishers to be involuntarily subjected to the licensing and payment terms of a PRO other than the one the parties chose to represent their interests in the particular works.

At a recent meeting of the AIMP [Association of Independent Music Publishers], we were informed that it in the Justice Department’s view, if the songwriters and publishers either do not – or cannot – agree to 100% licensing, ASCAP and BMI simply will not be able to represent the works where that is the case. If true, that would be a horrendous result, mandating that DSPs and other licensees would have to engage in the grossly inefficient process of directly licensing innumerable works from each individual rights holder. Given the way most popular songs are now written, this would require separate negotiations with multiple rights holders for the performance rights in each and every song rather than two or three PROs for all songs.

In sum, 100% licensing is contrary to longstanding industry practice and countless voluntarily negotiated contracts. It would turn a relatively straightforward and efficient licensing scheme for performance rights into one that is fractured, unwieldy and unworkable.

The Report reaches the same conclusion:

In sum, an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require 100-percent licensing or removal of a work from the ASCAP or BMI repertoire would appear to be fraught with legal and logistical problems, and might well result in a sharp decrease in repertoire through these PROs’ blanket licenses. It would seemingly punish copyright owners who have chosen to exercise their rights under the Copyright Act to manage their separate interests through the PRO of their choice.

***

Songwriters are unique among artistic creators in that about 75% of their income is regulated by the federal government. The biggest chunk of income songwriters receive is from public performances licensed by the PROs, of which the two largest, ASCAP and BMI and accounting for about 90% of the market, operate under consent decrees. The second biggest chunk, income songwriters receive from the purchase of recordings (whether in the form of CDs, LPs or downloads), is subject to a compulsory license with rates set by the Copyright Royalty Board. By contrast, recording artists, filmmakers, novelists, dramatists, and other fine and visual artists are under few, if any, federal restrictions on their livelihoods.

There are myriad articles in the popular press about the paltry royalties songwriters receive from streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. Few address the fine points of the PRO consent decrees and other statutory licensing regimes that form the backdrop for these payments. The Copyright Office, in its Music Study, recommended changes to the current music licensing regime that would relax restrictions on songwriters and music publishers and enable them to obtain income that more closely reflects fair market value.

It is somewhat telling that the President will be speaking not at the SXSW Music conference for creators of music, but at the Interactive conference, dominated by companies that use music and benefit from a licensing regime that keeps fees low. So the question songwriters should ask is “when will the government, specifically your Justice Department, stop screwing us?”

A Peek at the Congressional Briefing Book on the Music Business

On September 22, the Congressional Research Service (“CRS”) of the Library of Congress, released a report, Copyright Licensing in Music Distribution, Reproduction and Public Performance (the “Report”). The Report states its purpose as follows:

This report provides an overview of the complexities of the Copyright Act’s provisions concerning music licensing. It also discusses four issues involving copyrights in musical works and sound recording that have been the subject of recent congressional and judicial consideration: (1) extending copyright protection to pre-1972 sound recordings; (2) requiring radio broadcasters to compensate recording artists; (3) changing the standard used to calculate royalties for digital music transmissions; and (4) modifying antitrust consent decrees governing songwriter performance royalties.

For those of you unfamiliar with CRS, this is what it does, according to its website:

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation. As a legislative branch agency within the Library of Congress, CRS has been a valued and respected resource on Capitol Hill for more than a century.

The CRS defines its mission as follows: “CRS serves the Congress throughout the legislative process by providing comprehensive and reliable legislative research and analysis that are timely, objective, authoritative and confidential, thereby contributing to an informed national legislature.” Accordingly, the Report provides a briefing book for members of Congress – or at least their staffs – on the current statutory and regulatory issues shaping the music industry. So it might be interesting to  know what’s in it.

The 41-page report provides a dense, but useful summary of much of the statutory framework of the current music licensing landscape, including a discussion of recently introduced legislation. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because the Copyright Office traversed this terrain earlier this year in its comprehensive 202-page report, Copyright and the Music Marketplace, and which I summarized here. And of course, the Copyright Office, like the CRS, is also a division of the Library of Congress, although perhaps may change, as the Register of Copyrights has proposed that the Copyright Office leave the Library of Congress and become an independent agency.

In keeping with its stated purpose, the CRS Report (as well as the Copyright Office’s earlier iteration) covers several key issues, including:

  • The Justice Department’s ongoing review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, including the issue of “partial withdrawal” of works from their respective repertoires;
  • The background to the Fair Pay Fair Play Act of 2015, which would mandate that traditional AM/FM radio stations pay public performance royalties on sound recordings, just like their internet streaming counterparts do, as is done in virtually every other country in the world; and
  • The Songwriter Equity Act of 2015, which would modify regulatory standards to have all licenses fees set by statute, as  under the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, to be under a “willing buyer / willing seller” standard.

The Report also refers to the Copyright Office’s prior music licensing survey and its various recommendations, but does not contain any of its own.

The CRS Report provides a particularly detailed history of the current statutory framework, including case law and legislative developments, something one would expect in a Congressional briefing memo. However, in attempting to educate Congress about the relevant issues facing the music industry, the Report falls somewhat short in that there is no discussion of the music marketplace as a whole, as opposed to the particular statutory and regulatory scheme currently in place. One might think that putting the various legislative and consent decree proposals in context with the overall music marketplace would be highly relevant to Congressional consideration.

For example, there is no discussion about synchronization or “synch” licenses, which are the permissions required from both the copyright owner of the song (the music publisher(s)) and the copyright owner of the particular recording (the record label) to use a piece of recorded music in film, TV, advertising and other audio-visual uses. This significant portion of the music business is a free market, unregulated by statute or consent decree. Typically, music publishers and record labels command the same fees for synch licenses.

This is in stark contract to license fees for the distribution or downloading of  recordings or the streaming of them over the internet. Both of these areas are regulated and there is a large disparity between the fees labels and artists receive as opposed to those received by publishers and songwriters.   It is critically important that Congress understand the overall music licensing marketplace when considering any change in music licensing policy, including the pending legislation.

 

Why The Copyright Office’s New Fair Use Index Rates Only Fair At Best

The Copyright Office recently issued several well-considered studies and recommendations, like the music licensing report. And Register Pallante has been bold in her call to Congress for increased independence and resources so as to best serve all copyright constituents in the digital age. So I take no pleasure in crying foul over the Copyright Office’s recently-released Fair Use Index. However well-intentioned, this searchable database of mere case summaries is only likely to create more confusion among non-lawyer creators and users in an already murky, misunderstood and evolving area of the law.

To be fair, the Copyright Office’s news release for the database emphasizes its limited scope:

Although not a substitute for legal advice, the Index is searchable by court and subject matter and provides a helpful starting point for those wishing to better understand how the federal courts have applied the fair use doctrine to particular categories of works or types of use, for example, music, internet/digitization, or parody.

The database’s home page contains similar disclaimers: “[a]lthough the Fair Use Index should prove helpful in understanding what courts have to date considered to be fair or not fair, it is not a substitute for legal advice.” Click on the link, More Information on Fair Use, and you’ll get a one-page summary of the four factor test of Section 107 of the Copyright Act, the broad guidelines for determining fair use. However, the most important point is buried at the bottom of the page:

Courts evaluate fair use claims on a case-by-case basis, and the outcome of any given case depends on a fact-specific inquiry. This means that there is no formula to ensure that a predetermined percentage or amount of a work—or specific number of words, lines, pages, copies—may be used without permission.

The above quote should be in bold, blinking print at the top of the search page, not buried at the bottom of a link for “more information.” That’s because what most people think they know about fair use is wrong.

So what do you get if you search the database? First, you can select whether you want to search cases in the Supreme Court and/or those within any or all of the thirteen federal circuits, including the district courts  – but without any explanation of the federal court system such as what a “circuit” is.  You can also search within these courts under any or all of sixteen subject matter topics, such as computer program, music, internet/digitization, and parody/satire.

Let’s search “music” in all courts. The result is a list of seventeen cases in reverse chronological order.  But there’s no hierarchy to them so the first case is from the Central District of California and the lone Supreme Court case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., appears near the bottom. The list is in columns, stating the case name (including the citation), the year, the court, the jurisdiction (i.e., circuit), category (e.g., parody/satire) and the outcome (i.e., stating whether fair use was or was not found). Since there’s no explanation of court precedents, a non-lawyer wouldn’t necessarily know that a California district court decision isn’t binding in the Second Circuit, even if it’s more recent.

Now let’s look at the Campbell case summary. In one page we get the year, the court, key facts, the issue, the holding, tags (e.g., parody/satire) and the outcome, in this case a “[p]reliminary ruling, mixed result or remand.” Here’s the holding:

The Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, finding that it had erred in giving dispositive weight to the commercial nature of 2 Live Crew’s parody and in applying an evidentiary presumption that the commercial nature of the parody rendered it unfair. The Court held that the commercial or nonprofit educational purpose of a work is only one element of its purpose and character. Like other uses, parody “has to work its way through the relevant factors, and be judged case by case, in light of the ends of the copyright law.” The Court commented that it is essential for someone doing a parody to be able to quote from existing material and use some of the elements of a prior work to create a new one that comments on the original. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

How is this helpful to a songwriter trying to determine if her parody of a song is a fair use or not? The summaries read like the canned Casenotes briefs one used in law school (here’s an example) only not as good and without the casebook or instruction from a professor for context.

The home page does explain up front that “[the summary] does not include the court opinions themselves” and that “[w]e have provided the full legal citation, however, allowing those who wish to read the actual decisions to access them through free online resources….” But there’s no explanation for the lay person as to what these citations, e.g., 510 U.S. 569 (1994), mean. And how many users will read the cases without hot links to them? Moreover, the database provides no guidance where cases may have contrary holdings on similar facts – as fair use cases often do. Nor can a relatively small number of cases adequately track recent trends in fair use decisions.

How could the database be improved? A few more signposts such as such I’ve suggested would help. The Copyright Office might also produce a circular (brochure) on fair use, stating some broad guidelines to provide context for the case summaries. The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, recently issued by the College Art Association, although not without its critics, is a good example.

The database won’t be helpful to lawyers who have access to services like Westlaw and Lexis because there are so few cases currently on the site and the commercial services are updated continuously.  But because the Index is produced with the authority of the Copyright Office, non-lawyers are likely to rely on the summaries rather than reading the actual cases or consulting a lawyer – despite the disclaimers.  Since “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” creators and users may then find themselves in litigation land, leading to greater legal fees than if they’d talked to their attorney in the first place. So while I’d rate the Copyright Office’s effort as “excellent,” the utility of the Fair Use Index is only “fair” at best.

Why the Register of Copyrights Wants to Turn In Her Library Card

Those who don’t practice copyright law might be surprised that the Copyright Office is neither an independent agency nor part of the Commerce Department, the home of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Instead, as the Register of Copyrights, Maria A. Pallante, reminded us in a lengthy letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Copyright Office is, for historical reasons, essentially a captive division of the Library of Congress (LOC).

Register Pallante wrote her March 23 letter to supplement the Judiciary Committee’s February 26 hearing: The U.S. Copyright Office: Its Functions and Resources. As Register Pallante points out, she and her “subordinate officers” are appointed by the Librarian of Congress. The Librarian is a Presidential appointee subject to Senate confirmation under the appointments” clause of the Constitution. Curiously, this makes the LOC, at least in the view of the Justice Department, part of the Executive branch of the government.

As part of the LOC, the Copyright Office lacks independent budget authority and it’s dependent upon the LOC for much of its resources, including IT. Moreover, the Copyright Office’s regulatory authority basically extends only to rules regarding registration and recordation – and even those are subject to approval by the Librarian. As a result, highly technical provisions that are regulatory in nature have to be included in the copyright statute and passed by Congress. This means they’re usually outdated before they’re even enacted. Moreover, policies that are in the LOC’s best interests don’t always align with overall copyright policy or the interests of other stakeholders in such policy debates.

Not surprisingly, the Register has called for the creation of an independent copyright agency. It would have autonomy over its own budget and the authority to issue substantive regulations. This agency would expand upon the current Copyright Office’s role as an independent adviser to Congress and other departments (e.g., Justice, State, Commerce) on domestic and foreign copyright policy, including advising on and interpreting legislation, litigation and trade agreements. An independent copyright agency would still be able to supply the LOC with whatever it selected from copyright registration deposit copies to add to its collection.

Register Pallante recommended against keeping the Copyright Office as a “sub-agency” within the Library of Congress as doing so would not grant it sufficient policy and regulatory autonomy. She also cautioned against moving the Copyright Office to the Commerce Department citing her predecessor in arguing that copyright law and policy go beyond merely promoting commerce and have a “unique influence on culture, education and the dissemination of knowledge.” The Register’s recommendation to move the Copyright Office out of the LOC is hardly new but, as we’ll see, it does have some urgency.

Among the things the Register requested was a Congressional mandate that the new agency’s leaders “present short-term and long-term priorities and investment justifications, including … urgent IT expenditures. “ This is particularly apt in light of two recent reports: the February 18 report of the Copyright Office’s Technical Upgrades Special Project Team (SPT), presented by the Copyright Office’s Chief Information Officer and the March 31 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), aptly entitled Library of Congress: Strong Leadership Needed to Address Serious Information Technology Management Issues. The lengthy and technical SPT and GAO reports fortunately include summary findings for non-geeks.

The SPT report focuses on the Copyright Office’s IT issues, with a particular emphasis on improvements to online services for the copyright community and general public. The SPT received comments from the usual suspects of stakeholders, including organizations representing music, film, publishing, photography, graphic artists and IP lawyers. Suggested improvements to the current online copyright registration system (eCO) included the ability to preview, print and share registration application data as well as improvements to submitting deposit copies that accompany a copyright registration. Other suggestions were the ability to make mass or high-volume online registrations and to file and search for assignments, transfers and terminations – none of which currently can be filed online. Still others related being able to search pre-1978 records online as well as being able to find assignments, terminations and other transfers associated with a particular registered work.

But the SPT report noted upfront:

All administrative control over the infrastructure, operating systems, database systems, storage systems, telecommunications systems, legacy systems, and other common IT resources are controlled by the Library of Congress. This arrangement is not optimal given the general IT challenges at the agency level, and perhaps difficult to rationalize given the specific importance of the Copyright Office to the overall national copyright system and global digital economy. Additionally, in some cases, the Library’s needs in relation to copyrighted works – which revolve around acquisition, preservation, and access – may compete with those of copyright owners, who are most concerned with legal protection and security.

With that in mind, let’s see what the GAO report had to say about how the LOC is handling its IT issues. Here’s a few of the highlights from the 133-page report:

– The Library does not have an IT strategic plan that is aligned with the overall agency strategic plan …. This leaves the Library without a clear direction for its use of IT.

– [T]he Library … is not effectively managing its [IT] investments.

– The Library’s implementation of key security and privacy management controls was uneven …. putting the Library’s systems and information at risk of compromise.

– The Library does not have the leadership needed to address these IT management weaknesses. For example, the agency’s chief information officer (CIO) position does not have adequate authority over or oversight of the Library’s IT. Additionally, the Library has not had a permanent CIO since 2012 and has had five temporary CIOs in the interim.

In its coverage of the GAO report, The Washington Post even more directly dumped the blame for the Library’s IT deficiencies on the Librarian’s desk:

Its leader [James H. Billington] is a Russia scholar appointed by Ronald Reagan who doesn’t use e-mail and rarely a cellphone, and who critics say has done nothing to fix the library’s ongoing problems. At 85, Billington is the oldest of the 13 executives who have led the agency since its founding in 1800.

Based upon the findings of the GAO report, it’s doubtful that the Copyright Office, given that its funding and IT support is totally tied to the LOC, will be able to implement the badly needed changes outlined in the SPT.

A 2013 report from the International Intellectual Property Alliance estimates that core copyright industries (computer software, videogames, books, journals, newspapers, periodicals, motion pictures, music and radio and television programming) contributed approximately $ 1 trillion, or 6.5% of the total GDP in 2012.These industries are not just vital to the US economy, but to our culture and to our stature in the world.

Yet we currently have a “system” where it takes months from the filing an online application just to get a registration certificate, where crucial deposit copies aren’t maintained and critical records can’t be accessed or even searched online.  While appointments to an independent copyright agency could become as politicized as we’ve seen with others, perhaps it’s finally time for the administration of our copyright laws to reflect 21st century realities with an independent, properly funded Copyright Office with robust IT.

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.

The Justice Department Is Knocking on ASCAP & BMI’s Doors

The United States Department of Justice recently announced it would be conducting a review to examine the effectiveness of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees. In announcing this review, DOJ stated:

The Department understands that ASCAP, BMI and some other firms in the music industry believe that the Consent Decrees need to be modified to account for changes in how music is delivered to and experienced by listeners. The Department’s review will explore whether the Consent Decrees should be modified and, if so, what modifications would be appropriate.

It’s usually not a good thing when the Feds come knocking on your door. Here, however, ASCAP has publicly applauded DOJ’s inquiry:

We are gratified by the Department of Justice’s decision to open a formal review of the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees. Since the ASCAP decree was last reviewed in 2001 – before even the iPod was introduced – new technologies have dramatically transformed the way people listen to music. ASCAP members’ music is now enjoyed by more people, in more places, and on more devices than ever before. But the system for determining how songwriters and composers are compensated has not kept pace, making it increasingly difficult for music creators to earn a living.

In my prior post about the proposed Songwriter Equity Act, I briefly described why the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees are out of step with today’s digital music marketplace:

[S]ince the 1940s, ASCAP and BMI have operated under Department of Justice Consent Decrees which were last amended in 1994 (BMI) and 2001 (ASCAP), long before the advent of digital download and streaming services. The ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees are each overseen by a federal District Judge in the Southern District of New York. When a user (e.g., Pandora) or group of users (e.g., the radio broadcasters) can’t agree with ASCAP or BMI on an appropriate license fee, the parties can have a “Rate Court” proceeding before the judge overseeing the ASCAP or BMI Consent Decree. The Rate Court judge then must determine a “reasonable rate” for the particular user. However, there are certain limitations placed on the judge by the Copyright Act as to how to determine a “reasonable rate” for the user(s) in question.

The ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees were entered into as part of a settlement of anti-trust litigation. At the time, it seemed like the PROs had a certain amount of market power when dealing with radio and later, TV stations. The PROs now argue that the playing field has dramatically changed in the ensuing decades and it’s new players like Apple (iTunes) and Google (YouTube) and telecommunications companies like Verizon and Comcast that have the real power and that therefore the Consent Decrees should either be amended or scrapped because of this and other shifts in the marketplace. And by including the functioning of the Consent Decrees in its music licensing study, the Copyright Office may ultimately share the PRO’s view.

And now, it’s possible that DOJ may share the PRO’s view, which is critical since DOJ, not the Copyright Office, has the authority to modify these decrees. One major concern is that under both Consent Decrees, a user who doesn’t like the rate that ASCAP or BMI proposes can simply send a letter to the Rate Court Judge requesting a proceeding to determine a “reasonable rate” and that user is then automatically licensed. That, when combined with the Rate Court Judge’s recent decisions, which do not necessarily reflect a market rate (see my previous post), often leads to lower fees for songwriters than comparable fees paid to labels and recording artists.

For example, Van Dyke Parks wrote yesterday that if the 2 cent mechanical royalty of 1914 were adjusted for inflation, the comparable payment in today’s dollars would be 2 dollars, not the 9.1 cents that songwriters currently receive. By contract, Parks points out, record labels and artists, typically split 40 cents of a 99-cent iTunes download whereas publishers and songwriters, whose livelihoods are far more regulated by the government, have to split that 9.1 cents mechanical royalty.

The Justice Department is soliciting comments from the public regarding the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees until August 6, 2014. Send them to:  ASCAP-BMI-decree-review@usdoj.gov.  If you are a songwriter or music publisher, you may want to consider letting DOJ know that compelling the PROs into issuing licenses and then having a fee determined by a single federal judge in a proceeding that can cost in the millions of dollars and where, unlike labels, ASCAP and BMI can’t conduct a real arm-length negotiation, is something that needs to be changed – and soon.

Higher Costs for Creators to Protect Their Rights

It seems like individual creators just can’t catch a break. As of yesterday, it became much more expensive for the majority of creative artists, particularly songwriters, recording artists and multi-media artists, to protect their works by registering them with the U.S. Copyright Office. While one does not need to register to obtain copyright protection, there are a couple of key incentives in the copyright law that make registration strongly advisable. First, registration is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Second, you can only obtain statutory damages and attorney’s fees if the work was registered prior to the infringement taking place. How do you know when you’ll be infringed? You don’t, hence the incentive to register as copyright lawsuits are very expensive and statutory damages are often preferable to actual damages which may be either too modest to make a lawsuit practical or too difficult to measure.

The Copyright Office published a new schedule of fees that went into effect as of May 1, 2014. A basic online registration still costs $35.00. So far, so good, right? Unfortunately, that $35.00 fee applies only to: “single author, same claimant, one work, not for hire.” What if you’re a songwriter who wants to register a whole bunch of works? Or what if you’re a lyricist who collaborates with a composer? Or what if you create mixed media works or remix works? You used to be able to register most of these for that same $35.00 fee.  Now, unless you are the sole creator and copyright owner of a single work that online registration is now going to run you $55.00. That’s a pretty big jump.

The Copyright Office certainly has the right to raise fees from time to time and these increases are supposedly to account for the cost of providing the various services, such as registrations, recording transfers, searches, etc., that the office provides.  Fair enough, but I wonder if the Copyright Office simply applied these increases across the board. Or, did they consider keeping fees for registrations lower to help individuals and small businesses while more substantially raising other costs that typically apply only to litigants and big businesses, such as those listed under “Optional Services Related to Registration”? Just a thought…

Anyway, it’s now much more costly for creators to protect their rights.

 

 

A Small Claims Court for Copyright Claims?

Although the shutdown of the federal government has justifiably grabbed most of the headlines, and despite this week [October 3] being labeled “Hell Week” for classical music, something potentially good for composers, self-produced recording artists, visual artists and other artistic creators was announced: On September 30, just before the government shut-down, the Copyright Office released a 155-page report – plus appendices – outlining recommendations for the equivalent of a voluntary small claims court for copyright claims, primarily infringement.

The full report is available here. The majority of the report deals with legal niceties such as constitutional authority for a copyright small claims tribunal, subject matter and personal jurisdiction issues, analogues to other specialized tribunals and the scope of clams this copyright tribunal would handle.

However, the Copyright Office summarized its recommendations as follows:

  • Congress should create a centralized tribunal within the Copyright Office, which would administer proceedings through online and teleconferencing facilities without the requirement of personal appearances. The tribunal would be staffed by three adjudicators, two of whom would have significant experience in copyright law – together having represented or presided over the interests of both owners and users of copyrighted works – with the third having a background in alternative dispute resolution.
  • The tribunal would be a voluntary alternative to federal court. Its focus would be on small infringement cases valued at no more than $30,000 in damages. Copyright owners would be required to have registered their works or filed an application before bringing an action. They would be eligible to recover either actual or statutory damages up to the $30,000 cap, but statutory damages would be limited to $15,000 per work (or $7,500 for a work not registered by the normally applicable deadline for statutory damages).
  • Claimants who initiated a proceeding would provide notice of the claim to responding parties, who would need to agree to the process, either through an opt-out mechanism or by affirmative written consent. Respondents would be permitted to assert all relevant defenses, including fair use, as well as limited counterclaims arising from the infringing conduct at issue. Certain DMCA-related matters relating to takedown notices, including claims of misrepresentation, could also be considered, and parties threatened with an infringement action could seek a declaration of noninfringement.
  • Parties would provide written submissions and hearings would be conducted through telecommunications facilities. Proceedings would be streamlined, with limited discovery and no formal motion practice. A responding party’s agreement to cease infringing activity could be considered by the tribunal and reflected in its determination. The tribunal would retain the discretion to dismiss without prejudice any claim that it did not believe could fairly be adjudicated through the small claims process.
  • Determinations of the small claims tribunal would be binding only with respect to the parties and claims at issue and would have no precedential effect. They would be subject to limited administrative review for error and could be challenged in federal district court for fraud, misconduct, or other improprieties. Final determinations could be filed in federal court, if necessary, to ensure their enforceability.

Addressing the extremely burdensome time and expense for creators to pursue a copyright claim is a good thing and this report is definitely a step in the right direction. For example, the report states that for a copyright case that’s worth less than $1 million, it typically costs over $350,000 to litigate it and around $200,000 of that is spent on “discovery”, i.e., document requests, depositions and interrogatories. Most artists, including composers, don’t have the resources to pursue a copyright infringement claim – or defend one — unless they qualify for representation by VLA or a similar organization.

Wearing my various hats as creator, copyright lawyer and administrator of other’s creative works, I do have some concerns about the report’s recommendations. For example, centralizing the small claims tribunal within the copyright office, even with most matters handled by written submissions and video-conferencing seems impractical. While there is reluctance among the federal judiciary (and copyright claims are exclusive to the federal courts) to create specialized tribunals, it would make more sense, both for the convenience of the parties and to distribute the administrative burden, to have these streamlined procedures available in each federal district.

Alternatively, one might consider the approach for the “circuit rate court proceeding” under Section 513 of the Copyright Act to have the small claims tribunal available in the district court that is the “seat” of each of the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals (e.g., New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco). This did not seem to be addressed in the Copyright Office report.

Another concern is that with a voluntary proceeding, a well-funded party, such as a major corporation, may simply opt out of these proceedings and force a plaintiff to spend resources he or she doesn’t have. On the other hand, there should also be provisions to ensure that frivolous claims are swiftly dismissed and that creators don’t use these procedures to attempt to try to get a windfall in unwarranted copyright damages where the “notice and takedown” procedures under the DMCA would be sufficient.

The recommendation for some form of small claims proceeding is a welcome one, albeit one that should be subject to further refinements. However, given the current Congressional climate, it’s also unlikely to be acted upon anytime soon.

This article was originally published on the ScoreStreet Web Site on October 3, 2013.