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So, What’s The Songwriter Equity Act About?

Update: I originally published the post below on May 14, 2014, shortly after the Songwriter Equity Act was introduced last year. The bill has was re-introduced in both houses of Congress on March 3, 2015 by the same sponsors as before, led by Sen. Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Collins (R-GA), who posted the bill on his website. In addition to my original piece below, I also discuss the background underlying the rate-setting for songwriter royalties from the sale of recordings (“mechanical” royalties) in my post on the Copyright Office’s recently-released music licensing study, which advocated for the changes incorporated in the proposed legislation.

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Given the continuing Congressional deadlock, I generally don’t pay too much attention to the mere introduction of bills relating to copyright and music.  So, I didn’t pen a post when Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) introduced H.R. 4079, the “Songwriter Equity Act” at the end of February. This bill, it were somehow to pass, would amend the Copyright Act with respect to how songwriters’ statutory “mechanical” royalties and certain public performance royalties are determined. It has 14 co-sponsors, including Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Steve Cooper (D-TN).

But now Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Bob Corker (R-TN), the senators who represent Songwriter City (a/k/a Nashville) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), himself a songwriter, have announced that they will be introducing their own version of the “Songwriter Equity Act” in the Senate. This, along with the Copyright Office’s extending their public comment period for their Music Licensing Study until May 23, makes me think that there may be some real momentum to make changes in the laws affecting those who create and license music.

Any tunesmith will tell you that their two biggest income streams are royalties from the public performance of their works and royalties from the sales of recordings of their songs. Unlike most creators of copyrighted works, songwriters’ ability to earn a living is heavily regulated by the federal government. Let me explain, starting with royalties from recordings.

Section 115 of the Copyright Act essentially provides that once a song has been recorded, anyone can do a “cover” of that song, under a compulsory license from the copyright owner(s), i.e., music publishers, provided they are paid the statutory royalty known as a “mechanical” royalty, which has applicable first to piano rolls, then to 78s, to LPs, 45s, cassettes, CDs and now, downloads. Under authority of the Copyright Act, a  tribunal called the Copyright Royalty Board sets this statutory rate, which is currently 9.1 cents per recording distributed for a recording that is 5 minutes or less. This statutory rate serves as a benchmark, even for voluntarily negotiated “mechanical” licenses, such as those issued by The Harry Fox Agency.

Let’s move on to performance royalties. The majority of songwriters belong to ASCAP or BMI, which are private entities known as performing rights organizations (PROs). PROs are collectives that issue licenses to publicly perform music on radio, TV, in live music venues, over the Internet and elsewhere. ASCAP and BMI issue “blanket” licenses of all the works they control to users and distribute the royalties they collect to songwriters and music publishers.

However, since 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.

So, what does this all have to do with the proposed “Songwriter’s Equity Act”? As David Israelite, President of the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) put it: “Roughly two-thirds of a songwriter’s income is heavily regulated by law or through outdated government oversight,” which results in devalued intellectual property rights.” The bill would change the standard of how the CRB sets mechanical rates and the criteria under which ASCAP and BMI Rate Court judges determine a “reasonable rate” for public performances.

Specifically, the bill would amend Section 114(i) of the Copyright Act to allow introduction of sound recording royalty rates in a Rate Court proceeding. It would also amend Section 801(b)(1) of the Copyright Act to direct the Copyright Royalty Board to set the statutory mechanical rate under Section 115 based upon a fair market rate, or what a willing buyer and seller would negotiate, including looking to comparable rates and agreements, rather than “reasonable” rate based on factors other than market conditions.

Advocates argue that songwriters would greatly benefit from these revised rate-setting standards and songwriter royalties would more closely align with those for the use of the sound recording, which are often many times higher than the comparable songwriter royalty. In short, this bill, should it become law, would be sweet music to songwriters’ ears. This bill, along with one granting labels and recording artists royalties when records are played on the radio  that was introduced last year (and the U.S. is one of less than a handful of nations that don’t already have this), would create a more level music licensing landscape.

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.