Posts

What’s Next for ASCAP and BMI as SESAC Buys The Harry Fox Agency?

A lot of people are wondering what it means for the music industry since it was reported that the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), the leading trade organization for US music publishers, has sold its wholly-owned mechanical licensing subsidiary, The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA) to SESAC, Inc., the smallest of the three domestic music performing rights organizations (PROs). While I don’t have a crystal ball, I suspect that this strategic acquisition is part of the trend to transform PROs from mere licensors of performing rights to broader music rights and data mining clearing houses.

Published reports in Billboard and elsewhere state that SESAC’s winning bid of about $20 million over others, including PROs, BMI and SOCAN, was the culmination of a process that began a year ago when NMPA put HFA up for sale. As to why BMI, but not ASCAP was a bidder, it may have to do with the Consent Decrees under which the two organizations have operated for decades.

ASCAP’s Consent Decree (last amended in 2001) and BMI’s Consent Decree (last amended in 1994) are similar but far from identical. Specifically, under Article IV(A) of its Consent Decree, the only music right ASCAP is permitted to license is the  public performing right (although it can also serve as an agent to collect royalties from the sale of blank digital audio tape). BMI, under Section IV(B) of its Consent Decree is only specifically precluded from being a record label or a record or sheet music distributor.

That said, until recently, BMI traditionally refrained from entering other aspects of the music business, such as mechanical (songs used in audio-only recordings) and synchronization (songs used in audio-visual use in film, TV, video, etc.) licensing out of concern that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would seek to impose more stringent restrictions. However, this is one instance where the Internet really has changed everything, with ASCAP and BMI welcoming the ongoing DOJ review.

The revenue for licensed digital performances (e.g., streaming) is growing and the online environment knows no geographic boundaries. So while the traditional analysis focused on competition for domestic public performing rights among the three US PROs, foreign PROs, which often bundle performance and mechanical rights, have been creating competitive transnational alliances. And, as extensively discussed in the Copyright Office’s Music Licensing Report earlier this year, the major publishers (which are free to bundle all music rights) sought to withdraw digital performance rights from ASCAP and BMI because they felt Consent Decree and other legal restrictions (i.e., de facto compulsory licensing and statutory rate setting standards) artificially suppressed the fees these PROs could obtain from licensees such as streaming services.

However, the judges that oversee the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees held that such “partial withdrawals” were invalid. So, among other things, ASCAP and BMI are seeking modification of their Consent Decrees to allow partial withdrawal of digital rights and the bundling of various music licenses (e.g., performance, mechanical and synchronization). The Copyright Office Report supports relaxing the Consent Decree restrictions as well as amending the Copyright Act to have all licenses that are set by a tribunal (whether Rate Court or the Copyright Royalty Board) to be determined on a willing buyer/seller standard.

Conventional wisdom holds that DOJ is likely to relax ASCAP and BMI’s Consent Decree restrictions. SESAC doesn’t have a Consent Decree but has been subject to anti-competition litigation. What this means for the PROs is far from secret. Last year, at a public forum held by the Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP), the CEOs of the three PROs shared the stage and their thoughts about the future of their businesses. All three agreed that the future for the PROs is to offer efficient one-stop licensing for music users who often require several distinct music rights, including mechanicals currently offered by HFA (and music publishers who don’t license through HFA), synch rights which are controlled by each individual publisher, and even performing rights in sound recordings (currently licensed by SoundExchange), especially if such performing rights are statutorily extended to radio broadcasts, as endorsed in the Copyright Office’s Music Licensing Report. Indeed, the Report recommends that the PROs and other licensing collectives morph into broader “music rights organizations” (MROs).

And while SESAC is principally owned by a private equity firm, BMI probably had more than $20 million in its war chest to offer NMPA but didn’t. Why? ASCAP and BMI together represent north of 90% of US songwriters and music publishers. With HFA going to SESAC, that shifts the domestic competitive landscape, giving even more reason for DOJ to relax Consent Decree restrictions, which is probably more valuable to BMI. Moreover, even with mechanical income falling to about 21% of music publishing income from about double that at the peak of the CD market (and with overheads staying static or increasing due to processing millions of micro-payments, reason enough for NMPA to sell), the data HFA has regarding the 48,000 publishers it represents and the 6.7 million musical works it’s licensed on 21.4 million recordings, is probably more valuable to the much smaller SESAC than to BMI.

So what happens now? First, I don’t see SESAC significantly trying to grow its market share as a PRO. Their business model in that arena will likely continue to be, as it states on its web site, “a selective organization, taking pride in having a repertory based on quality, rather than quantity.” So I don’t see SESAC courting writers and publishers in a more concerted manner although adding HFA may make them a more viable alternative to ASCAP and BMI. In fact, I don’t foresee significant changes in writer-publisher relations at any of the three PROs.

Rather, I think that the game plan for all three PROs is what SESAC states in the news release posted on its web site:

SESAC’s acquisition of HFA is part of a previously announced strategy under its new leadership team to pursue a simplified and more efficient, multi-right, multi-territory licensing model utilizing an ongoing focus on information technology and data science to meet the developing needs of music users, distributors, writers, composers, publishers and other stakeholders. The transaction enables SESAC to enhance value by offering music streaming and other digital platforms greater efficiency and transparency in the music licensing process, thereby delivering better monetization outcomes for its affiliated writer and publisher clients.

As much bigger companies, ASCAP and BMI already have plenty of data, even without adding HFA’s to the mix. And reading between the lines (as was hinted at by the three CEOs at last year’s AIMP forum), lies the ancillary and potentially very lucrative business of mining, packaging and selling the vast stores of data the PROs collect to entities both inside and outside of the music industry, thus taking a page from the Google and Facebook playbooks.

If the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees are relaxed, then all three PROs can more freely pursue diversified business strategies. This could lead to higher performance royalties to writers and publishers through both more competitive negotiations and, by leveraging the data they collect, lower overheads – but potentially at the cost of control of “proprietary” information and transparency if the PROs expand beyond core music licensing businesses.

And there is also the risk that HFA, now to be owned by a for-profit privately held business as opposed to a trade organization controlled by its member music publishers, may impose higher tolls to access data and could potentially lead to less, rather than greater industry-wide licensing transparency. But the likelihood of this occurring will be diminished if ASCAP and BMI offer mechanical and other forms of licensing. And I don’t think SESAC will have HFA cease licensing ASCAP and BMI composers. That would be a bad business move, especially since SESAC will want to maintain as much current music data as possible.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. That said, the only certainty about the music business is that it’s always unpredictable.

Update: 14 September 2015:

It’s now been reported that the sale of HFA to SESAC has been approved by the NMPA Board and membership. The sale is now complete and SESAC now officially owns HFA.

Update: 1 October 2015:

It’s now been reported, quoting SESAC’s CEO, that up to 30% of HFA employees are being let go because of what is euphemistically called in HR-speak, “redundancies” between the SESAC and HFA staffs.

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.

****************************

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.

All You Need To Know About The Copyright Office’s 202-Page Music Licensing Report

On Friday, February 6, the Copyright Office issued a 202 page comprehensive report (plus appendices) on the music licensing business, “Copyright and the Music Marketplace.” The Report is the culmination of a nearly year-long process of soliciting and evaluating input from interested parties on how to fix what everybody agrees is a broken system.

Anyone with an interest in the music business should read the full report – or at least the 11-page executive summary. But in case even that’s too much, here’s all you need to know, in layman’s terms and with analysis, in little more than half the length of the executive summary:

The Report starts with four guiding principles:

– Music creators should be fairly compensated for their creations
– The licensing process should be more efficient
– Market participants should have access to authoritative data to identify and license sound recordings and musical works
– Usage and payment information should be transparent and accessible to rights holders.

Like Mom and apple pie – it’s kind of hard to argue with these. But before we get to the Report’s recommendations as to how to implement these principles, including four subsidiary principles, we need some background on the current music licensing framework. So instead of the Report’s 50-page primer (which is quite readable and mostly correct), here’s a roughly three-page summary of the current music licensing landscape, rocky as it is.

The Report is primarily concerned with the distribution of recorded music, whether through sales of physical product like CDs and downloads or public performances, whether over the radio or by streaming services on the Internet. This means that unless it’s a recording of public domain music, like Beethoven, most recordings consist of two distinct copyrights: (1) the copyright in the musical work, which is typically controlled by one or more music publishers; and (2) the copyright in the recording of that work, which is typically controlled by a record label. This is best illustrated with “cover” records. For example, I prefer the Carole King version of “You’ve Got a Friend” to James Taylor’s. Same song, two different recordings; two separate copyrights for each recording.

Let’s deal with the songwriter/publisher side first. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are performing rights organizations (PROs) that license the public performing right (and only that right) in musical compositions (i.e., songs, but not the recordings of them) when they are performed live in stadiums, concert halls and clubs, broadcast on radio and TV or streamed over the Internet. PROs typically issue “blanket licenses” to users, meaning for a set fee (either a flat fee or percentage of the user’s revenue, depending upon the license), the user has an all-you-can-eat buffet of the music in that PRO’s repertoire allowing the user, such as a radio station, to play any song in the PRO’s catalog as often as it likes. The PROs pay 50% of the licensing revenue to the writers and 50% to the music publishers after deducting their operating costs.

ASCAP and BMI, according to the Report, represent more than 90% of the domestic music market while SESAC and another recently-formed entity represent most of the remainder. ASCAP and BMI (but not SESAC) have been operating under Department of Justice Consent Decrees since World War II. And they haven’t been amended since the dawn of the Internet. Think about that. These decrees were instituted to settle alleged anti-trust violations when 78s were the dominant recording format. Under DOJ regulations in place since 1979, most consent decrees are supposed to terminate within 10 years – not 75!

The Consent Decrees for ASCAP and BMI are overseen by two different federal judges in the New York City. When either PRO can’t reach an agreement as to a license fee either with an individual user (e.g., Pandora) or an entire industry (e.g., radio), the parties may have a “Rate Court” proceeding before the judge. Like all federal litigation,  a Rate Court case is very time consuming and costly. Both Consent Decrees state that the judge must determine a “reasonable” fee, which has been interpreted to approximate what a willing buyer and a willing seller would pay for a license in a free, open market.

Most important about these Consent Decrees is that they require ASCAP and BMI to grant a license to anyone who requests one, making the process a de facto compulsory license regime. What’s more, users often pay nothing – sometimes for months or even years at a time – while the parties either negotiate or litigate what a “reasonable” fee should be. Songwriters and publishers have long maintained that users, availing themselves of a compulsory license with the ability to use the “product” while negotiating a fee, are at a significant bargaining advantage.

Still sticking with songs (as opposed to recordings), when a song is covered by another artist, the Copyright Act provides the label with a compulsory license whereby the label pays a statutory rate to the owner of the song. This is how Carole King the songwriter gets paid for James Taylor’s cover recording. The statutory rate is currently set every five years by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) in Washington, DC. This three-judge panel sets the fee, not based upon a market rate standard, but in accordance with a separate statutory provision requiring a “fair return” to the work’s creator, while balancing certain public policies, such as maximizing availability of works and minimizing a disruptive impact on businesses and industry practices. The Report indicates that this standard results in lower rates than a fair market standard. Although designed to be solely a license for cover recordings with first recording rights reserved to the copyright owner, most recording contracts have provisions tying the release and payment of all songs to the statutory scheme (often at a lower payment rate). Songwriters and publishers have long maintained that this compulsory scheme, as with performing rights, provides artificially low rates.

This statutory compulsory license (meaning music publishers and songwriters are subject to an “offer” they can’t refuse) is called a “mechanical” license due to the mechanical reproduction of the music and is a term dating back to the days of piano rolls when the license provision was first enacted. But the mechanical license applies solely to audio-only recordings – there is no compulsory license for film, TV, videos, games and other AV uses. Although many music publishers issue mechanical licenses directly, a licensing collective, the Harry Fox Agency (HFA), issues these licenses for probably more than half of the market. However, unlike the performing rights licenses issued by PROs, there are no “blanket” mechanical licenses and they are issued on a work-by-work basis, something that online music services find particularly inconvenient and impractical.

As for audio-visual uses, a “synchronization” (or “synch”) license is required from both the owners of the song and the recording of that song. So, if you want to use Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s recording of “Cheek to Cheek” in a movie, you need to get permission from Irving Berlin’s music publisher and also permission from the artists’ label for that particular recording of the standard. Synchronization licenses, unlike mechanical licenses, are typically negotiated and issued directly by the copyright owners, the labels and publishers.

The Report states that between public performance and mechanical income, about 75% of a songwriter’s (and therefore a music publisher’s) income is subject to government regulation (compare that to a novelist whose income isn’t regulated at all). So, that means that the majority of a songwriter’s income can be determined by four judges – one in New York and three in DC. By contrast, a label’s income (and therefore a recording artist’s income) consists mostly of sales of recordings (e.g., CDs and downloads) and licensing of those recordings, such as “synchronization” usage as discussed above. There are no compulsory licenses or consent decrees for these uses so it’s a pure, free market negotiation between labels and users for these rights. And music publishers, who can negotiate synch licenses in a free market unshackled by consent decrees and compulsory licenses, are usually able to get about the same fee for their rights as the label gets for theirs.

But not all restrictions disadvantage the songwriter. With respect to performances, the United States, except in very limited circumstances discussed below, does not grant a public performing right in a sound recording. For example, when Sinatra’s recording of “New York, New York” is played on oldies radio (or over loudspeakers at Yankees games), the songwriters, Kander & Ebb, and their music publisher, get paid through their PRO. What do Sinatra’s heirs and his label get? Nothing! As the Report points out, the United States is one of less than a handful of industrialized nations, including Iran and North Korea, which do not have a public performing right in a sound recording for radio.

Why? There are historical reasons in that the radio stations felt that they were providing the labels with promotion for the sale of recordings. Also, every Congressional district has at least one or more radio and/or TV stations. As the Report points out, with the recent shift in consumer preferences from purchases (e.g., CDs and downloads) to streaming (e.g. YouTube), the promotional value of radio probably isn’t what it used to be.

However, because of laws enacted in the 1990s, there is a limited public performing right in a sound recording for digital transmissions, basically, streaming over the Internet, whether through YouTube, Spotify, Pandora or another service. And there is a compulsory license for non-interactive streaming services, which like the mechanical license, has a rate that’s determined by the CRB. The royalties for the compulsory streaming licenses are administered by a collective that’s similar to the PROs, SoundExchange, which distributes this income to labels (50%), featured artists (45%) and side artists (5%). As for “interactive services” (and the Report spills much ink over the lengthy statutory provisions about what is and is not “interactive”), these license fees are determined in market negotiations by the parties.

Our discussion began with the notion that there are two copyrights in a recording: one in the underlying song and one in the actual recording or “master.” However, for historical reasons, recordings that were made prior to 1972 are not covered by the federal Copyright Act, unlike the songs embodied in them. Rather, these recordings, which are still purchased and performed all the time, are governed by state law.

Recent well-publicized lawsuits in New York and California have determined that, at least in those two states (and likely in many others), there is a state-based public performance right in a sound recording, the contours of which remain largely unknown. For example, it’s possible that in some states, this performing right for pre-1972 recordings could be even broader than the one granted under federal law for later recordings in that there conceivably could be a performing right in the older recordings played over the radio under various state, but not federal laws. This could lead to a quagmire of uncertain and inconsistent  treatment.

The Report also contains a lengthy discussion of recent ASCAP and BMI Rate Court decisions, both of which held that publishers could not partially withdraw certain rights from ASCAP and BMI while leaving others. For example, Sony/ATV, one of the three major publishers, felt that it could negotiate better deals regarding digital performances than what it could get through ASCAP and BMI because of the constraints imposed on those PROs by the Consent Decrees. Reaching the same conclusion albeit under slightly different reasoning, both the ASCAP and BMI Rate Court judges determined that a publisher had to be either “all in” or “all out” and that it couldn’t cherry pick certain aspects of the performing right. These decisions figure prominently in the Report’s recommendations.

Why would a major publisher feel they could get a better deal by itself? As we’ve seen in the synch license arena, where there’s a free market, song copyright owners get paid about the same as recording copyright owners in most instances. Contrast that to the download situation where the publisher gets paid 9.1 cents for the download (the compulsory statutory rate) while the label gets about 70% of the sale price on iTunes (a market negotiation).

The Report also contains lengthy and detailed descriptions of the lack of uniformity in data associated with both musical works and sound recordings. Without going into detail about ISWCs, ISRCs, ISNIs and DDEX standards, suffice to say there is currently no consistent, uniform, international process for assigning codes to musical compositions, albums or individual tracks, writers or artists. And there’s no centralized database for this necessary information. This leads to inefficiencies and delayed licensing and payment for creators.

*******

With the foregoing background, here are the Copyright Office’s four subsidiary principles regarding implementation of their four Guiding Principles:

– Government licensing should aspire to treat like uses of music alike
– Government supervision should enable voluntary transactions while supporting collective solutions
– Rate-setting and enforcement of anti-trust laws should be separately managed and addressed
– A single market-oriented rate-setting standard should apply to all music uses under statutory licenses

So now let’s look at the Report’s most significant recommendations to implement its eight principles:

– Regulate musical works and sound recordings in a more consistent manner. (As we’ve seen, song and master recording rights are often treated differently, with more restrictions on songwriters and publishers than on recording artists and labels.)
– Extend the public performance right for recordings to traditional “terrestrial” radio. (This fosters the first goal and the Report recommends that non-interactive radio be subject to the same compulsory license scheme as are non-interactive streams.)
– In keeping with similar treatment for similar rights, the Report also recommends full federal copyright protection for pre-1972 recordings. (Besides being fair to older artists, this avoids the potential legal chaos discussed above).
– The Copyright Office further suggests that all rate-setting for both recordings and the underlying musical works should (a) be subject to the same “willing-buyer / willing seller” or “fair market value” standard and (b) that all rate setting, even for music performance rights, should be done by the CRB. (This would remove rate-setting for music performance rights from a single, life-tenured federal judge in New York and place it before a tribunal with a specific mandate and expertise. It also fosters the goal of uniform treatment for songs and records.)
– The Report also states that the CRB should only meet as needed and that procedures for setting interim rates, as well as for the overall process, should be streamlined. (This should foster voluntary negotiations and make rate-setting proceedings faster and cheaper).
– The Report also suggests that detailed provisions, such as what constitutes an interactive streaming service, should be put into regulations rather than in the copyright statute, so that they can be more easily modified to adjust to changes in the marketplace.
– The Report stopped short of stating that the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees should be repealed. (This position is undoubtedly in deference to the Justice Department’s ongoing review of those decrees, but is clearly supportive of relaxing restrictions, as discussed below.)
– Allow for audit rights under the compulsory mechanical license and allow SoundExchange to terminate licensees who avail themselves of a compulsory license but do not pay. (These are obvious legal loopholes that need to be plugged. If creators are subjected to a compulsory licensing regime, they should at least have the ability to ensure they’re being properly paid and that deadbeats don’t keep the benefits of the license).

The Report also recommended that, as the Copyright Office had previously, licensing collectives be permitted to expand their role and become Music Rights Organizations (MROs) that would license both performing and mechanical rights and possibly other rights as well. ASCAP’s Consent Decree forbids it from licensing mechanicals and other rights and BMI has voluntarily refrained from doing so to date. However, the CEOs of both organizations have indicated that expansion of their licensing capabilities is in their business plans and users should welcome the availability of multi-use licenses.

For example, if ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, Harry Fox and Sound Exchange all became MROs and licensed performing rights and mechanical rights, there would be six MROs competing for business. The Report also recommended congressional overrule of the Rate Court decisions, to the extent of allowing publishers to withdraw digital rights for interactive streaming so that publishers are on parity with the labels in the ability to negotiate for these rights. Although not mentioned in the Report, I think that the MROs should also be able to license the posting of lyrics, as HFA currently offers this service. The PROs and HFA currently allow for a music publisher to issue a direct license and not go through the collective. This should be maintained to both ensure free competition and allow copyright owners to handle individual negotiations where warranted.

If there are six competing MROs offering a variety of bundled licensing services, which would include the right to withdraw certain rights and directly license all rights, it would seem that the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees would not be needed (at least not in their present form) as there would be ample competition. As the Report indicated, there are currently only three major labels and three major publishers. They aren’t subject to Consent Decrees. While the US currently has three PROs, most other nations have only one, and that PRO often is able to bundle mechanical rights. The time has come to recognize that the public doesn’t need excessive government protection from the collective licensing by songwriters.

The Report also recommended that membership in MROs be mandatory and that there be a “general” MRO, the GMRO that would act as a stop-gap for certain unrepresented parties and would standardize data formats and create a global rights database for users. I believe neither mandatory membership in a MRO (given that membership in licensing collectives is currently voluntary), nor the creation of a GMRO, another level of governmental involvement, is necessary. First, if a MRO were able to offer more comprehensive services and there was competition for members, there would be enough incentive for all writers, publishers, artists and labels to join one.

Second, as the Report acknowledges, the various interested parties, including the PROs, have been working on various projects to facilitate the uniformity and transparency of data. If, for example, the PROs were to offer mechanical licensing, they would be strongly incentivized to synch their works registrations with recording and artist information. Similarly, if HFA were to offer performing rights, they would be incentivized to ensure that their recording information is coordinated with works information. Third, with MROs having both data for songs and recordings, they could create an aggregate portal for users to look up who controls which rights to songs and recordings. Finally, I also don’t think that a GMRO is necessary to address the problem of unlicensed or unaccounted for shares in works and other missing data. The MROs can license based upon partial representation and hold reserves until such time other interested parties properly register their works and shares.

The Report attempts to address the issue of transparency of licensing and royalty information. Standardizing works and recording codes will help. So will the elimination of the “pass through” mechanical license for downloads in that publishers have to be paid through the labels and not directly by the download services like iTunes. And while the issue was raised regarding equity stakes in and advances from, streaming services like Pandora, no real solutions regarding creators sharing in the wealth were offered. Similarly, the Report alluded to the “whack-a-mole” problem under the DMCA of dealing with rampant infringement on services like YouTube but did not offer any recommendations, an area where the balance between the services and creators, especially individual artists, should be adjusted .

Although the Copyright Office had previously suggested that the compulsory mechanical license be repealed, the Report stops short of advocating it. Instead, it suggests that publishers have limited opt-out rights for interactive streaming and downloads. It further recommends that mechanical licensing should be done on a blanket license basis, like the PROs. The Report’s recommendation that an artist may obtain a compulsory license for a cover recording released as a CD but not as a download makes no sense to me as it is a needless discrimination in format (e.g., LP versus cassettes in the analog world) rather than means of distribution (e.g., purchases versus performances).

I also believe that the song-by-song mechanical license should still be available as an option. For example, an artist making a self-produced recording that include covers should be able to obtain only the licenses needed. And those licenses should be available for both physical copies and downloads. Finally, I think that if the mechanical licensing regime remains compulsory, the CRB should set rates for different tiers of usage. Three should suffice. In the synch market, for example, a Rolling Stones song will command a higher fee than one by an unknown writer. The publisher can select which tier it wants its song priced at and if the user market balks, the publisher can then change to a lower tier.

****************

In sum, the Report offers some solid recommendations as to changes to the legal and regulatory aspects of music licensing. Other suggestions such as creating a new agency, the GMRO, and mandating coding standards are probably unnecessary if private parties are better incentivized through revised laws and regulations. But the Report contains far more detail and nuances, both regarding the current licensing landscape and its recommendations, than can be covered in my brief summary. Songwriters and composers, whose income is currently regulated the most, would likely benefit most from the Report’s recommendations, although recording artists could also receive a significant boost to their income with the adoption of a performing right for radio and TV airplay.

Undoubtedly, major players in the user community, such as streaming services, will object to some of the proposed changes to the music licensing landscape, such as relaxing Consent Decree restrictions and having all compulsory licenses subject to a fair market standard. However, as the Report points out, music creators should not have to subsidize any particular business model. But as the Report also notes, it is ultimately up to Congress, rather than the Copyright Office or the Justice Department to make most of the needed changes. Given Congress’ recent history, it’s hard to be optimistic about legislative fixes happening anytime soon. But one can hope….

Synching Up Copyright, Contracts, Amazon and Warner Music Group

A little over a week ago, I attended through meetup.com, a panel discussion on synchronization licensing. As a refresher, synchronization licensing, or “synch” licensing, is the permission required to incorporate copyrighted music into audio-visual works, such as films TV shows, ads, videogames and, yes, YouTube videos. The panel was put together by Legal Hackers and included computer types, artists (including one who produced a video of a 7-foot clown singing – quite well, I might add, a cover of Lorde’s “Royals”) a music publisher and a copyright lawyer.

If this discussion had occurred a few years ago, I would have expected it to have a copy-left, copyright-is-bad slant. However, in this digital, DIY climate, even the video remix artist on the panel recognized the importance of copyright and was quite knowledgeable about synch licensing. Everyone seemed to agree that artists should be paid, but obtaining synch licenses is a real obstacle because of what economists would call high “transactions costs.”

Proposed solutions included compulsory licenses, as with audio-only “mechanical” licenses” like those issued by The Harry Fox Agency and/or some form of “blanket” license similar to those that ASCAP and BMI provide. The problem is, many artist contracts have approval rights for synchs because unlike a simple cover, putting their music to video, especially if it’s to a product, service or cause they don’t like, can drastically change the meaning of the music. So, there’s no clear solution yet, but it will probably involve technological improvements in song identification and licensing procedures.

Speaking of contracts that make it more difficult for creators to earn income from their works, Amazon is launching a new streaming service to compete with the likes of Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. I was recently asked by a client to advise as to whether he should sign up. Having reviewed the Amazon contract, the executive summary of my advice, in which others concur, is “don’t.” Among other things, Amazon states it can change the royalty rates at any time. That’s bad enough. But the contract also says you can’t take your works out of their service unless you also take your music down from all the other services. That’s even worse.

Amazon is obviously a 900 pound gorilla with very clever lawyers but I think they may be a little too clever here as other lawyers are pointing out that these provisions are perhaps a tad overreaching. But going back to basic economics, moral outrage from the blogosphere won’t make Amazon change its terms. That will only happen if content owners refuse to sign up and Amazon doesn’t have enough music to offer to be able to compete.

And speaking further of contracts, it’s just been reported that Warner Music Group’s labels have entered into a $11.5 million settlement with various artists, including Sister Sledge, relating to payment for distributions of downloads and mastertones (ringtones). This class action lawsuit focused on whether these distributions were “sales” or “licenses” of the artists’ master recordings. In a typical recording contract, sales are typically paid in a 10-15% of the sale price and subject to all forms of deductions and recoupment, depending upon the language of the contract. License fees, on the other hand (such as a synch license for using the song in a film or TV show, for example), are typically split 50-50% between the label and the artist. In older recording contracts, the language may not be clear as to how these newer technologies should be handled. You can guess which side made which argument.

The takeaway: you – or at least your lawyer – should always carefully read any contract.