Why DOJ’s Mandate of 100% Licensing of Works by ASCAP and BMI is 100% Lunacy

On August 4, the Department of Justice (DOJ) publicly released its “Statement of the Department of Justice on the Closing of the Antitrust Division’s Review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees” (DOJ Statement).  The Justice Department issued the DOJ Statement after nearly two years of reviewing, at ASCAP and BMI’s request, whether the decades-old consent decrees under which these performing rights organizations (PROs) operate should be modified.

By way of background, ASCAP and BMI are the two major PROs and license the non-dramatic public performing right in copyrighted musical works. So when songs are broadcast on radio and TV, streamed over the Internet or performed in nightclubs, concert halls and arenas, the PROs issue “blanket licenses,” which allow the user to perform any and all of the works in ASCAP and BMI’s respective repertories as often as the user wishes.

The ASCAP and BMI Consent decrees were entered into between DOJ and the two PROs in 1941 (back when 78s were big and TV was in its infancy) in settlement of antitrust litigation instituted by the Justice Department.  A third PRO, SESAC, controls a small, but important share of licensable songs and is not currently regulated by a consent decree. BMI’s Consent Decree hasn’t been amended since 1994 and ASCAP’s Consent Decree was last amended in 2001.  Since the music licensing landscape has changed dramatically since these decrees were last updated at the dawn of the digital age, ASCAP and BMI sought modifications that would allow for more licensing flexibility, such as the ability to issue licenses covering more than just the public performing right.

DOJ’s review began in 2014 and included two rounds of public comments and I submitted mine in the second round.  During its review, DOJ, asked for comment on the issue of 100% licensing, something that took most of the music business community, especially songwriters and music publishers, by surprise. We’ll do a quick review of basic copyright and contract principles in order to understand what “100% licensing” is about.

As a matter of basic copyright law, when two or more people choose to collaborate in writing a song, they create a “joint work” under the US Copyright Act.  This means that, in the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, each songwriter controls an equal share in an “undivided interest” in the song they wrote together. This is best illustrated by example:  Jack and Jill decide to write a song together.  Jack writes the music and Jill writes the lyrics. Who owns what? The answer is that both Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the music and the lyrics.

While this may seem counter-intuitive at first,  a copyright like a patent, is a form of intellectual or intangible property. And the law of intellectual property borrowed from the law of tangible property, such as real estate. For example, if Jack and Jill buy a house, they are tenants and common and each will own a share in the entire property. So absent some weird agreement between them, Jack wouldn’t be confined to just 50% of the property but would have a share of the front and back yards, as well as the kitchen, family room and bedrooms. So, since Jack and Jill have created a joint work of copyrighted property, their song, they each own an undivided 50% interest in the entire song.  This means, for example, that Jack can license 100% of the rights in the song for use in a TV commercial and doesn’t have to get Jill’s permission to do so. Jack would, however, have to pay Jill her 50% share of the proceeds.  This default or “off-the-rack” rule of US copyright law is what DOJ refers to as 100%  or full-work licensing.

Remember, however, I said that this rule applies in the absence of a written agreement. Imagine that Jack and Jill are professional songwriters. They may be represented by different music publishers and different PROs.  And what if Jill is a deal-making genius while Jack doesn’t know jack about the music business? Clearly Jill wouldn’t want Jack making deals for her share without her consent.

So what typically happens in the music business is that collaborators (often through their music publishers) enter into contracts that state that each party will separately administer its respective share in the work.  And having multiple songwriters, each with different publisher and PRO representation, is more common than ever. Many contemporary hits contain samples or are written by multiple songwriters and producers, one who may produce beats, another top line melody and others may write lyrics.

“Fractional licensing” is where parties separately administer their shares – and only their shares– in co-written works. The music business, generally, and ASCAP and BMI, in particular, have operated on a “fractional licensing” as opposed to a “100% licensing” basis for decades.  For example, users typically purchase both ASCAP and BMI licenses. The PROs price their licenses based upon the proportional market share of the works in their repertories. ASCAP pays its member writers and music publishers in accordance with their membership agreements and rules and BMI does likewise.  Neither ASCAP nor BMI currently pay writers that aren’t signed up with them.

Now, however, DOJ has concluded that ASCAP and BMI must license on a 100% basis, negating decades of industry practice and myriad privately negotiated agreements among entities who are not party to either consent decree, namely all the songwriters and music publishers who license through ASCAP and BMI. This means that if either ASCAP or BMI has a miniscule share of a given song (e.g. 5%), they have to license 100% of the song:

As discussed in detail below, the consent decrees, which describe the PROs’ licenses as providing the ability to perform “works” or “compositions,” require ASCAP and BMI to offer full-work licenses. The Division reaches this determination based not only on the language of the consent decrees and its assessment of historical practices, but also because only full-work licensing can yield the substantial procompetitive benefits associated with blanket licenses that distinguish ASCAP’s and BMI’s activities from other agreements among competitors that present serious issues under the antitrust laws. Moreover, the Division has determined not to support modifying the consent decrees to allow ASCAP and BMI to offer “fractional” licenses that convey only rights to fractional shares and require additional licenses to perform works.

DOJ justifies this position because the ASCAP Consent Decree states that ASCAP shall “license to perform all the works in the ASCAP repertory” and BMI’s Consent Decree states that it must provide music users with access to its “repertory” which includes “those compositions, the right of public performance of which [BMI] has or hereafter shall have the right to license or sublicense.”  DOJ defines “works” and “compositions as entire works (i.e., 100% of the work), even though ASCAP and BMI have never operated in this way and other forms of licensing such as mechanical (licenses for audio-only recordings like CDs and MP3s) and synch (use of music in audio-visual works like film, TV, videogames) continue to be done on a fractional basis.

It is a basic principle of contract law that you can’t grant greater rights than you’ve been given. That’s why fractional licensing has long been the norm in the music business. It’s also a principle of contract interpretation (and a consent decree is a contract) to look to course of conduct or industry practice to determine the parties intent as to the meaning of words like “works” and “compositions.” For instance, BMI’s writer affiliation agreements have long stated that the member grants to BMI only “all the rights that you own or acquire” and asks requires its members to submit works registration forms specifying co-writer and co-publisher’s PRO affiliation and shares in each registered song. DOJ should be aware of this given that these form agreements have been used hundreds of thousands of times over several decades.

Acknowledging that it can’t abrogate contracts between private parties that aren’t bound by either Consent Decree, DOJ concludes that its 100% licensing mandate may require ASCAP and BMI to delete from their respective repertories those works where private contracts preclude 100% licensing:

To the extent allowed by copyright law, co-owners of a song remain free to impose limitations on one another’s ability to license the song. Such an action may, however, make it impossible for ASCAP or BMI – consistent with the full-work licensing requirement of the antitrust consent decrees – to include that song in their blanket licenses.

DOJ distinguished synch licensing from the blanket licenses ASCAP and BMI issue as follows:

Unlike synch licensing, where a producer knows in advance what songs to license and can make substitutions where all fractional instances are not available, this doesn’t work for TV and radio stations and other users who don’t control song selection and fractional licensing, if allowed, would leave these users “exposed to infringement liability” to the point where they might “simply turn off the music.”

Of course, this belies more than seven decades of actual practice, where as DOJ, admits, most users get licenses from all three PROs.  Moreover, 100% licensing is a creature of US law. There is only fractional licensing under the copyright laws of many European countries so many works that originate overseas would have to be excluded from the ASCAP and BMI repertories under DOJ’s new view (which in an Orwellian twist DOJ maintains has always been how the Consent Decrees have been interpreted). But in its infinite magnanimity, DOJ has decided to refrain from enforcing its new “old” interpretation for one year to allow ASCAP and BMI to sort through the chaos DOJ has created.

For example, DOJ blithely suggests that co-writers of songs with agreements that stipulate fractional licensing (i.e., separately administered shares) can simply amend their contracts. Of course, the transactions costs for these contract revisions are imposed upon the songwriters and publishers who are not even parties to the Consent Decrees. And many of these agreements are decades old. Is one writer going to contact a former band mate from thirty years ago to amend a contract – if they can find it? And what if one or more of the writers is deceased? This “suggestion” from DOJ is not terribly practical. The probable outcome, however, is that thousands of enormously popular songs will not be licensable through PROs’ blanket licenses. Hardly a pro-competitive outcome.

But don’t take my word as to the improper and impractical nature of DOJ’s 100% licensing mandate. The Copyright Office did not mince words when it expressed its views on DOJ’s 100% licensing proposal back in February:

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 on page three of its 29-page report. You can read more about the background of the Copyright Office’s report, its prior Music Licensing Study and my comments to the DOJ here. But the Copyright Office pretty much sums it up:

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.

As hinted in the Copyright Office’s summation, a songwriter could be compelled to accept payment from ASCAP and its rates and rules regarding distribution when she decided to join BMI. ASCAP writers may similarly be tethered to BMI without their consent as well.

ASCAP and BMI intend to vigorously fight DOJ’s ruling. In a joint statement, ASCAP states that it will pursue legislation in Congress addressing the 100% licensing issue, partial withdrawal of works and other issues. Meanwhile, BMI intends to pursue a ruling in its Rate Court in favor of fractional licensing.

Who benefits from a 100% licensing regime, something that nobody in the music industry believed to be applicable? It’s certainly not songwriters. But Google/YouTube and other streaming services might welcome a 100% licensing regime which would theoretically enable users to purchase fewer blanket licenses, which would, in turn, create downward pressure on the price of those licenses.

[For a more in-depth discussion of 100% licensing, please click here to listen to my hour-long discussion with composer, Dennis Tobenski, on episode 14 of his Music Publishing Podcast]

Copyright Conundrums for Collaborators

[Note: This article was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for creators and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 3, 2015.]

Here’s a situation that’s commonly misunderstood among creative collaborators: Jack and Jill agree to write a song together. They call it “Tumblin’ Down the Hill.” Jack writes the music and Jill writes the lyrics. Who owns what?

A) Jack owns the music and Jill owns the lyrics.
B) It depends whether the music or the lyrics were written first.
C) Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the music and lyrics.
D) Neither Jack nor Jill owns the music or lyrics.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that the correct answer is C. (Hint: when in doubt, always pick C.) In the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the music and the lyrics.

Now this may seem counterintuitive at first. How can Jill own part of the music when she didn’t write a note of it, and how can Jack own part of the lyrics when he didn’t pen a single word? The key is that Jack and Jill agreed to collaborate to write the song. As a result, they’ve created a “joint work” of authorship under copyright law.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a “joint work” as follows:

A “joint work” is a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.

That’s what Jack and Jill did in our hypothetical. They prepared a work with the intention that Jack’s contribution (music) and Jill’s contribution (lyrics) be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole (the song).

Moreover, ownership of the work, that is ownership of the copyright in the work, initially vests (i.e., is automatically granted to) the authors (i.e., the creators) of the work. Section 201 of the Copyright Act states in relevant part:

Initial Ownership. — Copyright in a work protected under this title vests initially in the author or authors of the work. The authors of a joint work are coowners of copyright in the work.

Absent a written agreement to the contrary, the creators of a joint work own that work in equal shares. So, if Jack and Jill collaborated on that song with John and Jane, each would own an undivided 25% interest in the copyright to the song.

Section 201(d) of the Copyright Act states that “[t]he ownership of a copyright may be transferred in whole or in part by any means of conveyance or by operation of law, and may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession.” A “conveyance,” other than a means of moving something from one place to another, is a fancy legal term for a written document. So if Jack and Jill want something other than a 50-50 split, they’ve got to put that in writing.

Some of you who are paying attention may have noticed the reference to an “undivided” interest in the copyright. If you’re wondering what that means, it’s the reason why Jack and Jill each own half of the words and music, even though they didn’t contribute to both parts of the song. Let me explain.

Copyrights, along with patents and trademarks (and a few other things) are often referred to as “intellectual property” or “intangible property.” And the laws for such non-physical property were developed from principles of law relating to tangible property like land (real property), which go back many hundreds of years.

Let’s say that instead of writing a song, Jack and Jill decide to buy a house. Now that “house” consists of the land that the house sits on, the front and back yards (yes, with shrubbery), and the building itself. Maybe it’s like the house I grew up in, a post-war split-level on a quarter acre in the ‘burbs. So, what do Jack and Jill own?

They are “joint tenants,” meaning they have an “undivided” interest in the property. Unless they’ve entered into some weird agreement, both Jack and Jill each have free and unfettered use (and joint ownership) of the whole house (not just the first or second floors) and also all of the front and back yards. So if Jack later sells his 50% interest in the house to June, he’s selling his 50% share in the whole thing, not just the second floor and the front yard, for example. That’s what we mean by an undivided interest in property.

“Joint” authors of a work own an undivided interest in the whole work, even if each author contributes only a discrete portion of the work. That’s why Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the words and music to the song they wrote together.

So, let’s say Jack and Jill have a hit on their hands. And unbeknownst to Jack, Jill gets an offer to license the song for use in a new blockbuster movie: The Franchised Five, Part Six. Under what circumstances can Jill do the deal?

A) She must get Jack’s permission and also pay him his fair share of the proceeds.
B) She doesn’t need to tell Jack jack and she can pocket all the dough.
C) She doesn’t need Jack’s permission but she still has to pay him his cut.
D) She can license only her 50% interest in the song.

O.K., you probably figured the answer is C. But how many of you thought it should be A or D? In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, Jack and Jill, having an undivided 50% interest in the song, can each license the whole song (words and music and not just their 50% interest), subject, however, to a duty to account to the other joint author(s) and pay them an amount equal to their interest in the work. So Jill doesn’t have to get Jack’s permission, but she still would need to pay him 50% of the license fee, corresponding to his 50% ownership in the song.

Now, let’s say someone does an instrumental cover of the song and that, too, becomes a hit. CDs and downloads are sold, and the instrumental version is performed live and is broadcast over the radio and streamed over the Internet. Who gets paid the mechanical royalties for the sales and downloads, and who gets paid for the public performances? I think you know the answer: Absent a written agreement to the contrary, both Jack and Jill, as writers of a “joint work” should both get paid. Similarly, both writers should get paid when just the lyrics to the song are re-printed.

I’m sure many of my clever readers can come up with all kinds of scenarios, like Jack licensing the song to McDonalds without Jill’s permission and Jill licensing the tune to Burger King without telling Jack. Since advertisers usually want some sort of exclusivity, it may be that both agreements would be valid, but both McDonalds and Burger King could sue our songwriters for breach of contract.

Parenthetically, what if, instead of collaborating on a new song with Jill, Jack wanted to write a song using a poem that Jill had previously published in a periodical? Since Jill’s poem is a separate, pre-existing work, Jack’s use of Jill’s poem would not constitute a joint work. And just as Jack would have to get permission to arrange Jennifer’s pre-existing orchestral piece for a ukulele quartet, he would need to get Jill’s permission to set her lyrics to music.

But getting back to our collaborating songwriters, we can see that there are many reasons (e.g., Jack is a genius musician but Jill’s a much better businessperson) that collaborators should have contracts to spell out who can do what and to whom. And they should consult an experienced lawyer to help identify and document all areas of concern.

Moreover, many collaboration (and music publishing) agreements state that each party separately administers his own share, meaning you’ve got to get everyone’s permission. And the collaboration issues get particularly tricky when you’re dealing with works like operas and musicals or performing groups like string quartets and new music ensembles. Perhaps that’s a topic for another post.