It seems to be a constant battle for songwriters to economically receive what is rightfully theirs. First, fighting with labels over rights and royalties, then finding a publisher (big enough) to collect those royalties, now going after digital service providers to payout those royalties, and the government for providing an obnoxiously low rate for reproductions rights and an outdated statute that can’t seem to keep up with the technological age. Yes, it has been a rough one as these factors are often working together in perpetuating this curse more commonly known as the compulsory license.
A compulsory license for sound recordings was created by Section 115 of the Copyright Act and allows anyone to reproduce and distribute a composition that has been released to the public either by digital or physical means with the copyright owners permission. (sounds good). Most of the time an artist records the composition, the label sends the created recording to its distributor and the distributor sends it to the digital service providers or DSPs (Spotify, Amazon, Google, iHeart, you name it) who in exchange receive dollars through subscriptions, ads and downloads. It seems like DSPs should be giving songwriters a call right? (Because they are reproducing the composition and saving it to their platforms to be streamed or downloaded.) Shockingly, they don’t call. In fact, if you are an independent songwriter (not represented by a major publisher), it is unlikely that you are paid mechanical royalties from any of the DSPs. Why? Because of the compulsory license and these evil excel spreadsheets called “author unknown” NOIs.
If you want a compulsory license, Section 115(a)(2)(b) of the Copyright Act requires you to serve the copyright owner of the composition with a notice of intention (or an NOI). However, IF there is no registration or public record filed with the Copyright Office of your ownership of that composition with an address where the licensee can serve you the NOI then you are considered an “author unknown”! (insert evil laugh). Basically, did you file and pay the Copyright Office to register your copyright that you already own (even though under no law are you required to register your copyright to validate your ownership) for the purpose of getting paid a royalty that, by statute, you are rightfully entitled to? That’s some hardcore bs, right? In fact, instead we are going to give DSPs and whoever else, an out to not pay you. Just submit an “unknown author” NOI to the Copyright Office, which is basically an excel spreadsheet with the title of the song, the DSP info, and unavailable written across the columns for any type of songwriter info. It doesn’t matter if the song is registered with a PRO, if you submitted the metadata to the label to give to the DSP, it probably doesn’t even matter if you call Spotify up and say “hey I’m your missing songwriter!” Nope, after a copyright search you are done. Also to add more bad news, if you file for your copyright tomorrow Spotify, Google and Amazon are not required to back pay on any of those royalties as long as they submitted an NOI to the Copyright Office.
Although a bummer, we will end on a positive note that this curse has not gone unnoticed and some are choosing to do their part to help. Insert Sound Exchange NOI database! (Superhero sound!) A simple system that organized the unknown author NOIs submitted to the Copyright Office so that you can easily discover who is not paying you and for which song. Although its not exactly putting the money you are owed into your pocket, it is getting us a step closer considering the Copyright Office database for NOIs is next to impossible to navigate. It consists of huge excel spreadsheets submitted by DSPs that often are not even downloadable without a zip compressor. If you are able to download the excel sheets, you will see DSPs list hundreds sometimes thousands of songs in no particular order that are submitted daily! It is an absurd waste of time. So thank you Sound Exchange for making it easier for the songwriters out there. I encourage all songwriters to sign up (its free) and search for any NOIs here. We at L4M are going to do our best to keep on this fight and find best practices to get these royalties paid out for our clients. We will keep you posted, but feel free to comment with suggestions and success stories as we want to keep songwriters informed on how to avoid those unknown author NOIs!
Wait a second…What just happened? Did the United States government actually try to address a problem that has effected millions of Americans for years by introducing a Bill before Congress? Did those blowhards in Washington D.C. stop fighting and tweeting and actually do the job that they were sent there to do?
Here is a draft of H.R. 4706, The Music Modernization Act of 2017.
For years now the streaming revolution has completely disrupted the way consumers listen to music, the way musicians release music and the way rights holders (musicians, publishers, labels etc.) get paid. With the recent onslaught of litigation against giants like Spotify and Apple Music, lobbyists in D.C. seem to have been effective in getting our legislative branch to try to address an over decade old issue.
With the goal of ensuring that streaming platforms (a) don’t get sued, (b) mechanical royalty rates are set as independently as possible and (c) theoretically, getting money to the right people in a faster way, the MMA sets up several new processes for the music industry.
In typical Washingtonian fashion, the Bill introduces yet another bureaucratic body to oversee and administer digital licenses and pay all copyright owners (so long as your works are registered correctly). While, in theory, this sounds like an intelligent move, there are numerous questions about the efficiency of yet another “agency” involved in paying monies to the correct rights holders. We think it is definitely a move in the right direction by centralizing all digital blanket licenses and the decision makers for mechanical royalty rates (without a commission or overhead cost put on the backs of rights holders), but the move begs the question of how effective other government led regulatory bodies have been in the past (Government Shutdown ring a bell?). Lobbyists have touted this move as a departure from the tenured “judges” that rule over the PRO’s (ASCAP and BMI) and allows for a more impartial method in determining amounts paid for performance royalties to songwriters.
Since the inception of streaming services, platforms have avoided paying mechanicals because after filing the required Notice of Intent (or NOI) there is no further requirement to determine the actual right holder of a particular song. So if your information isn’t found or hasn’t been registered, Spotify, Apple, Amazon etc. haven’t had to pay you for streaming your license. The MMA attempts to do away with this giant loop hole. The new oversight/governing body will attempt to collect all data (by working with Content ID/Google and other data aggregators) and theoretically make sure that every song is registered so that every right holder is paid (some minuscule amount) for every stream.
The Bill then sets up a more “free-market” system for determining what mechanical royalty is actually paid to the rights holders (now that they will all be contained within this database). The rights holders and the platforms will have the ability to negotiate and set rates rather than relying strictly on government set rates.
The Bill was introduced to the House Judiciary Committee before the end of 2017 and there it sits. We will be watching carefully, along with millions of musicians and industry folks, to see how it progresses, what changes are made and how much pork is added to it.
Maybe it is a millennial thing or maybe it is just a product of the industry but we consistently hear several things from new artists that are trying to make it to the next level:
“I need a manager”
“I need a label”
“I need a publisher”
Sometimes there is a need for one of these. Sometimes there is a need for all of them. But when does an artist really need a publisher?
We think there are only a couple of situations where a musician who writes music truly needs a publisher rather than self-publishing:
1. You are a top-line (lyrics) writer or producer that needs a publisher to set up writing/recording sessions with other similar or more established writers or producers.
2. You are in need of a substantial check as a loan/advance.
Going in reverse, the only way you are going to get to #2 is if you have a previously released catalog of music that is making substantial revenue on the publishing side of things (actual record sales, licenses, performance royalties etc.). Obviously, easier said then done.
So in our opinion #1 is probably the best and primary reason that an artist should consider or seek out a publishing situation. If you are a writer/producer that either writes for him/herself or has written for another artist and your goal is to try to continue to do so or write with writers who have credits on gold/platinum albums, a good publisher should be able to facilitate this. They should be able to pair you with established and up-and-coming artists that have budgets behind them. Getting in with those artists and getting music actually released with a budget for radio/pr etc. obviously builds your own value and the value in your publishing.
As many of you know, getting tracks to the top artists is incredibly difficult. Even if you have a direct line to the artist you still have to get through the artists, management, publisher and label to even have a shot of getting a placement on that artist’s album. Getting a writing session with the artist is even more of a challenge.
If you are at the point where you have the chops, you have a history of writing really solid music, your previous writing is actually earning you some money and you can write for other people, you want to make sure that you are doing everything you can to maximize your value and that of your publishing. We have so many stories of writers/producers that were involved in big songs that weren’t credited the right way or were left off registrations for some reason or the other. So making sure you are handling your publishing yourself is the first step in preparing yourself to even be considered by a major publisher.
Please don’t get it twisted (as the young folks say), if you self-publish you better be able to administer your works or have a lawyer/manager who knows how. Without registering your music with the PROs or securing correct split sheets or hounding labels for statements or hitting up independent artists who have used your music, you are essentially lighting money on fire. You have to know what rights you have in and to your publishing and how to go about collecting it. Registering works is not complicated. Understanding how and when you get paid from those works is.
There are several companies popping up that are offering admin services. Some are directly tied to the big publishers but then you have companies like CD Baby and Tunecore rolled out an admin service and functions a couple of years back. Songtrust is another one that offers a ton of services including administration of publishing. We have clients that have positive things to say about each one and those that have negative things to say about each one. So we will leave it up to you to decide if one of these outlets is right for you.
Remember, if you write a song and do nothing to register it or attempt to collect on it, it’s not really “published”.
Just like everything else in music (or most industries for that matter) you have to work your way up. You won’t get a publishing deal that makes sense unless you have already proven yourself as a writer. It is tough to prove yourself as a writer without getting a break in a very competitive industry. But you won’t get a break at all if you don’t treat your writing like an actual business and get the people you need to be in your corner to help you do so.
We have covered several topics on recapturing copyrights here at Lawyer 4 Musicians (see Recapture Basics and Heir’s Rights), as the clock started for copyright owners to terminate a record label or publisher’s grant of rights in 2013. But what if you granted the rights to your copyright before the Copyright Act came into effect (before 1978)? Are they lost for forever? What if I am an heir who has inherited hundreds of songs that are being controlled by someone else? Never fear, with just a gentle tweak in termination timelines, the Copyright Act addresses recapturing of copyrights pre-1978.
Section 304(c) of the Copyright Act allows the copyright owner or his or her heirs to recapture a grant of their copyrights starting on the 56th year from when the copyright was originally registered. Why is it 56 years instead of 35 like post 1978 copyrights? Glad you asked…A little history for you . . . prior to the enactment of the Copyright Act, a copyright was split in two consecutive 28-year periods (this means you could own a copyright for 28 years and then renew it for an additional 28 years) for a grand total of 56 years. Once the Copyright Act was enacted amendments were passed to extend pre-1978 copyrights for an additional 19 years and then again another 20, totaling a whopping 95 years (28+28+19+20). Section 304(c) allows copyright owners or their heirs to recapture for the remaining 39 years that were added by the amendments, (with a few rare exceptions).
The rest of the recapturing maze is the same as post-1978 copyrights . . . simple right? Sort of. The copyright owners or their heirs have a 5-year termination window after the 56th year during which the grant of rights may be terminated. But in order to exercise the termination, the owner must provide written notice to the grantee with an effective termination date falling in the termination window. The notice must be served between 10 and 2 years prior to the effective termination date. Here is an example:
Copyright Registered: June 15, 1950
Termination Window: June 15, 2006 – June 15, 2011
(1950 + 56 years = 2006 + 5 year window = 2011)
Now the tricky part . . . the notice is dependent on the date you want the termination to occur. If you take the above example and want the termination to be effective on January 1, 2010, the termination notice needs to be given to the grantee after January 1, 2000 (later than 10 years before) and before January 1, 2008 (prior to 2 years before). The notice needs to be signed by the owner or if the owner is deceased, those entitled to more than 50% of the copyright interest (see Heir’s Rights article). Then the notice needs to be recorded in the Copyright Office prior to the effective termination date.
A bit complicated, but if you can do the math and send the letter those copyrights are as good as yours! And, of course, we are here to help. Just ask!
Stay tuned for more posts on Lawyers 4 Musicians, after a long hiatus we are back, keeping you updated on all the ins and outs of the music biz!