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to payout those royalties, and the government for providing an obnoxiously low rate for reproductions rights and an outdated statute that can’t seem to keep up with the technological age.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!