The Songwriter Curse (Avoid the NOI(d))
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to payout those royalties, and the government for providing an obnoxiously low rate for reproductions rights and an outdated statute that can’t seem to keep up with the technological age.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!
The Music Modernization Act of 2017
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.