The new "Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act" bill introduced by longtime songwriter antagonist Senator Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin sounds promising, but in reality aims to lesson songwriters' ability to sue, writes David Lowery.
By musician and artist advocate David Lowery of The Trichordist
Sen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), longtime antagonist of songwriters, has just introduced a bill he calls he calls “The Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act.” Complete doublespeak. While yes, there is something in the bill about empowering a panel, to study the potential for building a database of songs and owners, to one day maybe assist in licensing song, let's be absolutely clear that’s not what this bill is about. Look at the details. It’s plain as day. This bill is an attempt to take away the only thing that guarantees songwriters eventually get paid: The threat of a lawsuit. Most copyright infringement cases are heard in federal court. In my experience you need a minimum of a quarter of million dollars to mount a case against an infringing corporate entity. This section of the bill eliminates the legal fees and statutory damages. Even if songwriters prevail in the case. While major publishers may still be able to afford to litigate theses cases under these onerous circumstances , (and for complex reasons that’s a big maybe) individual songwriters and small music publishers will never be able to afford to sue again.
You don’t have to be an expert in game theory to see where this ends up. This bill makes it cost effective for services to infringe songwriters copyrights on a mass scale. Something they are already doing! Niche and indie songwriters will be particularly hard hit. This bill will increase the number of unlicensed tracks and increase the size of the “black box” pools of unpaid royalties. This is less transparency not more. Thus it is truly doublespeak.
(You also have to wonder that since this bill is pushed by an alliance of companies with significant infringement problems that it isn’t effectively a conspiracy to cover up past illegal activities.)
There is already ample evidence that digital services like Google, Amazon, Pandora and Spotify have given up trying to license songs and account to millions of songwriters. In the last 15 months these services have filed mass songwriter “address unknown NOIs” with the copyright office, representing over 45 million recordings. Some of these obscure recordings and “unknown songwriters” include Sting and The Beach Boys.
Make no mistake, this bill ensures that many many songwriters will never receive their royalties, providing an enormous subsidy to Google, Amazon, Spotify, etc. This has nothing to do with transparency in licensing. This is just more tricky lawyering from Google and their fellow travelers.
(BTW we predicted that something like this bill was coming months ago. Why is it that what is essentially the Scooby Doo gang doing the heavy lifting for the entire music industry?”)