Always an area rife with legal complexity, Erin M. Jacobson here looks at the legal world of the music business industry, and four important cases too keep a close eye on as we move into 2018, and what the broader implication of the outcome of these cases might be.
Guest post by Attorney Erin M. Jacobson from Forbes
It’s been a year since I wrote about Music Industry Cases to Watch in 2017 and, unfortunately, not much has changed. Here’s an update on what’s happening in the music industry and what to keep an eye on for 2018.
The Department of Justice v. ASCAP and BMI
Background: I previously wrote about this issue here and here, and there hasn’t been much forward movement. To briefly recap, performance rights organizations ASCAP and BMI asked the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) -- which oversees the consent decrees governing ASCAP and BMI -- to reform the decrees based on today’s digital age. The DOJ responded by ignoring the music industry’s requests for reform and instead mandating a model of 100% licensing, which restricts a performance rights organization to license rights to perform a work only if the organization controls 100% of that work. BMI appealed the decision and got an immediate verdict in BMI’s favor. The DOJ appealed and oral arguments on the case were just heard. (More info here as well.)
What You Might Expect: It could go either way.
How It Could Affect the Industry: If the DOJ wins, then the music industry might need to change its business model and overhaul all of its longstanding licensing practices. If ASCAP and BMI win, then the music industry will be able to proceed with doing business as it has been for decades and continue making efforts to improve the existing system.
Potential Reform of Royalty Rates by the Copyright Royalty Board
Background: As I previously explained here, the Copyright Royalty Board (“CRB”) held hearings to potentially update the mechanical royalty rates paid to songwriters and publishers for reproductions of compositions. The current mechanical royalty rates for physical products and digital downloads are 9.1¢ for compositions five minutes or less in length, and streaming rates are at fractions of a penny. The National Music Publisher’s Association argued for rate increases on behalf of songwriters and publishers, while digital service providers (like Google, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon and Apple) offered alternative rate structures that may lower rates overall. The CRB recently raised some rates for master recording owners, but the determination on mechanical royalties has not yet been revealed.
What You Might Expect: Hopefully this first determination for master owners will predict a raise in mechanical royalties as well. Whether mechanical royalties are raised still remains to be seen, but any increases that are granted would probably not be enough to remedy the music industry’s struggle with the value gap. David Israelite, President and CEO of the National Music Publisher’s Association (NMPA), graciously provided some exclusive quotes for this article, saying: “We are cautiously optimistic the CRB will return a rate structure that values appropriately the contribution of songwriters to digital music services. This is a very important decision as interactive streaming services become the dominant format for the enjoyment of music.”
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How It Could Affect the Industry: If the CRB maintains or lowers the rates in favor of the digital service providers, the music industry would continue struggling with low rates of payment. If the CRB increases the rates, it would help the music industry’s cash flow issues, but probably still not support the music industry at the level it needs. Israelite also commented to us, “Regardless of the decision, the time has come for the government to get out of the business of setting rates for songwriters and to let the free market determine the value of songs.”
Many Lawsuits Against Spotify
Background: Spotify is an interactive streaming service required to pay both mechanical and performance royalties. As detailed here, Spotify has already agreed to several settlements for failure to properly pay mechanical royalties and has been sued several times for the same reason, with those cases still pending. Spotify made the argument that it shouldn’t have to pay mechanical royalties, despite previously admitting that it needed to do so.
What You Might Expect: Spotify’s argument is flawed in many ways, but their $16 billion valuation may hold some clout, or at least the funds to continue pushing their position. The music industry hopes to quash their arguments, but acknowledges that the lawsuits are just Band-Aids, and is striving to implement a more efficient system.
How It Could Affect the Industry: A legal decision set in Spotify’s favor could mean massive losses of income to songwriters, music publishers, and the music industry as a whole. Hopefully, the streaming giant and the music industry will find a way to work together for their mutual benefit.
Many Music Catalogues Being Sold
Background: It’s old news for music industry folks that a large number of record labels are owned by just a few major corporations. However, acquisitions of composition catalogues are now hitting the spotlight after traditionally not garnering much attention. The catalogue purchase and sale market is booming, and those of us in this space (like me) are regularly looking at either buying or selling catalogues, depending on who we are representing. Many music publishing companies are also raising a lot of money from outside investors in order to gobble up other substantial catalogues. There are even rumors of music publishing giant EMI for sale at a $3 billion valuation.
What You Might Expect: There will be a lot more of these deals happening in 2018.
What It Means for the Industry: The majors will continue to buy the indies, and the larger indies will buy competitors and smaller companies. The music publishing world might get smaller, but there will always be more copyrights to go around. The downside is that the investors coming in with the funds are usually not in the music industry, meaning that the music publishing industry may now have to answer to venture capitalists, which has been a problem for years with major record labels. The good news is that these non-industry investors will need current industry experts to manage the catalogues they have purchased, continuing jobs and revenue flows throughout the industry.
*This article does not constitute legal advice.
Erin M. Jacobson is a music attorney whose clients include Grammy and Emmy Award winners, legacy clients and catalogs, songwriters, music publishers, record labels, and independent artists and companies. She is based in Los Angeles where she handles a wide variety of music agreements and negotiations, in addition to owning and overseeing all operations for Indie Artist Resource, the independent musician’s resource for legal and business protection. Ms. Jacobson also serves on the boards of the California Copyright Conference (CCC) and Association of Independent Music Publishers (AIMP).