Guest post by Chris Castle of Music Tech Solutions
Let’s be clear–one reason why there are problems with mechanical licensing in the US is the loophole created by the government consent decrees that block ASCAP and BMI from issuing a “unilicense” for both performances and streaming mechanicals. I have argued for years that PROs should be allowed to administer existing statutory mechanical licenses for services that they already license on the performance side of the song. Personally, I think it is the main reason for creating the situation (such as the mass address unknown NOIs) that gets abused by the services like other loopholes.
I’m not alone in making this argument for “bundling” rights to be administered by PROs: According to the Copyright Office Music Licensing Study (pp. 103-104):
“NSAI, for example, opined that ‘[t]he most efficient path to digital service providers obtaining necessary licenses would be to allow the PRO’s to license and collect mechanical royalties;’” “NMPA suggested that bundled rights could be sought directly from the music publishers that own and administer the song in question. But the PROs suggested that their existing structures could be leveraged to facilitate bundled licensing on a blanket basis, if only the consent decrees were amended.”
My view is that bundling should occur at the pubisher level and also at the PRO level for all publishers who do not license directly.
Remember–streaming mechanicals track the exact same song, the exact same use, the exact same copyright owners, the exact same transactions and the exact same services as the PROs already license on the performances. The PROs already have the most comprehensive ownership databases for songs and those databases are immediately accessible. This is likely to remain true for a long time.
The ASCAP and BMI consent decrees have been in place for decades. We accept them as a fact of life, something of an immovable object. For example, the only part of the Music Modernization Act that affects ASCAP and BMI relates to changes that these PROs evidently would like to make to the consent decrees but cannot get the Justice Department to address. (“Part” may be overstated–it’s about 1-1/2 pages out of the 151 page bill.)
But–what we were told at the outset of the MMA is that legislation to sunset the consent decrees would never pass due to the lobbying power of the digital media companies, the broadcasters, and the general business establishments. The MIC Coalition, in other words. And supposedly we can’t beat them, so we need to give up on that idea and take what we’re given and like it. (Good thing that guy was not at the Alamo, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Thermopylae or the Battle of Britain. Horatius he ain’t.) This is, of course, entirely the wrong approach–if that thinking is not the ennui of learned helplessness, what is? As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”
No one considered what would happen if the consent decrees actually went away either entirely or substantially because the DOJ wanted them to. If that happy event came to pass, I would suggest that there would be little to nothing in the Music Modernization Act of any value or relevance to ASCAP and BMI. If anything, the collective established by the MMA is or could easily become a direct competitor of all the PROs which is likely why the broadcasters are “positively neutral” on the bill. I seriously doubt that any of them anticipated the consent decrees might go away.
Makan Delrahim, the new head of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, may have just obviated any reason why the PROs should support the MMA or perhaps whether the MMA is even relevant.
During a speaking engagement on March 27 at Vanderbilt Law School, Mr. Delrahim gave us some insights into his plans for the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees in a discussion with Professor Rebecca Allensworth. As reported in Broadcasting & Cable he said:
“As public agencies we need to take a look and see if those consent decrees are still relevant in the marketplace,” which he was clearly signaling was up for debate. “If they have solved the competitive problem,” he said, “they could become anticompetitive tools over time[. I]f they were not necessarily the best ideas at the time, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for them to stay.”
Mr. Delrahim has put his finger right on the problem. In my view, the consent decrees have become weaponized–for example, the last head of the Antitrust Division was closely linked to Google and after an ostensible review of the consent decrees, suddenly launched into the absurd “100% licensing” episode to the great–albeit short lived–satisfaction of the MIC Coalition.
Not only is there serious competition in the PRO marketplace unlike it was in 1941 when the ASCAP consent decree started, the 2015 SESAC acquisition of the Harry Fox Agency actually demonstrates that if left alone, the marketplace will close the mechanical license loophole that the MMA purports to solve. There is no longer a need for the consent decrees, rate courts, none of it.
This isn’t to say that the PROs should get an exemption from the antitrust laws, far from it. But it does mean that the broadcasters, the MIC Coalition and the Digital Media Association should not be allowed to play with the “anticompetitive tools” of the entire consent decree apparatus.
So it appears that Mr. Delrahim thinks there’s actually a chance that the consent decrees could go away. If that happens, the PROs will have a golden opportunity to close the mechanical licensing loophole without all of the apparatus of the MMA. In that new world, the major publishers would possibly not have to continue to use pretzel logic to administer the rights in their catalogs and the PROs could provide coverage on everything else.
And unlike the MMA, that world would actually be getting the government further out of the lives of songwriters. It would avoid songwriters being beholden to the DiMA fox that would at least financially control the collective’s chicken coop.
It would also put to rest the ridiculous premise that the biggest corporations in commercial history need the government to protect them from songwriters–corporations that are themselves subject to antitrust enforcement, at least in Europe. And that may be the other shoe Mr. Delrahim could be dropping.