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Do we need the Songwriter Equity Act?

| Mar 9, 2021 | Firm News

The House will hold hearings today, June 10th, and again on June 25th on royalties payable to copyright holders of musical compositions by terrestrial and digital media services. The Songwriter Equity Act is expected to be the focus of the June 10th hearings. The bill, introduced by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA, the “Most Conservative Georgian in Congress”), is the House version of a bill introduced in the Senate by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Republican Senators from Tennessee, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

Collins says he is hoping for “swift and thorough consideration” of the bill, which would determine how Copyright Royalty Judges set compulsory royalties for the following reproductions of music compositions:

Mechanical royalty rates for the reproduction of musical compositions by way of CDs, vinyl records and similar devices,
permanent downloads,
limited downloads
interactive streaming

If passed, the law would require that the Copyright Royalty judges
establish rates and terms that most clearly represent the rates and terms that would have been negotiated in the marketplace between a willing buyer and a willing seller. In establishing such rates and terms, the Copyright Royalty Judges shall base their decision on marketplace, economic, and use information presented by the participants. In establishing such rates and terms, the Copyright Royalty Judges may consider the rates and terms for comparable uses and comparable circumstances under voluntary license agreements.
What does this mean in practice?

First, Copyright Royalty Judges are currently prohibited from considering the royalties paid for the use of sound recordings by interactive digital services. (For an explanation of the licensing differences for interactive vs. non-interactive digital transmissions, see [] our previous post.) This is not necessarily a bad thing, but setting musical composition royalties against sound recording royalties is a zero-sum game, albeit one in which sound recordings owners are currently the clear victors. Some leveling of the playing field may be called for — keeping in mind, however, that songwriters invest very little money, if any, in writing a song, while sound recording owners spend (and risk losing) substantial sums of money before they have a finished sound recording.

Second, the Songwriter Equity Act would strike from the law the section that currently sets the mechanical royalty rate at 9.1 cents (for reproductions of musical compositions and digital downloads). This is probably a bad thing. The current rate of 9.1 cents is comparable or higher than the [] compulsory mechanical licensing rates of other countries, including the United Kingdom, where music is at least as cherished and important an industry as in the United States.

Moreover, gutting the current method for determining mechanical royalties will, if the rate is raised substantially, cause financial harm to any recording artist who records a cover version of a song. The reason why mechanical royalties were established to begin with is that lawmakers realized that there were no “willing sellers” — i.e., songwriters who were willing to let anyone record their song. But because copyright law is a limited monopoly that must also serve the public interest by advancing the arts, etc., lawmakers decreed that once a musical composition was recorded, anyone can re-record it, provided they remain faithful to the original. The compulsory mechanical royalty sets the terms by which cover versions can exist.

Typically record companies limit the amount of mechanical royalties they are willing to pay their recording artists. (Were recording artists to demand higher mechanical royalty rates, record companies would simply reduce their artist royalties. Again, it’s a zero sum game.) That means that if a recording artist were to release 10 songs, 8 of which were written by the recording artist and 2 of which were cover versions written by others, the artist wouldn’t simply give up a proportional share (i.e., 20% ) of the available mechanical income. Rather, the percentage would depend upon how high the rate was set vs. how much was left over for the songs penned by the recording artist. So much for songwriter equity. Add to this the fact that an uncountable number of recording artists are subject to a statutory rate fixed at the time they made their deals, while the statutory rate for licensed works (for cover versions and samples) are rarely fixed. Those recording artists will see their publishing income slip even further if the Songwriter Equity Act is passed. (Of course, Congress could, for instance, preserve the mechanical royalty for records and downloads, but still raise rates for streaming services.)

Although the goal of higher royalties for songwriters is laudable, at least in the abstract, attempting to set royalties according to what “a willing buyer and a willing seller” would do is a complete fiction, given the monopoly power of the performing rights organizations (which control 100% of performing rights income) and three major record companies (which collectively control 75% of the market for sound recordings). Streaming services pay 60-70% of their income to recording companies not because they are “willing buyers” to the record companies’ “willing sellers,” but because they can’t succeed without offering their subscribers the majors’ sound recordings.

The Songwriter Equity Act is, not surprisingly, opposed by the Digital Media Association (DiMA), which includes Pandora, Google, Apple and Amazon. According to the DiMA’s Executive Director Lee Knife, the Songwriter Equity Act and other currently proposed legislation in this area “create additional anomalies” and “cater to the unique interests of only a limited group of stakeholders.” What he means by the latter — and he is correct — is that any increase in royalties is likely to be felt only by the richest publishers and the most popular artists.