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TECHCRUNCH

Musicians are celebrating as the Music Modernization Act, an attempt to drag copyright and royalty rules into the 21st century, is signed into law after unanimous passage through Congress. The act aims to centralize and simplify the process by which artists are tracked and paid on digital services like Spotify and Pandora, and also extends the royalty treatment to songs recorded before 1972.

The problems in this space have affected pretty much every party. Copyright law and music industry practices were, as you might remember, totally unprepared for the music piracy wave at the turn of the century, and also for the shift to streaming over the last few years. Predictably, it isn’t the labels, distributors, or new services that got hosed — it’s artists, who often saw comically small royalty payments from streams if they saw anything at all.

Even so the MMA has enjoyed rather across-the-board support from all parties, because existing law is so obscure and inadequate. And it will remain that way to a certain extent — this isn’t layman territory and things will remain obscure. But the act will address some of the glaring issues current in the media landscape.

The biggest change is probably the creation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective. This new organization centralizes the bookkeeping and royalty payment process, replacing a patchwork of agreements that required lots of paperwork from all sides (and as usual, artists were often the ones left out on the cold as a result). The MLC will be funded by companies like Pandora or Google that want to enter into digital licensing agreements, meaning there will be no additional commission or fee for the MLC, but the entity will actually be run by music creators and publishers.

Previously digital services and music publishers would enter into separately negotiated agreements, a complex and costly process if you want to offer a comprehensive library of music — one that stifled new entrants to the market. Nothing in the new law prevents companies from making these agreements now, as some companies will surely prefer to do, but the MLC offers a simple, straightforward solution and also a blanket license option where you can just pay for all the music in its registry. This could in theory nurture new services that can’t spare the cash for the hundred lawyers required for other methods.

There’s one other benefit to using the MLC: you’re shielded from liability for statutory damages. Assuming a company uses it correctly and pays their dues, they’re no longer vulnerable to lawsuits that allege underpayment or other shenanigans — the kind of thing streaming providers have been weathering in the courts for years, with potentially massive settlements.

The law also improves payouts for producers and engineers, who have historically been under-recognized and certainly under-compensated for their roles in music creation. Writers and performers are critical, of course, but they’re not the only components to a great song or album and it’s important to recognize this formally.

The last component of the MMA, the CLASSICS Act, is its most controversial, though even its critics seem to admit that it’s better than what we had before. CLASSICS essentially extends standard copyright rules to works created before 1972, during which year copyright law changed considerably and left pre-1972 works largely out of the bargain.

What’s the problem? Well, it turns out that many works that would otherwise enter the public domain would be copyright-protected (or something like it — there are some technical differences) until 2067, giving them an abnormally long term of protection. And what’s more, these works would be put under this new protection automatically, with no need for the artists to register them. That may sound convenient, but it also means that thousands of old works would be essentially copyrighted even though their creators, if they’re even alive, have asserted no intention of seeking that status.

A simple registry for those works was proposed by a group of data freedom advocates, but their cries were not heard by those crafting and re-crafting the law. Admittedly it’s something of an idealistic objection, and the harm to users is largely theoretical. The bill proceeded more or less as written.

At all events the Music Modernization Act is now law; its unanimous passage is something of an achievement these days, though god knows both sides need as many wins as they can get.