Coalition of songwriter groups calls for fairness on US mechanical rates

on May 17, 2021, a coalition of international songwriter groups sent the following letter to the US Copyright Royalty Board. Addressed to chief copyright royalty judge, Jesse M. Feder; and copyright royalty judges, David R. Strickler and Steve Ruwe in Washington, DC , the letter raises a number of interesting points related to the freezing of US mechanical royalty rates.

The full content of the letter follows:

 

To Your Honors:

As a US-led coalition representing hundreds of thousands of songwriters and composers from across the United States and around the world, we are writing today to express our deep concerns over the “Notice of Settlement in Principle” recently filed by parties to the proceedings before the Copyright Royalty Board concerning its Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Making and Distributing Phonorecords (Phonorecords IV) (Docket No. 21–CRB–0001–PR<(2023–2027)). For reasons explained below, several highly conflicted parties to this proceeding have apparently agreed to propose a rolling forward to the year 2027 of the current US statutory mechanical royalty rate for the use of musical compositions in the manufacture and sale of physical phonorecords (such as CDs and vinyl records). This proposal (and related industry agreements yet to be disclosed by the parties— see, https://app.crb.gov/document/download/23825) should neither be acted upon nor accepted by the CRB without the opportunity for public comment, especially by members of the broad community of music creators for whom it is financially unfeasible to participate in these proceedings as interested parties. It is our livelihoods that are at stake, and we respectfully ask to be heard even though we lack the economic means to appear formally as parties. If procedures are already in place to accommodate this request, we look forward receiving the CRB’s instructions as to how to proceed.

The current U.S statutory mechanical rate for physical phonorecords is 9.1 cents per musical composition for each copy manufactured and distributed. That rate has been in effect since January 1, 2006. It represents the high-water mark for US mechanical royalty rates applicable to physical products, a rate first established in 1909 at 2 cents. That 2-cent royalty rate, in one of the most damaging and egregious acts in music industry history, remained unchanged for an astonishing period of sixty-nine years, until 1978. Nevertheless, the recording industry now seeks to repeat that history by freezing the 9.1 cent rate for an era that will have exceeded twenty years by the end of the Phonorecords IV statutory rate setting period.

Inflation has already devalued the 9.1 cent rate by approximately one third. By 2027, 9.1 cents may be worth less than half of what it was in 2006. How can the US music publishing industry’s trade association, and a single music creator organization (which represents at most only a tiny sliver of the music creator community) have agreed to such a proposal?

The answer to that question is an easy one to surmise. The three major record companies who negotiated the deal on one side of the table have the same corporate parents as the most powerful members of the music publishing community ostensibly sitting on the other side of the table. Songwriter, composer and independent music publisher interests in these “negotiations” were given little if any consideration, and the proposed settlement was clearly framed without any meaningful consultation with the wider independent music creator and music publishing communities, both domestically and internationally.

How on earth can these parties be relied upon to present a carefully reasoned, arms-length “Settlement in Principle” proposal to the CRB under such circumstances, fraught as they are with conflicts of interest, without at least an opportunity for public comment? Further, how can these parties be relied upon in the future to argue persuasively that mechanical royalty rates applicable to on-demand digital distribution need to be increased as a matter of economic fairness (which they most certainly should be), when they refuse to seriously conduct negotiations on rates applicable to the physical product the distribution of which is still controlled by record companies (who not so incidentally also receive the lion’s share of music industry revenue generated by digital distribution of music)?

The ugly precedent of frozen mechanical royalty rates on physical product has, in fact, already served as the basis for freezing permanent digital download royalty rates since 2006. Is this the transparency and level playing field the community of songwriters and composers have been promised by Congress through legislation enacted pursuant to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution?

The trade association for the US music publishing industry is supported by the dues of its music publisher members, the costs of which are often in large part passed along to the music creators affiliated with such publishers. It is thus mainly the songwriter and composer community that pays for the activities of that publisher trade association, a reality that has existed since that organization’s inception. Still, the genuine voice of those songwriters and composers is neither being sought nor heard. Further in that regard, we wish to make it emphatically clear that regardless of how the music publishing industry and its affiliated trade associations may present themselves, they do not speak for the interests of music creators, and regularly adopt positions that are in conflict with the welfare of songwriters and composers. Their voice is not synonymous with ours.

Unfortunately, the music creator community lacks the independent financial resources –in the age of continuing undervaluation of rights, rampant digital piracy and pandemic-related losses–to rectify these inequities by expending millions more dollars to achieve full participation in CRB legal and rate-setting proceedings. Clearly, such an inequitable situation is antithetical to sound Governmental oversight in pursuit of honest and equitable policies and results.

In the interests of justice and fairness, we respectfully implore the CRB to adopt and publicize a period and opportunity for public comment on the record in these and other proceedings,especially in regard to so-called proposed “industry settlements” in which creators and other interested parties have had no opportunity to meaningfully participate prior to their presentation to the CRB for consideration, modification or rejection. In the present case, hundreds of millions of dollars of our future royalties remain at stake, even in a diminished market for traditional, mechanical uses of music. To preclude our ability to comment on proposals that ultimately impact our incomes, our careers, and our families, simply isn’t fair.

Finally, we request that this letter be made a part of the public record of the Phonorecords IV proceedings. We extend our sincere thanks for your attention to this very difficult conundrum for music creators, and further note that your consideration is very much appreciated.

Respectfully submitted,

Rick Carnes
President, Songwriters Guild of America

Ashley Irwin
President, Society of Composers and Lyricists
Officer, Music Creators North America Co-Chair, Music Creators North America



List of Supporting Organizations



CC:

  • Ms. Carla Hayden, US Librarian of Congress
  • Ms. Shira Perlmutter, US Register of Copyrights
  • Mr. Alfons Karabuda, President, International Music Council
  • Mr. Eddie Schwartz, President, MCNA and the International Council of Music Creators (CIAM)
  • The MCNA Board of Directors
  • The Members of the US Senate and House Sub-Committees on Intellectual Property
  • Charles J. Sanders, Esq.

(Photo: Mr Cup / Fabien Barral iammrcup, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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