On Tuesday, May 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on “Protecting and Promoting Music Creation for the 21st Century.” The hearing is timely because major aspects of music copyright law are outdated, unfairly depriving some copyright owners of financial rewards for their creative efforts.
The Senate Judiciary Committee should seize the opportunity to update music copyright law and finally provide protections that have long been missing. It should adopt legislation just like the Music Modernization Act (H.R.5447) that passed unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives last month. H.R.5447 would improve the ability of recording artists, producers, and songwriters to exercise their rights in copyrighted music. For copyright owners of older sound recordings, the bill would also recognize their right to receive royalties when their recordings are publicly performed via digital audio transmission.
Music copyright is grounded in the U.S. Constitution. The Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 “Copyright Clause” confers on Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and Useful arts, by securing, for limited Times, to Authors and Inventors, the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The Founding Fathers regarded copyright as a unique private property right, rooted in an author’s natural right to enjoy the fruits of his or her creative labor. Federal copyright protections in music help ensure that copyright holders, including music artists, enjoy exclusive rights to the potential proceeds from their creative labors.
Copyright protections provide critical economic incentive for the work and expense of creating new works, including music compositions and sound recordings. Indeed, sound recordings and musical compositions are extraordinary sources of value. Retail revenues from recorded music reportedly totaled $8.7 billion in 2017. According to a report by the Recording Industry Association of America: “Streaming music platforms accounted for almost 2/3rd of total U.S. music industry revenues in 2017, and contributed nearly all of the growth.”
However, many copyright law provisions that touch on music compositions and sound recordings need to be brought up to speed with changes caused by digital technologies and the Internet. H.R.5447 would update music copyright law by: (1) establishing a streamlined process for producers, mixers, and sound engineers to directly receive royalty payments through an entity called SoundExchange; (2) enabling more timely and accurate payment of “mechanical license” royalties to songwriters when their compositions are publicly performed via digital audio transmission and also providing blanket licenses for digital streaming services; and (3) securing to copyright holders of sound recordings made before 1972 federal copyright protections for public performances of their recordings via digital audio transmission.
The need to secure copyright protections for pre-72 sound recordings deserves special emphasis. Without explanation, federal copyright law fails to secure public performance royalty rights in sound recordings made before February 15, 1972, in the same manner it secures such rights in later recordings. Digital music services, including Sirius XM and Pandora, have publicly performed pre-72 sound recordings – but without having to pay royalties to copyright holders like they routinely pay for post-72 sound recordings.
There is no reason for denying public performance royalty rights to copyright owners of pre-72 sound recordings. The growing importance of digital streaming to copyright owners makes the loss of financial returns for pre-72 sound recordings all the more unjust.
Recognizing federal copyright law’s unfair treatment of pre-72 recordings, a 2015 report by the U.S. Copyright Office concluded: “pre-1972 recordings should be brought under the protection of federal copyright law.” As the Copyright Office explained, federal recognition of public performance copyright protections in pre-72 sound recordings “would serve the interests of licensing parity by eliminating… market distortion.”
If it becomes law, H.R.5447would finally provide equal protection for pre-72 sound recordings. Going forward, copyright owners of pre-72 sound recordings would receive royalties for public performances of sound recordings via digital audio transmissions. Those royalties would be based on negotiations with digital music services or – absent agreement – on rates established by the Copyright Royalty Board pursuant to its “willing buyer/willing seller” standard that seeks to approximate market prices.
Further, H.R.5447 would clear up uncertainties tied to state copyright laws. Absence of federal protections for pre-72 sound recordings led to multiple lawsuits against digital music services based on state copyright laws. In short, the bill would preempt all state law claims against digital music service providers that pay royalties for all public performances of pre-72 sound recordings taking place during the last three years.
On May 10, Senator Orin Hatch introduced the similarly-titled Music Modernization Act (S.2823). Reportedly, S.2823 mirrors the music copyright reform bill passed by the House. Consistent with the Constitution’s charge “to promote the Progress of Science and Useful arts” by securing the exclusive rights of authors – including music artists – the Senate Judiciary Committee should pass H.R.5447 or companion legislation like S.2823.