Congress last overhauled the Copyright Act back in 1976, and provisions in the old law are often a poor fit for today’s digital music marketplace. Right now Congress has a stellar opportunity to make overdue updates to music copyright law. In April, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Music Modernization Act. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a similar bill in June. Rather than let this important legislation get sidetracked now, the Senate should act promptly to vote on the Music Modernization Act.
The Music Modernization Act is an omnibus bill that would better secure copyright protections and royalty payments for recording artists, songwriters, and other music professionals. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the bill would: (1) secure to copyright owners of sound recordings made before 1972 federal copyright protections for public performances of their recordings via digital audio transmission; (2) set up a streamlined process for producers, mixers, and sound engineers to receive direct royalty payments via SoundExchange; and (3) enable more timely and accurate payment of market-based “mechanical license” royalties to songwriters while providing blanket licenses for digital streaming services.
Despite unanimous votes in the House of Representatives (H.R.5547) and in the Senate Judiciary Committee (S.2823), there are reports that the Music Modernization Act is being held up by just a few members of the Senate on account of the bill applying a uniform market-based “willing buyer/willing seller” royalty rate and providing full protection terms to pre-72 sound recordings. But these objections don’t hold up. They should not keep the Senate from taking a timely vote on the Music Modernization Act.
First, the “willing buyer/willing seller” royalty rate standard is the most sensible standard for achieving the purpose of music copyright law, and the Music Modernization Act’s expansion of that standard to pre-72 sound recordings and to music compositions is commendable.
Under many circumstances, music copyright holders are subject to a compulsory licensing system in which licensees must pay royalties according to a rate formula set by Congress and applied by the Copyright Royalty Board. Although copyright holders are free to negotiate royalties with music service providers, those rates operate as backstops when negotiating is particularly burdensome or unsuccessful. Unfortunately, current law imposes different music copyright royalty rates depending on the delivery technology or service involved. Such a non-neutral approach is arbitrary and unjustifiable. Copyright law should not specially privilege one type of technology or service over others. Rather, it should apply the same standard across the board.
The Music Marketplace Act sensibly follows the U.S. Copyright Office’s 2015 report recommendationthat “[a] single, market‐oriented ratesetting standard should apply to all music uses under statutory licenses.” Indeed, the “willing buyer/willing seller” standard is market-oriented in that it is intended to “most clearly represent the rates and terms that would have been negotiated in the marketplace” among willing parties. As mentioned above, the Music Modernization Act would apply the “willing buyer/willing seller” standard to public performances via digital audio transmission of pre-72 recordings and also make that standardthe basis for mechanical licensing royalties paid to songwriters and other copyright owners of musical compositions. Thus, the Music Modernization Act would more closely align music copyright policy with free market principles and more equitably secure the intellectual property rights in sound recordings and music compositions.
Second, the Music Modernization Act is on principled ground in securing the same copyright protection terms for pre-72 sound recordings that apply to post-72 sound recordings. The Senate should not be deterred from voting on the Music Modernization Act because one or a few members may hold outlier opinions about how long copyright protections ought to last.
In general, copyright protection terms for sound recordings made on or after 1972 run for the life of the author plus 70 years. This makes sense in the Digital Age, since copyrights in sound recordings are far easier to transfer and track than previously, and the economic value of such rights are potentially far greater than ever before. It is the copyright owners who have the foremost right to receive proceeds from their intellectual property.
Recent decisions under state law indicate that pre-72 sound recordings are already protected under many or perhaps most state laws. But state litigation is complex, costly, and uncertain. An important upshot to the Music Modernization Act is that it offers a federal-level resolution to myriad state-level disputes over public performance royalties involving pre-72 recordings. Federal copyright protection terms for pre-72 sound recordings are a critical component of that resolution.