Music

NMPA Calls on Congress for Copyright Act Overhaul Amid Spotify Battle Over Bundling

The National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) has sent a letter to Judiciary Committee leadership in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, asking for the overhaul of the statutory license in section 115 of the Copyright Act, which “prevents private negotiations in a free market” for mechanical royalty rates for songwriters and music publishers in the U.S.

On May 20, David Israelite, the organization’s president and CEO, teased this announcement in a guest column for Billboard, saying: “soon we will unveil a legislative proposal to permanently fix the power imbalance songwriters face by being subject to a compulsory license for their songs.”

In his new letter, NMPA’s Israelite writes that doing away with the 100-year-old system of government-regulated price setting for songwriter and publisher royalties (specifically, mechanical royalties) and allowing rate negotiations to occur in a free market would prevent songwriters and publishers from being taken advantage of by “Big Tech:” “Those who do operate in a free market, such as record labels, have negotiated protections against bad faith tactics. However, music publishers and songwriters have no such leverage under the [Copyright Royalty Board] to do so.”

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For years, music publishers and songwriters have lamented that they do not get to negotiate for their U.S. mechanical royalty rate privately because of wording in section 115 of the Copyright Act, which places “non dramatic musical works,” like songs, under a compulsory license, dating back to 1909. The rate for that license is determined by a set of Copyright Royalty Board judges, who weigh the interests of the music business against that of tech companies like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and more to determine what they feel is a fair price for music.

Record labels, which work with “sound recording” copyrights, not “musical works,” are able to freely negotiate their rates, as are music publishers and songwriters outside the U.S. Because of the discrepancy between how U.S. music publishers and songwriters are treated compared to others, publishers feel that they are held back from getting the best rates possible.

The letter arrives just a week after music publishers, the NMPA, and the Mechanical Licensing Collective (The MLC) — which collects and distributes mechanical royalties for U.S. publishers and songwriters — waged a war against Spotify for paying a lower U.S. mechanical royalty rate for premium, duo and family plans, starting in March 2024. Spotify believes that the addition of audiobooks to premium, duo and family plans qualifies these tiers as bundles, a type of subscription that pays a lower royalty rate.

For days after this information was first reported, various music organizations made statements against Spotify, often calling its reclassification “cynical” and a “loophole” to pay songwriters less and takes advantage of the settlement made between music publishers, songwriters and streamers to agree on a rate structure for 2023-2027 (known as “Phonorecords IV”), which was approved by the Copyright Royalty Board judges.

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In the NMPA’s letter — addressed to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) — Israelite calls Spotify’s move a “manipulat[ion] [of] the compulsory licensing rules” and the latest in what he feels is the “continued abuse of the statutory system by digital services… [which] has made it clear that additional action by Congress is needed.”

On May 15, the NMPA sent a cease and desist letter to the streamer for hosting lyrics, music videos, and podcast content that contain their copyrighted musical works without a proper license. The next day, on May 16, The MLC joined in, filing a lawsuit against Spotify for “improperly” reclassifying its premium, duo and family plans and trying to get a discount, which would result in what Billboard estimates is a $150 million annualized reduction in U.S. mechanical royalties, compared to what they would have paid if these tiers never changed over.

In his new letter, NMPA’s Israelite proposes a solution for abolishing the current system, saying: “Congress should allow rightsholders the choice to license through the MLC using the statutorily set royalty rates or to withdraw from the MLC and operate in a free market if they meet certain conditions.”

He continues, “if copyright owners chose to withdraw their copyrights from the blanket license, currently administered by the MLC, they would be required to do the following:

  • Require all rightsholders who exercise this option to provide 6 months’ notice to the Register of Copyrights and the MLC;
  • Require that the withdrawing rightsholders ensure their musical work copyrights and ownership interests are registered in the MLC’s public database;
  • Require the MLC to flag those rightsholders and their catalogues as withdrawn from the MLC blanket license and subject to voluntary license negotiations; and
  • Require copyright holders to maintain with the MLC database current, up-to-date contact information, which would be used to contact for licensing.”

Read the full letter below:

Dear Chair Durbin, Ranking Member Graham, Chairman Jordan, and Ranking Member Nadler:

The Music Modernization Act (MMA) has offered not only songwriters and music publishers, but also digital service providers, unprecedented benefits. However, the bill has amplified the need for corrections to the century-old compulsory license governing their work.

Large, foreign-owned companies, like Spotify, should not enjoy unfair advantages over American songwriters because of outdated federal policy. By making one simple change, Congress can undo a more than 100-year-old mistake in the compulsory license and ensure songwriters and music creators continue to benefit from their creative efforts.

How did we get here? Almost six years ago, members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees came together to pass the MMA, a landmark piece of copyright legislation for the age of digital music streaming. The MMA took important steps forward in improving the compulsory license imposed on songwriters and music publishers by creating the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) to administer a blanket license under Section 115 of the Copyright Act, which is taken by digital music services.

The MLC increased transparency through a public database, furthered licensing efficiency through a central administrator, and improved the process for distributing musical work royalties. However, the benefits did not extend to, or remedy, the ongoing issues faced by rightsholders subject to the government rate-setting process.

The continued abuse of the statutory system by digital services, most recently Spotify, has made clear that additional action by Congress is needed. The royalty rates paid to musical work copyright owners for uses of those works under the Section 115 blanket license are set in a proceeding before the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB), within the Library of Congress, once every five years. In these proceedings, music publishers and songwriters must face off against some of the biggest tech companies in the world: Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Google, among others to establish rates for the use of musical works.

Because the law prevents private negotiations in a free market, publishers and songwriters have seen ongoing abuse of the statutory system and CRB rate-setting process with little ability for recourse. Most recently, Spotify has found a new way to game the statutory rate system to underpay rightsholders by hundreds of millions in royalties.

In March, Spotify began manipulating the compulsory licensing rules and reclassified its premium subscription music service, along with almost 50 million subscribers, into what it is calling a “bundle.” The benefit to taking this action is, under the compulsory royalty rates, bundles attribute less revenue – and therefore pay less in royalties – to the music than a premium subscription music service. Spotify has taken a part of its music service that was previously offered to consumers for free, audiobooks, and it is now calling audiobooks a bundle with its music service to substantially reduce the musical work royalties owed.

Those who do operate in a free market, such as record labels, have negotiated protections against these bad faith tactics. However, music publishers and songwriters have no such leverage under the CRB to do so.

Fortunately, there are solutions Congress can enact that would preserve the benefits of the MMA and the MLC while providing songwriters and publishers a better chance to compete on a level playing field with Big Tech firms like Spotify. Rather than picking who wins and who loses, Congress should allow rightsholders the choice to license through the MLC using the statutorily set royalty rates or to withdraw from the MLC and operate in a free market if they meet certain conditions.

If copyright owners chose to withdraw their copyrights from the blanket license, currently administered by the MLC, they would be required to do the following:

  • Require all rightsholders who exercise this option to provide 6 months’ notice to the Register of Copyrights and the MLC;
  • Require that the withdrawing rightsholders ensure their musical work copyrights and ownership interests are registered in the MLC’s public database;
  • Require the MLC to flag those rightsholders and their catalogues as withdrawn from the MLC blanket license and subject to voluntary license negotiations; and
  • Require copyright holders to maintain with the MLC database current, up-to-date contact information, which would be used to contact for licensing.

This would give rightsholders the option to stay within the current compulsory system or to operate within a free market. It would also restore basic principles of fairness to the market by requiring streaming platforms to deal with music makers as partners. Finally, it would provide a needed point of leverage for songwriters and music publishers to negotiate with streamers, like Spotify, who can otherwise use their power to bend government regulations to their advantage. All of this could be accomplished by building on the successful infrastructure created by the MMA and the MLC.”

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