Friday, January 20, 2017

McCARTNEY's SONY/ATV LAWSUIT MORE OF THE RIPPLE EFFECT FROM COPYRIGHT TERMINATIONS UNDER U.S. COPYRIGHT LAW.

Just as the music business has been staggering back to its feet after the digital assault started by Napster over a decade ago, another hard blow to the industry business model is starting to have ripple effects. Recording artists and songwriters from 1978 and after are now entitled to start terminating their contractual transfers and demanding back their copyrights. The 1976 Copyright Act, in a provision that has generally been overlooked until now, provides for the termination of copyright transfers. Even if an artist or songwriter signed a contract that purports to transfer all rights in a work in perpetuity, the Copyright Act provides that the author can terminate that grant and demand that the rights revert to the author in a shorter period of time. This is a great opportunity for artists and songwriters to get a second bite at the apple, so to speak, and get a better share of the income earned from their creative works.

Paul McCartney has filed suit in New York against Sony/ATV and is looking to get a declaratory judgment that states he will soon regain his copyright ownership share to his catalog of songs created as a member of The Beatles. In what could become one of the most important legal battles in the music industry this decade, he is looking to leverage the termination provisions of the Copyright Act. McCartney’s lawsuit states that he has been serving and recording termination notices for nearly a decade and now expects to recover copyright interests as soon as October 5, 2018. The complaint states that “For years following service of the first Termination Notices, Defendants gave no indication to Paul McCartney that they contested the efficacy of Paul McCartney’s Termination Notices,” states the complaint. What a declaratory judgment seeks is a ruling from the Court confirming that McCartney is entitled to return of his copyrights as per US Copyright law. Although the Copyright Act is aimed at US-based artists and authors, and this case raises some issues of how applicable it is to a UK-based artist, the more important issue here is that McCartney is taking the battle of the effectiveness of termination notices directly to a major company in a away that less well-positioned artists have not done until now.

Generally speaking, for copyright grants made on or after January 1, 1978 (the effective date of the 1976 Copyright Act) the termination period is 35 years under Section 203 of the Copyright Act. For pre-1978 works the termination period is 56 years after copyright was originally secured under Section 304. For grants on or after 1978, termination may be exercised anytime during a 5 year period beginning at the end of 35 years from the execution of the grant or, if the grant concerns the right of publication of the work, then the period begins on the sooner of 35 years after publication or 40 years after execution of the grant. Although there are certain formalities which must be complied with to effectuate transfer, this essentially means that recording artists and songwriters can start exercising their right of termination as soon as 2013 – which may effectively decimate many record company and music publishing catalogs.  

Back when the 1976 Copyright Act was drafted few could envision a world where the artists and songwriters might not need the music publishers or record companies to finance, manufacture, promote, store and distribute their records. Back then the expectation was that, although any particular artist could exercise the termination right, what would effectively happen is that the label and artist would simply be forced to renegotiate a deal to continue working together. Now in the digital age, however, this is no longer true. A songwriter like McCartney can demand back his copyrights and then arrange for administration and collection of the income himself, a much more beneficial arrangement for the songwriter. Likewise, although not addressed in McCartney's lawsuit, an artist can demand back its masters and then simply offer them on the artist's own website or license the rights to an online aggregator with little or no expense. This is particularly true in the case of well-established artists with a large catalog of recordings since the artist would not even need the record company to finance recording costs nor promote the records. The more digital the music business becomes the more obsolete the large labels and publishers may become for established artists. High profile artists with already established fan bases and large catalogs probably have no need for much in the way of advertising and marketing of their recordings, and certainly no need for manufacturing, distributing or warehousing of the product. Simple ownership and possession of the digitized masters would be sufficient.

By way of simple explanation, the termination rights of an artist or songwriter are generally subject to a 5 year window. Termination must be made effective within the termination window or the right to terminate the grant is forfeited. To be effective, the artist or songwriter must serve a written notice of termination on the original record company or publisher (or its successor) no more than 10 and no less than 2 years prior to the effective date stated in the notice. The notice of termination must state the effective date of termination. Perfection of the termination requires that a copy of the written notice also be filed with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to the effective date of termination

McCartney's lawsuit involves only the song copyrights, but all eyes will be on McCartney’s lawsuit to determine the effectiveness of notices under US copyright law.


Wallace Collins is a New York lawyer specializing in entertainment, copyright, trademark and internet law who is handling copyright terminations for many legacy artists and songwriters. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before attending Fordham Law School. T:(212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com

https://www.avvo.com/attorneys/10016-ny-wallace-collins-882828.html?cm_mmc=Avvo-_-Avvo_Badge-_-Micro-_-882828

Monday, January 2, 2017

LEGAL BASICS FOR THE DIY WORLD: ARTISTS, AUTHORS, CREATORS AND MUSICIANS

Four Essentials:

1) Copyright Protection
Under US copyright law, copyright (literally, the right to make and sell copies) automatically vests in the creator the moment the expression of an idea is "fixed in a tangible medium" (in other words, the moment you write it down, type it or record it on tape). With respect to music specifically, there are really two copyrights: a copyright in the musical composition owned by the songwriter and a sound recording copyright in the sound of the recording owned by the recording artist (but usually transferred to the record company when a record deal is signed). It is important to remember that you own the copyright in your work the moment you write it down or record it, and you can only transfer those rights by signing a written agreement to transfer them. Therefore, you must be wary of any agreement you are asked to sign. 

Although it is not necessary, it is advisable to place a notice of your copyright on all copies of the work. This consists of the symbol "c" or the word "copyright", the author's name, and the year in which the work was created (for example: "(c) John Doe 2017). The filing of a copyright registration form in Washington D.C. gives you additional protection in so far is it establishes a record of the existence of such copyright and gives you the presumption of validity in the event of a lawsuit. Registration also allows for lawsuits to be commenced in Federal court and, under Federal law, allows an award of costs and attorney's fees to the prevailing party (and you can register on-line or by mailing in forms with submissions). Currently, the filing fees are low enough to make registration well worth while. www.copyright.gov


2) Trademark Protection for Your Name
Trademark rights are rights in a name or logo which indicate source or quality. Such rights are based on "use" of the mark and vest in the owner when the mark is first used in connection with goods or services. Although the title of a work is not protected by trademark, these rights are applicable to names used by actors, musical performers, DJs and companies. The more unique the name of your company, product or band is, the more easily protection is available for it as a trademark. 

The best way to protect yourself is to file a Federal trademark registration application, since registration will give you a presumption of ownership of the name nationwide. Before investing too much in your prospective trademark, however, it is a good idea to order a trademark search to make sure no one else has been using the same or a confusingly similar name before you. You can do this through a combination of on-line researches, through your lawyer, or by contacting a searching service. With respect to the name of a performer or band, keep in mind that a mere search of current Federal trademark registrations may be insufficient. It is best to conduct a full statewide search as well as a search of the copyright office records in order to find any songs which may be copyrighted in a band's name. This is important because trademark rights are based on "use." Therefore, even if another user does not file for Federal trademark registration, certain rights vest in that user under state law when they start using the name. This has led to problems in the past. For example, when you go to release your record or film worldwide you may find that someone else has been using the name of your band or film company in, say, Illinois. If they were using the name prior to when you first started using your name then, under state law, that user could prevent you from releasing your record in that state. The usual solution to such a problem is to buy out that users rights, but this can be costly, or enter into an agreement to alter and distinguish the names (e.g., Squeeze/Squeeze UK; Dreamworks, Dreamworks SKG. 

Once you have determined that no one else is using your name, the next step is to file an application for Federal trademark registration in the US Patent and Trademark Office. Registration provides nationwide protection as well as the presumption of validity for lawsuit purposes, as well as legal fees and additional damages for infringement. www.uspto.gov
 
3) To Incorporate or Not to Incorporate
As a practical matter, sooner or later you may want to incorporate in order to limit your personal liability. When you incorporate your business you actually create an entity separate from yourself which will have its own bank account and tax identification number. If you operate properly as a corporation (i.e., signing documents as an officer of the corporation rather than as an individual, using a separate bank account, etc.), then, as a general rule, only the corporation is liable for the obligations of the agreements the corporation makes. The easiest example of how this protects you is if you imagine a situation where your corporation pays you a salary of several hundred thousand a year for several years. Over the years you use that salary to buy a house, a car, and a boat. Then one day catastrophe strikes and the corporation is sued for millions or goes bankrupt. Although the creditors could take the assets of the corporation, they could not pierce the corporate veil and force you to sell off your house, your car and your boat (Imagine: even when Chrysler went bankrupt Lee Iacocca did not give up any of the assets which he had purchased with his salary. In fact, he kept right on getting a salary from the corporation). If properly employed, a corporate entity can be used as a shield to protect you. In most cases, however, it is not really necessary to incorporate at the start of your artistic career. The law does require that, if you use a name professionally other than your personal name, then you should file a Business Certificate (or "DBA") in the County in which you reside or do business under that name. A DBA is necessary if you want to open a bank account in your professional pseudonym or group or company name. The DBA form is available in stationary stores or at the county clerk's office.

There are also tax advantages to operating as a corporation. As an individual making in excess of  a certain amount, as set by the IRS, even if your write-offs and deductions reduce your income substantially you will still be subject to the "alternative minimum tax' under current law. However, as a corporation, you are entitled to take the deductions and, as an individual, you are only subject to standard tax on the amount which passes through to you individuallyAlso, as a business matter, the individual members of a group or company may want to enter into a partnership agreement between and among themselves in order to spell out the particulars with respect to certain rights such as songwriting and ownership of the trademark rights in the name. Otherwise, any group of two or more persons operating a business for profit is considered a partnership for the purposes of applying the laws of partnership under the laws of most states. These laws generally employ a rule of sharing evenly in profits and losses, including all assets of the business
 
4) Signing Contracts
Never sign any contract given to you without having your lawyer review it first. Do not rely on anyone else (or even their lawyer) to tell you what your contract says. And never let anyone rush you or pressure you into signing any agreement. There is really no such thing as a standard "form" contract. Any such contract was drafted by that party's attorney to protect that party's interests. Your lawyer can "translate" the deal and explain its terms to you, and then help negotiate more favorable terms for you. 

Keep in mind that it may, in fact, be in your best interest to "get it in writing" if you have an arrangement with someone. This is especially true in collaborative situations. Otherwise, you run the risk of a disagreement later over the actual terms of the oral agreement, and it becomes your word against that of the other party. That is not to say that an oral agreement is not a binding contract (as Kim Basinger recently found out). It is just that a contract is easier to prove if the terms of the arrangement are in writing. A simple contract may not necessarily require extensive involvement by lawyers. A contract can be as basic as a letter describing the details of your arrangement which is signed by both parties to the agreement.

As a general rule, you should consult with a lawyer if you are asked to sign anything other than an autograph. Too many aspiring artists want to get a record deal so badly they will sign almost anything that promises them a chance to do it. Even successful careers have a relatively short life span. Therefore, it is important for you to get maximum returns in the good years and not sign away rights to valuable income like publishing. Everyone needs someone to look out for his or her interests. That is why, at the end of the day, you may want to consult with an entertainment lawyer. Meet with several lawyers to find one whose vibe is right for you. If you believe in yourself and your talents, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and invest in good legal representation.

Wallace Collins is an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer with more than 30 years of experience based in New York. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before receiving his law degree from Fordham Law School. Tel: (212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

CONTRACTING WITH MINORS IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY - JUDICIAL APPROVAL A NECESSITY FOR BUSINESSES FROM MODELING AGENCIES TO TECH COMPANIES

Contracting with minors in the entertainment industry can be a legal minefield. From talent bookers and modeling agencies to technology start-ups and other computer software companies, the predicament of employing or contracting with a party under the age of eighteen has become an increasing problem. The minor is not bound by the contract and may disaffirm the contract at any time during minority or within a reasonable time after reaching majority. Without a valid written agreement the employment is “at will” under the law of most States which means the minor can depart at any time. The dilemma created by a minor’s ability to disaffirm a contract is that it may seriously jeopardize the employer’s financial investment in the services of the minor whether it is the ongoing efforts of an agency to develop the career of a young talent or the technology company’s expectation that is owns the copyright in the code created by the teenage whiz kid it employs.

The mere exercise of having the parent or guardian of the minor co-sign, approve or “guarantee” the contract does not resolve the problem. The minor may still repudiate the contract on the ground of infancy, asserting that the parent or guardian lacked authority to make the contract. In some jurisdictions, Courts deem it against public policy to even enforce such guarantee language against the parent or guardian since it would subvert the purpose of the laws concerning the judicial approval of contracts with minors. So-called “working papers” under State law might work for purposes of a fast food chain or similar hourly wage employment but are probably insufficient for talent agent, modeling agency or technology company purposes.

Several States, including New York and California, have laws specifically concerning judicial approval of contracts with minors. New York's Arts and Cultural Affairs Law §35.03 provides for judicial approval of certain contracts for services of "minors" under the age of 18. The procedure involved can be somewhat arduous to navigate, and may prove to be a difficult gauntlet to run for a lawyer inexperienced in this area. However, a company employing minors or contracting with minors should investigate the efficacy of pursuing court approval to protect their investment. Once the Court judicially approves the contract, the minor is held to a standard of adult responsibility for its contractual obligations assuring the employer company that it will get what it bargained for and that the contract is legally valid.

As a practical matter, a proceeding for judicial approval of a minor's contract in New York is commenced by the filing of a verified petition. It can be filed by a parent, the guardian, a relative of the minor or any interested person or entity such as the employer. The petition must contain a statement of the length of the employment term, compensation, and all other relevant, material terms of the agreement. A complete copy of the proposed contract must be annexed to the petition together with affidavits from the parents and/or guardians that consent to the petition and support the facts.

In addition to identifying the details of the nature of the minor's employment and the compensation to be paid, the petition must also contain a statement of who, other than the minor, is entitled to the minor's earnings and facts regarding the property and financial circumstances of the parent or parents so entitled. The petition may nominate a person to be appointed as limited guardian solely for purposes of establishing a trust account for the proceeding and should set forth the reasons why the person nominated would be proper and suitable. Although a lawyer is usually appointed, a parent or other petitioner is not precluded from being appointed as limited guardian by reason of his or her interest in any part of the minor's earnings or in the contract provided such interest is disclosed. The Court will designate how much is to be set aside and saved for the minor under guardianship until the minor becomes 18 years old. The court also has the option to appoint a special guardian to represent the interests of the minor at any time after the petition is filed.

As directed by the Court, before the time at which the petition is noticed to be heard, certain persons (other than the petitioner and anyone who has joined in the petition) must be served with an order to show cause why the petition should not be granted: (1) the minor; (2) the parents of the minor; (3) the minor's guardian(s); (4) each party to the contract; (5) any person having the care and custody of the minor; (6) the person with whom the minor resides; and, (7) the minor's spouse.

An order granting judicial approval of a contract for the services of a minor will rarely be granted on the papers alone. Usually a hearing is conducted at which the minor, the parent(s) and the various other interested parties may be questioned by the Judge regarding the contract. A Judge may require provisions in the Court’s order concerning how many hours the minor can work and may require that the employer provide tutors if regular schooling will be disrupted by the employment. Most terms and conditions of each arrangement will be affirmed as long as they are found by the Court to be reasonable and not contrary to the best interests of the minor. Once the court does grant approval, an order will be issued which will, in effect, declare the minor an adult for purposes of fulfilling his or her contractual obligations.

California law concerning the judicial approval of minors' contract for artistic or creative services (Ca. Family Code §6750, et seq.), although similar, differs in certain respects. For instance, under California law there is no limitation on the length of the term of a minor's contract where in New York the limit is seven years. A hearing is usually required in California as in New York but under California law a maximum of only 50% of net earnings will be set aside until the minor becomes 18 years old whereas New York has no limit on what portion the court can direct to be set aside.

Once a Court does grant approval, an order will be issued which will, in effect, declare the minor an adult for purposes of fulfilling his or her contractual obligations. Then all the results of the minor’s services, including commissions due on the bookings by a talent agent or modeling agency and any copyrights in code or apps created by a minor during employment by a tech company, will be properly transferred as bargained for by the employer.
 

WALLACE E.J. COLLINS III, ESQ. (Tel: 212 661 3656) is a New York lawyer practicing primarily in the areas of entertainment and intellectual property law with more than 30 years of experience. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before receiving his law degree from Fordham Law School. T: (212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com 



Tuesday, July 19, 2016

COLLABORATION AGREEMENTS FOR AUTHORS AND FILM/TV WRITERS: WHAT THEY MEAN AND HOW THEY WORK

            Under the US copyright law, although ideas alone are not protectable, an author or creator owns a copyright in his or her work the moment the author’s expression of the idea is 'fixed in a tangible medium' (i.e., when the expression of an idea is written down or recorded in some manner). Once created, a copyright extends for the life of the author plus 70 years, and in the case of collaborators on a copyright it extends for the life of the last surviving collaborator plus 70 years.

            This article will focus on the collaboration between and among creators of books, stories, theatrical plays and television shows. The essence of collaboration is working together to create a single work regardless of how or what each party contributes. Collaborators may work together in the same room at the same time, or not. The creative contribution of each co-author may be equal in quality or quantity, or not. Both authors may work together on the total work, or each might write separate chapters or scenes (or with a book or audio/visual production one might write words or dialogue while the other is an artist doing graphics and illustrations, etc.)  The long history of collaboration has shown that there are endless combinations. Co-authors do not need to have a written agreement concerning their joint work, but it is probably a good idea to do so given the myriad issues that can arise and become a problem under such circumstances.

            Co-authors can divide copyright ownership in whatever proportion they determine and that ownership concerns both rights (ownership and control) and revenues (income generated from the work). In the absence of a written agreement, under current case law concerning both copyright and partnership law, two or more collaborators are generally deemed to share equally on a pro-rata basis. This might be so even if it is clear that the contributions of the authors were not equal since the Courts generally prefer not to make decisions about the value of each author’s contribution to a copyright and simply divide it by the number of authors (and we probably prefer that Courts not be making decisions about whether the writing in one scene or a particular chapter has more or less value than that of another, etc.). Therefore, without a written agreement two authors would be deemed to own the song fifty-fifty, three writers one-third each, etc.

            Beyond the issue of just dividing the income, there arises the issue of copyright ownership and control. In the absence of a written collaboration agreement or other contract stating otherwise, each author retains control over its respective share of the copyright. In this way each writer retains some control over what happens with the work, the scope of any uses, contracts or licenses and how much is charged. Under US copyright law, co-authorship is akin to partnership and each joint copyright owner can exploit the work and also grant non-exclusive licenses to third parties, subject to the duty to account to the co-authors for any money that is generated.

            Another important question that can arise is what happens if two or more authors start to collaborate on a work and then one leaves before the work is completed. This can raise complex legal issues concerning whether the contribution of the departing author is copyrightable and whether the parties had a clear intent to work together to create an indivisible copyrighted work. There have been cases that have addressed this situation with differing outcomes depending on different circumstances. In one case, one party had the idea for the play and engaged another party to do more of the actual writing. There was no written agreement, and the parties had a dispute about the direction of the project. The idea party departed and the writing party continued on to complete and produce the work. Later, the departing party sued claiming authorship and co-ownership of the copyright in the work.  In this particular case, the Court determined that, since ideas alone are not protectable under copyright law, only the expression of the idea was subject to copyright, therefore, only the writing party had ownership. The departing party had proposed the original idea for the project and had made suggestions along the way but the contributions were insufficient to create copyrightable material. Therefore, since there was no written agreement to indicate otherwise, the Court determined that only the writing party had an ownership interest in the copyright to the work that the parties had started together. 

            All of these issues can be addressed in a written collaboration agreement. There are endless variations depending on the circumstances. A collaboration agreement can be as simple as a pie chart drawing made on a napkin at the dinner after the writing session, or as complicated as a writer’s publishing company or TV/film production company dictates that it be.

            At the end of the day, if you believe in yourself and your talents, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and invest in good legal representation - all the successful creators do. Your lawyer can create a fair collaboration agreement for you to use or 'translate' the documentation presented to you and explain its terms and then help negotiate more favorable terms for you as appropriate. My advice: never sign anything - other than an autograph - without having your lawyer review it first.



Wallace Collins is an entertainment lawyer and intellectual property attorney with more than 30 years of experience. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before receiving   his law degree from Fordham Law School. T: (212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com 

Friday, July 8, 2016

URGENT NOTICE: Department Of Justice Deals Devastating Blow to America's Songwriters

The NMPA and other songwriter and music publisher organizations have come out strongly against the recent decision by the Department of Justice ("DOJ") which dealt a massive blow to America’s songwriters. After a two year review of the consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, career lawyers who were never elected nor confirmed to their positions, led by a lawyer who previously worked with Google, determined that songwriters should have even fewer rights, less control over their intellectual property and be treated more unfairly than they already are being treated. The DOJ ignored the voices of copyright experts, members of Congress and thousands of songwriters and delivered a huge gift to tech companies who already benefit from egregiously low rates.

When the DOJ began its review of the consent decrees, songwriters and publishers hoped for updated modifications and relief in the face of dramatic market changes to performance rights licensing which made it clear that fair royalty rates were not being paid. At best, the songwriting community had hoped that the WWII-era decrees would be done away with to permit songwriters the same freedom to license works as other property owners enjoy in America. At worst, the decrees would be updated to reflect the current digital marketplace and give songwriters and publishers more flexibility to negotiate market-driven rates with global digital services. The existing consent decrees were put in place before the transistor radio was invented. They were never meant to, nor could they envision, existing in a world of iPhones, streaming and instant access to practically all music. Unfortunately, the DOJ went in the opposite direction and chose the outcome most harmful to songwriters and the creative community.

Not only did the DOJ decide that no changes will be made to the current decrees, they also now interpret those decrees to demand that all works must be licensed on a 100 percent basis (which means that the traditional and logical practice of fractional licensing - or licensing only the share of a song a PRO represents - by ASCAP and BMI will be done away with completely).

As the NMPA's David Israelite pointed out, regardless of how one feels about the profession of songwriting and the innate right a creator has to control their creation, any legal body should be deferential to the office created to examine and advise on copyright law. That body, the U.S. Copyright Office, was asked to weigh in on the DOJ’s proposed changes, and said that, “an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require these PROs to engage in 100-percent licensing presents a host of legal and policy concerns. Such an approach would seemingly vitiate important principles of copyright law, interfere with creative collaborations among songwriters, negate private contracts, and impermissibly expand the reach of the consent decrees.” The defiance displayed by these career antitrust lawyers in ignoring the legal opinion of the Register of Copyright is shocking.

In addition to disregarding the Copyright Office, the manner in which the decision was made and delivered was insulting to those most invested in the futures of songwriters. Members of Congress who had expressed interest in knowing the outcome of the review were apparently caught off guard and not given any chance to appeal to the DOJ - they were simply alerted that a determination had been made and given no recourse to reason with the DOJ.

Congressman Doug Collins of Georgia’s office said that the DOJ “sent an email to Congressional staff assuring that the review was not complete and that parties and stakeholders would have a chance to provide their views before the review was completed. However, reports from the meeting and DOJ’s own positioning appear to indicate that DOJ has already determined what direction they will take.” Additionally, Congressman Collins stated that the “Department of Justice’s position is arrogance at its worst.”

This move also threatens transparency because while songwriters may have chosen to join one PRO, now their payments may be coming from another. And if each PRO can license an entire song, even if it only controls a small portion of it, then licensees may have the ability to license where rates are lowest in a royalty race-to-the-bottom.

The DOJ does not have the protection of songwriters in their interest so the songwriting community needs to speak out loud and strong.  Public opinion is powerful and the antitrust attorneys at DOJ must understand that their decisions will have a ripple effect through the fields of creativity for decades. In the coming weeks and months, it will be more important than ever to express the problems associated with the DOJ’s declaration, which was conveniently disclosed just before the holiday weekend.

Washington bureaucrats should not be in the business of regulating music as they are neither capable of understanding nor fixing the problems they have created. Hopefully, the creative community's allies in Congress will work together with those most affected, the creators themselves, to navigate a workable path forward. Until then, there will be no justice for America’s songwriters.


Wallace Collins is an entertainment lawyer and intellectual property attorney with more than 30 years of experience. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before receiving   his law degree from Fordham Law School. T: (212) 661-3656; www.wallacecollins.com

URGENT NOTICE: Department Of Justice Deals Devastating Blow to America's Songwriters

The NMPA and other songwriter and music publisher organizations have come out strongly against the recent decision by the Department of Justice ("DOJ") which dealt a massive blow to America’s songwriters. After a two year review of the consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, career lawyers who were never elected nor confirmed to their positions, led by a lawyer who previously worked with Google, determined that songwriters should have even fewer rights, less control over their intellectual property and be treated more unfairly than they already are being treated. The DOJ ignored the voices of copyright experts, members of Congress and thousands of songwriters and delivered a huge gift to tech companies who already benefit from egregiously low rates.

When the DOJ began its review of the consent decrees, songwriters and publishers hoped for updated modifications and relief in the face of dramatic market changes to performance rights licensing which made it clear that fair royalty rates were not being paid. At best, the songwriting community had hoped that the WWII-era decrees would be done away with to permit songwriters the same freedom to license works as other property owners enjoy in America. At worst, the decrees would be updated to reflect the current digital marketplace and give songwriters and publishers more flexibility to negotiate market-driven rates with global digital services. The existing consent decrees were put in place before the transistor radio was invented. They were never meant to, nor could they envision, existing in a world of iPhones, streaming and instant access to practically all music. Unfortunately, the DOJ went in the opposite direction and chose the outcome most harmful to songwriters and the creative community.

Not only did the DOJ decide that no changes will be made to the current decrees, they also now interpret those decrees to demand that all works must be licensed on a 100 percent basis (which means that the traditional and logical practice of fractional licensing - or licensing only the share of a song a PRO represents - by ASCAP and BMI will be done away with completely).

As the NMPA's David Israelite pointed out, regardless of how one feels about the profession of songwriting and the innate right a creator has to control their creation, any legal body should be deferential to the office created to examine and advise on copyright law. That body, the U.S. Copyright Office, was asked to weigh in on the DOJ’s proposed changes, and said that, “an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require these PROs to engage in 100-percent licensing presents a host of legal and policy concerns. Such an approach would seemingly vitiate important principles of copyright law, interfere with creative collaborations among songwriters, negate private contracts, and impermissibly expand the reach of the consent decrees.” The defiance displayed by these career antitrust lawyers in ignoring the legal opinion of the Register of Copyright is shocking.

In addition to disregarding the Copyright Office, the manner in which the decision was made and delivered was insulting to those most invested in the futures of songwriters. Members of Congress who had expressed interest in knowing the outcome of the review were apparently caught off guard and not given any chance to appeal to the DOJ - they were simply alerted that a determination had been made and given no recourse to reason with the DOJ.

Congressman Doug Collins of Georgia’s office said that the DOJ “sent an email to Congressional staff assuring that the review was not complete and that parties and stakeholders would have a chance to provide their views before the review was completed. However, reports from the meeting and DOJ’s own positioning appear to indicate that DOJ has already determined what direction they will take.” Additionally, Congressman Collins stated that the “Department of Justice’s position is arrogance at its worst.”

This move also threatens transparency because while songwriters may have chosen to join one PRO, now their payments may be coming from another. And if each PRO can license an entire song, even if it only controls a small portion of it, then licensees may have the ability to license where rates are lowest in a royalty race-to-the-bottom.

The DOJ does not have the protection of songwriters in their interest so the songwriting community needs to speak out loud and strong.  Public opinion is powerful and the antitrust attorneys at DOJ must understand that their decisions will have a ripple effect through the fields of creativity for decades. In the coming weeks and months, it will be more important than ever to express the problems associated with the DOJ’s declaration, which was conveniently disclosed just before the holiday weekend.

Washington bureaucrats should not be in the business of regulating music as they are neither capable of understanding nor fixing the problems they have created. Hopefully, the creative community's allies in Congress will work together with those most affected, the creators themselves, to navigate a workable path forward. Until then, there will be no justice for America’s songwriters.