Music Modernization Act Passes Senate by Unanimous Consent

Well, at least bipartisanship still exists when it comes to protecting America’s music creators.  Late yesterday, the omnibus bill known as the Music Modernization Act passed the Senate by unanimous consent.  On Monday, the chamber initiated a hotline process, which may be implemented when a bill is presumed to be uncontroversial.  Once triggered, Senators have 24 hours to raise any objections—one objection will kick the bill back into the normal debate/vote process—after which the bill will pass unanimously.  The MMA, to be renamed the Orrin G. Hatch Music Modernization Act in honor of the Senator’s retirement and the fact that he is a songwriter, ultimately earned 81 sponsors.

The soul of the MMA is a new royalty system designed to fairly compensate songwriters and composers in the digital marketplace.  This aspect of the bill has been hailed by multiple stakeholders in both the music and digital services market as a landmark achievement in private-sector and legislative compromise.

For too long, this class of creators was subject to a royalty system initially designed in the age of player pianos, so it has hardly reflected the market realities of the digital age.  The MMA establishes a new digital licensing collective, overseen by both songwriters and digital platform owners; it creates a new blanket mechanical license to enable easier and more complete licensing; and it reshapes the manner in which rates are set in order to better conform to fair-market prices.

ASCAP Chairman of the Board, songwriter Paul Williams stated, “”Today, we made history by joining together and working for Senate passage of the Music Modernization Act, bringing us one step closer to a music licensing framework that reflects how people listen to music today.”

This digital-royalty spine of the MMA met with relatively little debate among nearly stakeholders and passed the Senate in the same form* in which it passed the House in April with a vote of 415-0.  Likewise, the AMP Act segment of the MMA, which compensates engineers, producers, and sound mixers passed without objection or modification.  The only part of the omnibus bill that did invite debate—not to mention some outlandish claims by the anti-copyright crowd—was the CLASSICS Act, which is designed to compensate owners of sound-recordings for public performance via non-interactive streaming services like Sirius XM.

Amended CLASSICS Passes and Returns to the House

It was no surprise of course that Sirius XM opposed the CLASSICS Act.  They didn’t want to pay royalties to pre-1972 artists if they could avoid it.  But some of the usual suspects in the anti-copyright crowd also sought to oppose the bill on ideological grounds, calling it a massive term extension, a land-grab by the labels, and even a “reversal of copyright doctrine.”  As usual, the librarians and archivists jumped on this bandwagon (I still don’t get these folks), claiming that, if passed, CLASSICS would create new uncertainty for their institutions.

While most of these objections were a bit overwrought—and some were just plain made up—in response to so narrowly-written a bill, CLASSICS does unquestionably highlight the hodgepodge body of law (i.e. common law and federal statute) theoretically governing sound recordings made before 1972.  Nobody disputes that it’s a mess, but some of the opponents to CLASSICS argued that the law should be overhauled entirely (a monumental task) rather than ameliorate one small aspect of the law in order to get these musical artists paid by Sirius et al right now (a far more moderate task).  Nevertheless, in response to some of the concerns about duration of terms and the interests of libraries, the Senate made a few key modifications to CLASSICS that are expected to be adopted by the House for final congressional passage of the law.

The Senate version of CLASSICS creates a specific regime for use of these sound recordings by non-commercial entities, and it establishes a “rolling basis” duration of protection of 95 years after publication.  The House version had left the status quo intact, whereby all pre-1972 sound recordings are protected by state law until 2067.  These amendments look like reasonable concessions in keeping with the spirit and intent of CLASSICS; and it seems unlikely that any objections will be raised to alter the course of the MMA toward full passage. (This does not mean, of course, that the anti-copyright crowd won’t complain. Some already have.)

Not only should the many stakeholders who worked for years on this legislation be proud of what they have accomplished—let alone in such a schismatic political climate—but the MMA is entirely consistent with the history of copyright amendment in the United States.  While anti-copyright academics and tech-industry pundits continue to insist that copyright law must be weakened in order to foster innovation and serve the public interest, the historical narrative has been quite different.  Rather than bluntly weakening the law, it has always been the case that copyright is rewritten to fit the contours of new markets—responding to but not at all stifling new technologies.

UPDATE:  Having seen the latest language of the bill, there are a few small changes, including a five-year moratorium on rate increases.  Perhaps a more detailed in a future post.

© 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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