Yesterday, the music labels, under the guise of RIAA spinoff SoundExchange, along with Congressional Reps. George Holding and John Conyers, announced some new legislation and a coordinated PR campaign for what they're calling "Project72."
The official name of the bill is the "Respecting Senior Performers as Essential Cultural Treasures Act" or the RESPECT Act
. There is so much hypocrisy and ridiculousness here that it's difficult to know where to start. However, in short, the labels fought hard to keep the situation the way it is today, and a very large number of the musicians the RIAA rolled out in "support" of this new law -- claiming they just want to get paid by music streaming services -- are musicians who got totally screwed over by RIAA labels in the past. How about a little "respect"?
As we've been reporting, there's been an ongoing legal fight over how to handle pre-1972 sound recordings
, because they are technically not covered under federal copyright law. This is because, back in 1909, Congress explicitly excluded sound recordings from the Copyright Act, noting that they didn't believe the Constitution allowed copyright to cover sound recordings (think about that for a second...). A variety of state copyright laws (or the equivalent) popped up to try to fill in the gap. With the 1976 Copyright Act, however, sound records made in 1972 and after were covered, leaving all recordings from pre-1972 in a bit of legal limbo. The copyright office has been debating
what to do about this for years. So far, it's actually created something of a cultural disaster
, because works that should be in the public domain won't be in the public domain for the rest of our lifetimes.
Meanwhile, many have suggested that a perfectly legitimate way of dealing with this would be to just retroactively say that all pre-1972 sound recordings should be brought under federal copyright law. However, the RIAA itself has fought very hard against this
. Why? There are a few reasons, but here are a few big ones: (1) Since the copyright lasts so much longer under state laws, they get to keep the copyright longer. (2) They love to use this issue to claim the DMCA's safe harbors don't apply
to any user-generated content site that includes pre-1972 sound recordings. It's a backdoor into gutting the DMCA's safe harbors. (3) Unlike federal copyright law, post-1978, there are no termination rights
, allowing the original creator to take back their copyrights.
So it seemed particularly hypocritical last month to see SoundExchange suddenly go all crazy around the claim that music streaming sites don't pay royalties
on pre-1972 works. Of course, this is, in part, because of the RIAA's own efforts to keep pre-1972 works from being put under federal copyright law. The various state laws don't include a public performance right, and thus there are no necessary licenses for the streaming of such works -- and that's been widely accepted as the law for years. Until now. If the RIAA wanted to change that, it should have helped move those works under federal copyright law, but it has fought hard against it.
Instead, we get "The RESPECT Act" which would effectively only
extend performance rights to pre-1972 sound recordings, while leaving everything else about those works uncovered by federal copyright law. In other words, the RIAA (via SoundExchange) wants to only put the parts of copyright law it likes on pre-1972 sound recordings, while keeping the rest understate laws. And they claim this is about RESPECT?
But here's where it gets really, really ridiculous. To "support" this new legislation from Holding and Conyers, which they're calling "The RESPECT Act," and which they claim is all about getting musicians paid... they trotted out a bunch of famous musicians who support this law.
Project72 kicks off with an open letter, signed by more than 70 recording artists, calling on digital radio to treat all sound recordings equally and to "pay for all the music they play." Artists and bands urging these services to "do right by legacy artists" include: The Allman Brothers Band, The Beach Boys, Roseanne Cash, Melissa Etheridge, Al Green, B.B. King, The Moody Blues, Cyndi Lauper, Martha Reeves, members of Steely Dan, The Supremes, The Temptations, Three Dog Night, and many more.
Note that they say "pay for all the music they play." They do not
say to "pay the artists
for all the music they play." And that's because SoundExchange and the record labels have a rather long history of not actually paying the artists
Hell, you'd think that the RIAA/SoundExchange would have the common sense to check to see whether or not any of the big name stars they brought out had a history of being screwed over and simply not paid
by their RIAA labels before attaching them to this campaign. But it appears they did not. Looking through the list of artists who are part of the campaign (beyond just the headliners listed above), we see... quite a few disputes involving the RIAA not paying
those artists. All of the following artists signed onto this campaign, despite the fact that RIAA-associated labels have a long history of screwing them over.
- The Allman Brothers have had to sue both Universal Music and Sony Music for unpaid iTunes royalties.
- The Temptations sued Universal for not paying iTunes royalties properly.
- The Beatles sued EMI over unpaid royalties.
- Martha Reeves sued Motown for unpaid royalties
- The widow of "Dave" in the famous Sam & Dave duo had to sue Atlantic Records for unpaid royalties in 2001.
- Gene Chandler's label Vee-Jay, on which he recorded "Duke of Earl," was infamous for not paying royalties and actually went bankrupt when threatened with lawsuits for unpaid royalties.
- Mark Farner, of Grand Funk Railroad, was paid $350 a week for the first two years as an "employee" and, after a dispute with the band's "manager," had to give up all the rights to the music anyway (meaning he wouldn't get paid for those songs anyway).
- Roger McGuinn, from the Byrds, has told Congress before that he never received royalties (beyond a "modest advance") for the 15 albums he recorded with the band, suggesting that the Byrds are still considered "unrecouped" and any money that might get paid out would just go to his label rather than him anyway.
- An early member of Steely Dan has been suing claiming that he hasn't received any SoundExchange royalties he's owed.
- Yoko Ono sued EMI over unpaid John Lennon royalties.
And that's just a sampling from the list (didn't have time to go through everyone, so just picked more recognizable names). While yes, they're now arguing for "royalties" from Pandora and from Sirius XM, they might want to look more closely at who they've partnered with to seek those royalties. After all, if the RIAA hadn't blocked efforts to federalize those pre-1972 recordings, this wouldn't even be an issue. And, more to the point, since the labels own the copyrights on most of these songs anyway, the royalties are going to go into their coffers, and as the list above shows, the RIAA labels seem to have nearly perfected the process of not paying artists.
If Reps. Holding and Conyers really wanted to "respect" such artists, perhaps it would focus on encouraging them to actually avoid the record labels who have worked so hard to not pay them in the past.