Michael Corleone would understand. Just when music companies and their performance-rights organization (PROs) thought they were getting out from under supervision by the U.S. Department of Justice, the DOJ may be about to pull them back in.
For some time now, the DOJ's Antitrust Division has been investigating whether to modify the special antitrust consent decrees that govern the two leading PROs: the American Society of Composers And Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). These broad settlements, originally reached in 1941, were designed to prevent anti-competitive behavior by the music publishers and set the rules for how the PROs can operate. This includes licensing on non-discriminatory terms (preventing the PROs from blocking a radio station or music service from playing their songs).
The consent decrees have been modified before; BMI's was amended in 1994 and ASCAP's in 2001. But some music publishers argue these agreements are showing their age. The publishers and the PROs are hoping (and expressly asking) the DOJ to agree with their view that, here in the Internet Era, digital music doesn't need so much government intervention. Some suggest the DOJ's antitrust lawyers have shown sympathy to arguments for a "partial withdrawal" of digital copyrights from the consent-decree framework.
But new arrangements to replace that framework ultimately may pull the labels and PROs back in. Billboard reported recently that the DOJ may be considering revisions that impose an even tighter regulatory scheme. According to the report, the Justice Department circulated a letter letting ASCAP and BMI know it is considering allowing any single co-owner of a "split work" — also known as a "fractional, "co-authored" or "co-pub" composition — to issue a license for 100 percent of the work. This is in contrast to the current practice in the music industry, whereby everyone who has a piece of the copyright needs to agree to license the work. The music companies have let their resulting unhappiness be known, albeit only off-the-record.
Not everyone has been so unhappy with the DOJ trial balloon on split works. Billboard quoted streaming service Pandora as saying: "We appreciate that the Department of Justice is taking steps to prevent further anti-competitive behavior in music licensing." Matt Schruers of the Disruptive Competition Project has framed the reported DOJ inquiry as actively pro-competition. Per Schruers, the music industry has created "artificial gridlock" among its rights-holders by allowing each co-author the power to unilaterally veto, but not unilaterally authorize, the license to use a copyrighted song. This means that a single rights-holder with only a small percentage of ownership in the work may pull the work when a licensing agreement ends, or deny a license to begin with.
These sorts of unilateral decisions by fractional rights-holders have been costly to services like Pandora Radio. Two years ago, Universal Music Publishing Group, owners of at least fractional rights in 20 percent of the music in the BMI catalog, withdrew its digital rights from BMI, a move that was followed by doubling the rates it sought to charge Pandora. And in another example, a different publisher, BMG, also withdrew its rights, but in this instance the result was Pandora took down all of BMGs wholly owned works and Pandora's customers were cut off from a substantial trove of the BMG catalog.
Is this what Congress intended with its last major revision of the Copyright Act, back in 1976? It doesn't appear so. Contemporary reports from the U.S. House summarizing the changes conclude:
"Under the bill, as under the present [pre-1976] law, coowners of a copyright would be treated generally as tenants in common, with each coowner having an independent right to use or license the use of a work, subject to a duty of accounting to the other coowners for any profits."
That's not always how split works licensing model operates today, as the UMG example demonstrates. To license use of a song, Internet companies may end up having to cut separate deals with each fractional rights-holder. More deals mean more transaction costs, as well as more potential dissenters with the power to scuttle those deals. The process is particularly onerous for new potential entrants to the digital market, and the leverage enjoyed by the major labels and publishers only grows as they continue to consolidate. Today, Sony alone controls nearly half of all royalties collected.
The purpose of copyright is not merely to provide monopoly revenue streams to content companies, but to ensure that creative works actually reach the public. Thus, for the DOJ to clarify obligations under the decades-old consent decrees could make sense. Allowing fractional rights-holders to authorize use of a work unilaterally is one potential avenue to untangle the complex web of rights in music and bring the licensing system more in-line with those of other copyrighted works with multiple authors.
To be clear, no one is asking to eliminate the consent decrees, even though all sides officially say they favor competition and the free market. Ironically, those who laud the competition they say would follow from allowing rights-holders to "partially withdraw" digital music rights tend to fear simplification of the system as a whole, precisely because would make competition among rights-holders more likely.
For instance, they oppose allowing fractional rights-holders to license joint-authored songs on grounds that this would create a "race to the bottom" in digital copyright licensing, lowering prices that could be commanded on the open market. Publishers and PROs thus must find a way to thread the needle in arguing both that the free market commands we let them partially withdraw digital rights and that the free market is lousy when co-authors compete with one another on price.
Any recommended modifications by the DOJ would have to be agreed to by the PROs and then approved by a court. In the meantime, we need a more robust public conversation around how to handle thorny issues like split works. Of course there's an irreducible tension between (a) the "exclusive rights" held by rights-holders in their "writings and discoveries" ("exclusive rights" just means the power to "exclude" non-rights-holders' use) and (b) the goal of the U.S. Constitution's Progress Clause, which gives Congress the power to grant such rights to "promote the progress of science and the useful arts" for rights-holders and non-rights-holders alike.
There are a few things about which almost everyone in this conversation already agrees: markets should be competitive; the public has an interest in copyright; and public policy should meet its Constitutional aim to encourage both creative and technological innovation. We can't help but wish, in navigating this thicket of thorny issues, we were discovering simpler arguments and simpler solutions.
Mike Godwin is General Counsel and Director of Innovation Policy at R Street Institute. Sasha Moss is a Google Policy Fellow at R Street Institute.