This Friday, President Obama will be delivering the keynote address at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. Although originally just a music conference, SXSW now has three overlapping sections, Interactive, Film and Music. While it is doubtful that the President will be taking questions from the audience, songwriters and other musicians who may attend the Interactive portion of the should question him about what his Justice Department has proposed to do to them.

For over a year the Justice Department has been undertaking a review of the decades-old consent decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI, neither of which has been amended since the dawn of the digital age. Those of us who represent songwriters and publishers had been cautiously optimistic that the restrictions would be lessened. Indeed, in February 2015, the Copyright Office, in its comprehensive music licensing study and report, Copyright and the Music Marketplace (the “Music Study,” which I summarized and critiqued here), recommended several modifications.

However, last summer DOJ, of its own initiative, threw in a monkey wrench when it asked for comment on the possibility of ASCAP and BMI licensing entire works even where either performing rights organization (PRO) had only been assigned a portion of the copyright to the particular song by its members. This is referred to as “100% licensing.” Traditionally, music publishers and the PROs that represent them only license the percentage of the rights in a particular song that they own, which is referred to as “fractional licensing.”

On January 29, in response to a January 12 request of Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the Register of Copyrights, Maria A. Pallante, issued a 29-page report, replete with footnotes, Views of the United States Copyright Office Concerning PRO Licensing of Jointly Owned Works (the Report). The Report addresses the PROs and joint licensing more specifically than was done in last year’s Music Study. On February 4, Rep. Collins forwarded the Report to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch for consideration by the Antitrust Division, which has oversight over the PRO consent decrees and is conducting the review of them.

In short, the Copyright Office stated in no uncertain terms that DOJ’s proposed 100% licensing scheme is a really bad idea that is based upon a misunderstanding of both the Copyright Act and plain old contract law, as well as long-standing music industry custom. The Copyright Office’s takedown of DOJ’s proposal is impressive. I’ll give you a few highlights below.

The Office believes 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. It could also severely undermine the efficacy of ASCAP and BMI, which today are able to grant blanket licenses covering the vast majority of performances of musical works – a practice that is considered highly efficient by copyright owners and users alike.

And that was just the top of page three! The Report goes on to discuss the divisibility of individual copyright rights and that the default rule is that each joint owner of a work may license the entire work subject to a duty to account to the other owners for their proportionate share of the proceeds. Against that backdrop, the Report states:

While the 1976 Act establishes default rules for joint works, it must be remembered that they are subject to the Act’s express provision that a copyright, and the exclusive rights thereunder, can be divided and separately owned. As a leading treatise explains, the default rules within the Act are merely a” starting point, “ with collaborators… free to alter this statutory allocation of rights and liabilities by contract.”

Addressing industry custom among co-writers of songs, the Report also noted:

The co-authors of jointly created musical works often enter into agreements that define the percentages of copyright ownership of each co-author and provide that each will retain control over his or her “share” of the work. For example, a typical clause might stipulate that each contributor “shall administer and exploit only [his or her] respective ownership share” of the work. The “administration” of the copyright is commonly understood in the music industry to encompass the right to issue licenses and otherwise exploit the song and collect royalties from those uses.

Turning specifically to the interpretation of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees, the Report stated:

Even setting aside the express mandate of the Copyright Act, the decrees – like any contract – must be interpreted in light of the prevailing customs of the industry. Thus, while the consent decrees require ASCAP and BMI to license users to publicly perform their respective “repertoires,” each consent decree describes those repertoires in a manner that can, and should, be read consistently with the practice of fractional licensing.

Again turning to basic contract principles, the Report stated:

The PROs’ practice of fractional representation is consistent with the basic legal precept that one cannot validly convey rights to more than what one owns or controls….. Accordingly, the ability of ASCAP or BMI to license public performances for their respective members’ works is ultimately constrained by the terms of songwriter, publisher and administration agreements entered into by those members, which, as explained above, typically reflect understandings of divided ownership and fractional licensing.

And these choice comments only get us about half way through the Report! It goes on in this vein and addresses the practical concerns that ASCAP and BMI do not have contractual privity with non-members and are not able to account to any non-members for their interests in a 100% licensing regime. Here’s the heart of what I submitted to DOJ last November during the public comment period – about 27 pages shorter than the Report but making many of the same points:

While it is true that absent a written agreement to the contrary, an author of a joint work may license 100% of the rights in that work subject only to a duty to account to that author’s co-writers for their share of the proceeds, that is not how the music industry operates. For decades, songwriters and publishers have routinely entered into, and continue to enter into agreements where each party separately administers that party’s interest – and only that party’s interest — in the particular song.

In the area of synch licensing, music supervisors and other music clearance professionals know that they need to obtain permission from all parties that separately administer a portion of the copyright in the song. Similarly, mechanical licenses are issued on a fractional basis where multiple publishers separately administer their interest in a particular work. ASCAP and BMI likewise administer only their shares in the song and price their licenses accordingly.

ASCAP and BMI operate on a fractional licensing basis because contractually they cannot license greater rights than they are granted by the underlying rights holders, the music publishers. To require ASCAP and BMI to license on a 100% basis not only flouts decades of industry practice but vitiates the myriad agreements voluntarily entered into by songwriters and music publishers . It would also require songwriters and publishers to be involuntarily subjected to the licensing and payment terms of a PRO other than the one the parties chose to represent their interests in the particular works.

At a recent meeting of the AIMP [Association of Independent Music Publishers], we were informed that it in the Justice Department’s view, if the songwriters and publishers either do not – or cannot – agree to 100% licensing, ASCAP and BMI simply will not be able to represent the works where that is the case. If true, that would be a horrendous result, mandating that DSPs and other licensees would have to engage in the grossly inefficient process of directly licensing innumerable works from each individual rights holder. Given the way most popular songs are now written, this would require separate negotiations with multiple rights holders for the performance rights in each and every song rather than two or three PROs for all songs.

In sum, 100% licensing is contrary to longstanding industry practice and countless voluntarily negotiated contracts. It would turn a relatively straightforward and efficient licensing scheme for performance rights into one that is fractured, unwieldy and unworkable.

The Report reaches the same conclusion:

In sum, an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require 100-percent licensing or removal of a work from the ASCAP or BMI repertoire would appear to be fraught with legal and logistical problems, and might well result in a sharp decrease in repertoire through these PROs’ blanket licenses. It would seemingly punish copyright owners who have chosen to exercise their rights under the Copyright Act to manage their separate interests through the PRO of their choice.

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Songwriters are unique among artistic creators in that about 75% of their income is regulated by the federal government. The biggest chunk of income songwriters receive is from public performances licensed by the PROs, of which the two largest, ASCAP and BMI and accounting for about 90% of the market, operate under consent decrees. The second biggest chunk, income songwriters receive from the purchase of recordings (whether in the form of CDs, LPs or downloads), is subject to a compulsory license with rates set by the Copyright Royalty Board. By contrast, recording artists, filmmakers, novelists, dramatists, and other fine and visual artists are under few, if any, federal restrictions on their livelihoods.

There are myriad articles in the popular press about the paltry royalties songwriters receive from streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and YouTube. Few address the fine points of the PRO consent decrees and other statutory licensing regimes that form the backdrop for these payments. The Copyright Office, in its Music Study, recommended changes to the current music licensing regime that would relax restrictions on songwriters and music publishers and enable them to obtain income that more closely reflects fair market value.

It is somewhat telling that the President will be speaking not at the SXSW Music conference for creators of music, but at the Interactive conference, dominated by companies that use music and benefit from a licensing regime that keeps fees low. So the question songwriters should ask is “when will the government, specifically your Justice Department, stop screwing us?”