@northmusicgroup Calls Out The MLC’s Ability to Make “Law” Through Business Rules that Hurt Songwriters and Skew the Black Box to Benefit Majors

[Editor Charlie sez: In this comment to the Copyright Office, Abby North (independent publisher and Artist Rights Symposium III Moderator) calls on the Copyright Office to stop the MLC quango from unilaterally establishing “business rules” that hurt songwriters and their heirs and protect working families from these arbitrary actions of The MLC. Read the original comment here on Regulations.gov)

January 5, 2023

Via Electronic Delivery

Comments of Abby North

Docket No. 2022-5

Re: Termination Rights and the Music Modernization Act’s Blanket License

To the United States Copyright Office:

My name is Abby North. I am a music publishing administrator based in Los Angeles. My views expressed in this letter are solely my own.

With my husband, I am a copyright owner of the classic song “Unchained Melody,” among other copyrights. I also administer musical works and sound recordings on behalf of songwriters, their families and heirs. In many instances, I assist my clients in identifying their termination windows, assist in the research required, and interface with the attorneys who process termination filings.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to submit comments in support of the Copyright Office’s proposed rule.

The ability to recapture rights via the United States copyright termination system truly provides composers, songwriters and recording artists and their heirs, a “second bite of the apple.” Many of my clients exercise this right, and in doing so grow their family’s revenue, which, given today’s inflation and very high interest rates, coupled with a depleted stock market, is absolutely necessary.

Allyn Ferguson was a successful composer of film/television scores including “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Les Miserables,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “Barney Miller.” According to Variety in its June 27, 2010 obituary, Ferguson was “among the most prolific composers of TV in the past 40 years.” My company North Music Group administers works controlled by Ferguson’s family.

In addition to his scores, Ferguson wrote songs performed by artists including Johnny Mathis, Count Basie Band and Freddie Hubbard. While the bulk of his film and television scores were created on a work for hire basis, and therefore are not eligible for termination under US copyright law, Ferguson’s commercial compositions and songs were not created as works for hire. Ferguson’s family has been able to exercise its termination rights in various musical works,

thereby increasing its earnings as it now collects the publisher share of United States royalties generated by the terminated works. Individual songwriters and composers and their heirs are not copyright aggregators. Every musical work, and every penny generated is very necessary to these families.

The Music Modernization Act created the blanket digital mechanical license. This move from one-off copyright licenses to a blanket license was a dramatic improvement in US mechanical licensing. However, the suggestion that rights held at the inception of this blanket license might remain, in perpetuity, with the original copyright grantee was frightening. I concur with the Office’s proposed rule and legal analysis of the relevant statutes and authorities.

I appreciate the Office requesting comments on the mechanics of solving the payment issues, because for the independent publishers I speak with and for me personally, many operational questions arise regularly regarding The MLC’s uncharted territories.

As one of The MLC’s statutory goals is to provide transparency to songwriters and copyrightowners, I would ask that the Office require The MLC to notify copyright owners (1) if The MLC’s unilateral termination policy has already been imposed on payments previously paid or that are being held in the historical or current black box, and (2) when the adjusting payment required by the proposed rule had been made.

To be clear, this rule must absolutely be retroactive to inception date of The MLC. Beyond the simple, clarifying amendment to the MMA, I believe there are additional, related issues that must be resolved:

1) What is The MLC’s “business rule” regarding the MLC/HFA Song Code for the terminated work? Prior to the inception of The MLC, the Harry Fox Agency would assign one HFA Song Code fr the work and its pre-termination parties, and a different HFA Song Code for the work with the post-termination parties.

What happens now? Do these multiple HFA Song Codes remain in The MLC’s database? Will there continue to be two separate MLC/HFA Song Codes, particularly given the Harry Fox Agency continues to license physical and download mechanicals on behalf of many publishers? Is it reasonable for the HFA Song Code to be the same as The MLC Song Code, when there is no derivative works exception in Section 115?

2) Which party is entitled to the Unmatched (Black Box) royalties, the related interest fees and to The MLC’s investment proceeds for a terminated work?

Finally, it should be noted that the initial concept proposed by The MLC Board (that the server fixation date should impact termination dates) most likely would have served large publishers, not songwriters.

It is crucial that the Copyright Office exercise vigilant oversight and governance of The MLC’s reporting regarding any payment obligations to copyright owners. Specifically, composers, songwriters and their heirs must have as significant a voice as the largest publishers and copyright aggregators.

Additionally, in the spirit of full transparency, I request full disclosure of board or committee votes, minutes of meetings or other documentation of process. For me and others like me, this would tremendously enhance our understanding of The MLC.

Decisions are being made by The MLC’s board and committee members, while the general MLC member or songwriters have no mechanism to gain information regarding the discussions, the decisions and the implementations thereof. Access to minutes and notes would provide valuable insights to the general membership.

I applaud the Copyright Office for moving swiftly to create this rule and clarify and codify how The MLC must treat copyright terminations. It is important that this rule be dictated by the Office as it is absolutely not The MLC’s job todecide who controls rights and is entitled to collect royalties.

That said, a “business rule” established by The MLC could have the effect of law absent vigilance by the Copyright Office.

On behalf of my family and clients, I wholeheartedly support this proposed regulation, and I truly appreciate the Copyright Office’s consideration of my comments.

Sincerely,

Abby North

North Music Group LLC

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