While the music industry continues to be hurt by digital piracy, another issue lurks in the digital realm: a lack of global databases impairs the flow of revenue to rights holders. And as music use continues to grow in films, TV shows and videogames, there's a need for registries for those industries as well. Such registries would need to be able to communicate with any music databases, so rights holders know which musical works are used in which films or games, and proper remuneration can be made. Until resolved, a looming information crisis could get worse.

At NARM's "Music Biz 2012" meeting held in Los Angeles this month, executives involved in establishing databases gave a status report on where the industry stands during a round-table discussion.

Moderator Nic Garnett, a digital media lawyer with London-based InterRight, says setting up digital deals' terms is very straightforward. "The hard part is sorting the information," he said. Often digital service providers are presented with invoices containing multiple claims to the same work, adding up to, say, 130% of the ownership stake in the song. When that happens, payments are held until ownership is settled. Conflicts of this sort pose a major industry problem that could be solved by definitive databases, accessible to all, with correct information.

Currently, however, the industry is filled with numerous private music databases, often containing conflicting data on the same works. To address that problem, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)created by the United Nations wants to build a database, based upon the unique international sound recording code (ISRC) for each record. Meanwhile, the Global Repertoire Database is an effort kick-started by the European Commission to establish a standardized database containing music publishing information so that digital service providers can easily license songs and make proper payments to the actual rights holder.

The GRD will focus on publishers associated with each work, with every song carrying a unique international standard musical work code (ISWC). Besides situations in which claims add up to more than 100% of song ownership, a single work might have 10 or 15 splits, which means that more than one publisher might have registered the work - leaving a song with multiple ISWCs, instead of a single code, One House managing director Jim Griffin said. CISAC, the trade group of songwriter collection societies around the world, has spent a lot of time mending such problems, Griffin added.

On the master recordings side, RIAA senior VP of technology David Hughes reported that the organization is building an ISRC database on a global basis, identifying both tracks and underlying works to make that data automated so it's machine-readable. The ISRC registry isn't a rights database, however, but a database for authenticating the metadata defining the backing track and the ISRC assigned to it, he said. When it works, it will mean everyone is talking about the same track.

"If it is implemented properly," Hughes said, "we won't have to spend hundreds of hours to match up the data." After examining each database for publishing and master rights, music users can then turn to an International Standard Name identifier, which identifies creators and rights owners.

Meanwhile, NARM has its product platform, which consists of the UPC and ISRC codes for physical and digital product to provide data that retailers need. So far, the NARM effort is U.S. only, but this tool is being built to be interoperable with other global databases with an eye toward expanding the effort internationally. Beyond that, countries like Russia and China aren't involved in the database efforts. "We have to get involved those countries that are using different codes," Griffin said.

But all of these projects are works in progress. Moreover, many companies are competing to provide information services to fill the void created by the digital marketplace, while still other organizations are afraid to give up proprietary data from in-house databases that is needed to compile complete data, resulting in an industry quagmire.

Putting all this data together is a project of unimaginable scope, according to Mark Isherwood of the Digital Data Exchange. Somehow, musical works and sound recording databases have to be linked in order to ensure proper payments are made to rights holders, but the problem is even bigger than that, Isherwood said. Music isn't the only media format facing an information crisis to facilitate payments. There will be a need to build registries for films, TV shows and videogames, all of which use music.

If these databases throughout the various media industries are built in separate silos, they will be inoperable, "which means we will have wasted our time," Isherwood said.

Once all the databases can be linked, eventually the industry will need a way to resolve disputed claims on musical works. "We need a dispute resolution infrastructure that can handle such issues quickly," Griffin said. "We need government involvement; that's why we need WIPO. Without them, we won't succeed."