Q&A with Rep. Doug Collins on Songwriters Equity Act: 'It's Best the Government Get Out of This Arena'

Courtesy Photo
Rep. Doug Collins

There's a saying in music that "it," meaning the value behind the entire music business, "starts with a song." Over the last few years, songwriters and publishers have been loudly making their case that "it" is worth more than they've been getting. 

The volume got louder on Wednesday when Rep. Doug Collins, from the 9th District of Georgia, introduced the House version of the Songwriters Equity Act of 2015. Orrin Hatch, the seven-term Senator from Utah who is also a published songwriter, introduced the Senate version. Songwriters' incomes would still be greatly influenced by government decisions. But if songwriters were receiving a below-market share of revenues, the bill would tip the scales in their favor.

Like the version introduced last year, The Songwriters Equity Act changes the language the Copyright Act so that performance royalties (Section 114) and mechanical royalties (Section 115) are set using standards that lead to more market-based outcomes. In the case of Section 114, the bill allows copyright royalty judges to take into account a wider spectrum of information, including previously negotiated rates, when setting performance rates. The bill also exchanges the 801(b)(1) rate-setting standard in Section 115 for the "willing buyer, willing seller" standard.

Publishers and songwriters' push for better royalty terms continues next week. The Senate Judiciary subcommittee that oversees antitrust and competition will hold a hearing on the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees. Among those expected to testify are Chris Harrison, vice president of business affairs at Pandora; Beth Matthews, CEO of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; and Mike Dowdle, vice president of business affairs and general counsel for radio stations owner Bonneville International Corp.

Is this version the same or does it differ at all from the previous version?

I'll save the trouble of laying them side-by-side. They're the same bill. It's a known quantity to the industry. It's a known quantity to the folks we're dealing with on the Judiciary Committee.

When a bill like this is introduced every two years, is that done with the intention of actually making some movement or of getting some visibility to the issue? Where does it stand this time?

That's a great question. No, I'm not in this just to put out a press release every two years. This is part of a bigger copyright re-write that's going on right now in the House Judiciary Committee. In the last Congress we had approximately 30 to 40 hearings on various aspects of the Copyright Act [with] music licensing being one of the most high-profile of those issues since it has since reach and it also has such dramatic implications when you're dealing with the digital age, when you're dealing with songwriters and performers and every one in between.

If we move the bigger copyright piece, or if we move the smaller copyright pieces, we want to make sure this is included when we get to the music licensing part.

When you say 'bigger' or 'smaller' pieces of copyright, are you talking about the Songwriters Equity Act being part of either a big overhaul of the Copyright Act or a smaller overhaul of just part of just music copyright?

Well, I think that's going to be up to [House Judiciary] Chairman [Bob] Goodlatte. He's been very supportive of us in moving forward with these issues. Frankly, we believe the bill could move on its own if that was a need at some point. But we realize it can be part of a bigger package in which we're dealing with other copyright issues. Whatever happens in this music licensing space, we're going to have a big hand in it.

One of the big themes you hear from the songwriting community, that you've heard from the Copyright Office in its report, is that songwriters need to be paid something closer to a fair market value. Do you agree with that? Do you think the government should not tell songwriters what they should make?

I'm in a very conservative district in Georgia and I'm a Republican. It goes by very conservative ideals here, that there is a fair market value [and] and fair-market approach. Some of this is archaic language that goes back to player pianos in 1906. That's where some of the rate-setting mechanisms actually came from. We think there's a better way to do this. We don't say, 'Pay them more, pay them less.' We're saying, 'Let them have the ability to use their intellectual property, which is what a song is, to be able to negotiate that on a fair market.' When we see that, we see fairness and equity in how not only the song is used but also the payment. We're saying it's best the government get out of this arena right now.

There are always other, more important issues going on in the country that Congress has to deal with. Can it deal with all those other things and deal with copyright as well?

I think the question that relates to is, 'Can Congress handle more than one issue at a time?' I think the answer is yes. We prove that over and over. At the same point and time, I think this is an issue that when you talk about importance, it may not have the same attention-grabbing headlines of ISIS or immigration, but when you look at the economic impact of copyright, protections and patents, we're into the billions of dollars. Entertainment exports is one of our largest exports around the world. This is a huge financial issues and economic engine issue that is going to be worked on. There are going to be a lot of hearings. The Chairman has said he is going to take this at full committee, not through subcommittee, that they're going to continue this work. So we're encouraged to move forward and see what will happen.

In some cases, for songwriters to be paid more that might mean record labels get paid less. Is Congress taking a side there, or are they going to leave it up to the marketplace?

We're leaving it to the marketplace. But remember, labels represent artists who are also songwriters.

Why are you getting behind the Songwriters Equity Act? Is it ideals? Are you a musical person?

Coming from my part of the world, we're not Nashville, we're not L.A., we're not New York, and frankly we're a little bit north of Atlanta, but there's a songwriting community. It's a philosophical issue. This is a fairness issue. When you have songwriters who are good at their craft, when they are able to write songs that are taken by artists and become number one songs and played thousands upon thousands and millions of times, and at the end of the day they get $40 off of streaming cuts, and they're not able to negotiate for what their value is worth, I think it's a fairness issue. It's not one of those things where we say as an industry they've got to make more or make less. Government is forcing you to not be in a position to get fair market for your value.