How a Conservative From Rural Georgia Became Capitol Hill's Top Songwriter Advocate

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Greg Kahn
“There are songs I hear that take me to certain times and places,” says Collins, photographed Dec. 1 at his office in Washington, D.C. “And if they’re so powerfully imprinted on your psyche, do they not have value?”

Rep. Doug Collins is looking to reinvent streaming royalties, calling it a '"fight for the soul of ownership."

On paper, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., makes an unlikely ally for the liberal-leaning music business: He's a pastor and a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve who represents what is said to be the most conservative congressional district east of the Mississippi. But he's also one of the most vocal champions of songwriters in Congress, where he has spent the last few years criticizing regulations on the music publishing business that he says prevent songwriters from getting paid market value for their work.

Before Christmas, Collins plans to introduce the Music Modernization Act, which will change the way on-demand streaming services like Spotify pay mechanical royalties. The bill alters the standard that the Copyright Royalty Board uses to set mechanical royalties for streaming, and mandates the creation of an organization to collect and distribute them. (Publishers would also be able to make direct deals with streaming services, as many currently do.) That organization, run by publishing reps and self-publishing songwriters, would create a database to make it easier to identify, find and pay rights holders. Unclaimed royalties would be held for three years, then distributed among publishers based on market share.

That means streaming services would no longer have to do this themselves, or face the legal liability for failing to do it correctly, although the bill would not fix their legal issues over past infringement. If the bill passes, it would reinvent mechanical royalties for the modern music industry, boosting the rates publishers collect while removing a thorny obstacle from streaming services.

"You want to bring songwriters into the free market," says Collins, 51, over breakfast at the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican gathering spot near the congressional office buildings. Collins, who worked as a lawyer, didn't have any formal background in copyright law before coming to Congress, but an appointment to the Judiciary Committee and a lifelong interest in music made him seek out executives and creators who shared their frustrations. As a conservative, he was unpleasantly surprised how much the publishing business is regulated. So, together with Democrats like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., he built a coalition of publishers, tech companies and other groups that historically haven't played well together.

"I'm from Gainesville, Ga., and there are no music and film companies there, so I can call a fact a fact on both sides," says Collins. "I'm looking forward to telling songwriters we helped fix the situation."

This is an ambitious bill that will fundamentally change the collection and payment of mechanical royalties, one of the main pillars of the music publishing business. How did it come together?

I've spent the last four years becoming knowledgeable about these issues. We started with The Songwriter Equity Act [which Collins first introduced in 2014], and then we'd move forward, take some steps back, and then move forward again. That's the way big things get done in this city. Some people think it's like a microwave that will solve things in a minute, and they get burnt out.

You've spoken a lot about the importance of bringing songwriters more into the free market. Will this bill be part of the larger copyright reform process overseen by House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte?

This will go forward as a standalone piece of legislation -- we want to go to markup in January. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is interested [in introducing a similar bill in the Senate]. Everyone didn't get everything they wanted, but I can only vote "yes," "no" and "present" -- I can't vote "perfect."

How did you first get interested in copyright? It's not a core issue for rural Georgia.

It's not one that would roll off the tongue of most of my constituents. But when I came to Congress [in 2013] I made a push to get on the Judiciary Committee, and Bob Goodlatte was making copyright a priority. And as I started hearing about some of the issues, especially from the perspective of songwriters, I realized that everything I've done to feed my family -- being a preacher, going to law school -- came from what's between my ears. Intellectual property has value. There are songs I hear that take me to certain places. And if that's so powerfully imprinted on your psyche, does it not have value? And what we say now is, just share it.

You represent one of the more conservative districts in the country, but your bill will help a lot of very liberal songwriters and executives.

Early on in this, I met and became friends with ASCAP President Paul Williams and if you lined up 10 issues aside from music, we'd probably disagree on all of them. But when I met Paul, I geeked out. Some of my staff think of him as the writer of "Rainbow Connection," but to me he's Little Enos in Smokey and the Bandit. That movie was shot in my district, in the mountains. And it's not just a movie -- it's a Southern documentary. I also work on these issues with [New York Democrat] Jerry Nadler, and [New York Democrat] Hakeem Jeffries and I work together on this and criminal justice reform.

Traditionally, Democrats have paid more attention to the media business. How did copyright become an important issue for Republicans?

From a philosophical standpoint, there's been a movement that says we don't value intellectual property the way we do physical property. The bent of academia has been toward free and open, but they're protected by tenure. There's a fight for the soul of ownership: Do I get to keep what I produce, whether I chisel it or I write it?

If you erode the rights of creators, well, erosion continues. I'm from the mountains of northeast Georgia and if you hear the water coming down the mountain it cuts through the clay and the gullys get deeper. And if we don't stop this erosion now, there's not going to be an incentive to create this stuff in the future. This business is way too big for a government subsidy, so it's going to come down to the free market -- which brings in conservative values.

Is the debate about copyright changing? A few years ago, music executives were talking about what they'd lose in the reform process. Now there's more optimism.

These companies went from being the disruptors to wanting to protect what they did. That's not the whole conversation, but it's an underlying current. A few years ago I was talking to the CEO of Pandora and I said something about how we need to protect whatever company becomes the next Pandora. And he said, well, we will be. But he had never thought much about that.

Is there a different attitude toward regulating the big tech companies?

It's changed in the sense that there's an understanding that these businesses have to acknowledge who they are as corporate citizens. In terms of regulation, the issue becomes, where do you draw that line in terms of free speech? When you look at foreign entities that run bots, that's different. But it's a slippery slope. It's difficult, but it's a discussion we have to have.

A lot of creators who agree with you on copyright would be disappointed to hear you've been so critical of Obamacare.

I would ask how it's working for them right now. A lot of those folks are paying more than they should and they have plans that they can afford on a month-to-month basis, but if something happened they couldn't afford the deductible.

If it weren't for streaming, which five albums would you want with you in Washington?

I had a guy who drove for me and whenever a song I loved came on the radio I'd say it was in my top 10; he used to say I had 100 songs in my top 10. But let's see: Meat LoafBat Out of Hell; the Eagles, Hotel California; U2The Joshua Tree; Garth Brooks, the one where he's wearing the blue shirt [Ropin' the Wind]; and Meet Danny Wilson. But I would need something by Steely Dan. And Dan Fogelberg -- I love Dan Fogelberg.

Any great concert memories?

AC/DC, twice. Oh my God. Any band that puts cannons onstage, that's worth seeing.

Copyright reform has been a priority for Goodlatte, who says he won't run again, so there's pressure to do more before next summer. What's next for you in that process?

Let me get this done and I'll get back to you.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23 issue of Billboard.