Don Henley, Sheryl Crow, Sting and a slew of other musicians are throwing their support behind a new federal copyright rule aimed at making sure that songwriters who regain control of their music actually start getting paid their streaming royalties after they do so.
As first reported by Billboard in October, the U.S. Copyright Office wants to overturn a policy adopted by the Mechanical Licensing Collective (which collects streaming royalties) that critics fear might lead to a bizarre outcome: Even after a writer uses their so-called termination right to take back control of their songs, royalties may continue to flow in perpetuity to the old publishers that no longer own them.
In a letter Thursday organized by the Music Artists Coalition, more than 350 artists, songwriters, managers and music lawyers urged the Copyright Office to grant final approval for the proposed rule, warning that “music creators must not be deprived of the rights afforded to them by copyright law.”
“We stand together in support of USCO’s rule and believe that anything contrary would undermine the clear Congressional intent to allow songwriters, after an extended period of time, to reap the benefit of the songs they create,” the signatories wrote to the Copyright Office.
“It is simple, a songwriter who validly terminates a prior grant is the correct recipient of royalties,” the group wrote. “A publisher whose grant was terminated – and has received the benefit of the songwriter’s work for decades – is not the proper or intended recipient of these royalties.”
To fully understand the legal complexities of the Copyright Office’s proposed rule and what it might mean for songwriters, read this explainer.
Thursday’s letter, also signed by Bob Seger, Maren Morris, John Mayer, Dave Matthews, members of the Black Keys and others, came on the final day of the so-called “comment period,” in which outside groups could submit their opinion on the Copyright Office’s proposed rule.
The letter was the product of a call for signatures by the Irving Azoff-led Music Artists Coalition, which, along with other groups like Songwriters of North America, the Black Music Action Coalition and the Nashville Songwriters Association International, helped raise the alarm about the issue and spurred the Copyright Office to take action last year.
“Too often, music artists are quietly stripped of their rights,” Azoff said in a statement to Billboard announcing the letter. “But, today, the industry stood up to say ‘Not on our watch!’ We applaud the Copyright Office for its proposed rule. This rule should pass unamended and without delay.”
The Copyright Office introduced its new rule in October, saying the MLC’s policy had been based on an “erroneous” understanding of the law that created ambiguity about who should be receiving streaming royalties after a songwriter invokes their termination right and regains ownership of their music. Ordering MLC to “immediately repeal its policy in full,” the new proposal would make clear that when a songwriter takes back their music, they should obviously start getting the royalties, too.
In a message to members ahead of Thursday’s letter, MAC offered a plain-English explainer of the complex legal mechanics at play in the situation. The group urged its members to help end what it believed amounted to a loophole in the system created by 2018’s Music Modernization Act, warning that it could defeat the very purpose of both the new law and termination.
In an interview with Billboard, Susan Genco, co-president of The Azoff Company and a leader at MAC, said the group’s call to action – and the letter that came from it — was an example of how songwriters have become better mobilized after years of being “kept in the dark” on complicated policy matters that could have adverse effects.
“This is a big part of our role, to figure out which issues impact music creators the most, prioritize them, and then explain them to the community,” Genco said.
“We tried to paint a very clear picture for them,” added Jordan Bromley, a prominent music attorney and another key member of MAC, in the same interview. “Oh you think you’re getting your streaming mechanicals back through termination? Think again.”
In addition to advocating for the new rule, Thursday’s letter also came with something of a warning. The final sentence, separated into its own paragraph, read: “Any view opposing the USCO’s rule is a vote against songwriters.”
While not outright oppositional, the Copyright Office has received pushback on the proposed changes from the National Music Publishers’ Association. In a Dec. 1 submission, the group said it supported the overall goal of the new rule, but warned that the agency’s proposed approach “may have far-reaching and unintended consequences” and would likely lead to litigation in other spheres. Among other issues, the group said the rule must not apply retroactively.
“The breadth of the USCO’s legal reasoning in the [proposed rule] seems likely to increase legal uncertainty and questions,” the NMPA wrote. “This uncertainty will almost definitely raise the likelihood of litigation … including litigation concerning past payments made in accordance with what was then industry custom and practice.”
The NMPA instead advocated for “a consensus-based legislative solution” that would be passed by Congress, which it said could be narrower and more “carefully crafted” to avoid the problems the group has with the Copyright Office’s legal analysis.
In a statement to Billboard, NMPA president David Israelite stressed the industry group was aligned with songwriters on the ultimate policy goal.
“We strongly support songwriters receiving all mechanical royalties after a termination and have been working towards crafting legislation to ensure that outcome for years alongside the major songwriter groups,” Israelite said. “While not a concrete legislative remedy, our comments reflect our support for the Copyright Office’s proposed rule and offer ways to make that rule even more robust and less susceptible to legal challenges.”
The text of the Copyright Office’s proposed rule is available in its entirety on the agency’s website. The public comment period ended on Thursday, but all submitted comments will be made public on a public docket. The agency will review all comments and issue a final rule in the months ahead.
Read the entire letter sent to the Copyright Office on Thursday here: