Angry musicians are pushing back on royalties – Will inventors follow?

Song writers may have something to teach inventors when it comes to getting a fair share for their intellectual property rights, or not.  

Confusion faced by writers and performers in the recording industry over “legal” downloading of copyrighted work by aggregators like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube have forced a range of musicians to question the logic of an overly complex and chronically opaque royalty payment system.

With most music streaming services using copyrighted content for free, or almost free, confusion has given way to anger and frustration.

Who Said Fair? 

The primary issue right now for many copyright holders is not a matter of the legitimacy of their rights, but how much is fair payment for frequent use? In at least one important way, song writers are way ahead of inventors, who hold more encompassing, but frequently uncertain, patent rights. For them, the first hurdle is whether their invention is innovative in the eyes of the changing law — a challenge, even under the best of circumstances. Then, it needs to be determined if the invention is indeed being used (infringed) and by whom, and how much they should be compensated. (Did you think innovation could be so much fun?)

There are reasons why patent licensing has become synonymous with costly litigation. With high-tech inventions today, virtually no one takes a license unless they are forced to. Why should they? Exactly who are the bad actors is not always clear.

Inventors and patent holders can learn from the tension between recording artists and their intermediaries (publishers and record labels), and distributors (e.g. Spotify). To be fair, most of these streaming services are not very profitable. Still, they are building bold business model and creating value on the backs of musicians and publishers. Both song writers and inventors (or those assigned to hold their patents) do not have much negotiating leverage when it comes to 02byrne-master675collecting a fair share of royalties. For patent holders attempting to out-license for revenue, it is frequently sue or get nothing at all – and that’s no bargaining position.

Historically, there has been little transparency regarding the deals made to use copyrighted songs, and today it is no different. There are few standards and the information provided about deals is asymmetric. Basically, the pricing is what ever the distribution channel (and the labels) can get away with, and they both no longer see a much of need for publishers, who they would prefer to cut out. Headliners have more leverage and can benefit from free exposure (more concerts, merchandise licensing) in ways that less well-known artists cannot.

The Business, as Usual

A recent New York Times article, “Music Artists Take on the Business, Calling for Change,” acknowledged that more musicians are fed up about their participation in benefits of the new distribution technologies and have begun to demand a better accounting. It helped when Taylor Swift refused to take no royalties during a three-month trial period on Apple Radio’s. (Would Apple allow customers to use a new iPhone for free until they deemed it worth purchasing? Oh, you say, doesn’t Apple have an R&D investment and the copyright holders are just pulling tunes out of the air?)

Ms. Swift was probably thinking more about her own interests, but they affected the entire industry, and Apple got the message.

“‘The support that we’re seeing, in terms of the range and number of artists, whether it’s from somebody who’s a working-class musician to somebody who’s very successful, it’s unprecedented,’ said Ted Kalo, the executive director of MusicFirst, a lobbying coalition that includes record labels and musicians’ groups and that helped organize the social media campaign.

“The economics behind downloads is relatively simple: Typically about 70 percent of a song’s retail price goes to a record company, which then pays its musicians according to its contracts. But with streaming, the system is complex and often opaque, as became apparent in May, when an outdated licensing contract between Sony and Spotify was leaked online, showing the elaborate formulas used in computing streaming rates.

“Public relations missteps in the early 2000s kept many musicians from speaking out about economic issues, artists and executives said. Those include the music industry’s lawsuits against thousands of fans for online file-sharing, and the pillorying that the band Metallica received after it sued Napster for copyright infringement. But the shift toward streaming in recent years has prompted many musicians to investigate the changes in the business…”

A Bottle of Wine

“New businesses are being built on this cheap almost free use of copyrights,” said Steve Loeb, a producer of more a dozen albums for Riot, a heavy metal band. “It’s sad but has always been this way. Now we’re all Black blues artists, if you catch the drift. They used to pay those guys with a bottle of wine – now they pay all of us that way.”

“Most artists don’t have the intellect to understand what is going on affects their future and music quality,” continues Loeb, who closed his successful Greene St. Recording in 2001. “Inventors don’t appear to be much smarter when it comes to how their work is used. Royalty payments are a complex process that’s become even more complicated with new technology, and few are willing spend the time to understand it.”

Pandora’s market value is about $3 billion; Spotify’s is over $8 billion. Bank of America analyst Justin Post believes that YouTube’s value on its own is about $70 billion. 

Black Box 

In a Times op-ed, “Open the Music Industry’s Black Box,” David Bryne, a musician and author, said

“Everyone should be celebrating — but many of us who create, perform and record music are not. Tales of popular artists (as popular as
02artists-web4-articleLargePharrell Williams) who received paltry royalty checks for songs that streamed thousands or even millions of times (like “Happy”) on Pandora or Spotify are common. Obviously, the situation for less-well-known artists is much more dire. For them, making a living in this new musical landscape seems impossible… Perhaps the biggest problem artists face today is that lack of transparency.

“Some of these ideas regarding openness are radical — ‘disruptive’ is the word Silicon Valley might use — but that’s what’s needed. It’s not just about the labels either. By opening the Black Box, the whole music industry, all of it, can flourish. There is a rising tide of dissatisfaction, but we can work together to make fundamental changes that will be good for all.”

More Transparency

Patent holders are frustrated with the uncertainly of issued patents, whose validity must be proven repeatedly before review boards, in the courts and in appeals.

Will they respond as an increasing number of musical artists have and demand more certainty and transparency?

It’s important to remember that what makes patent licensing easier for some, makes it more expensive for others. That’s why those well-situated on the corner of technology and brand are compelled to determine what is truly innovative and its value before others do.

Patent holders: Both of the provocative articles above are worth reading.

Image source: nyt.com

 

About Bruce Berman

IP trend spotter, consultant and author.

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