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How To Fix Music Modernization Act’s Broken Audit Clause

1The much maligned Music Modernization Act here comes under fire for its fatally flawed "audit" clause. Rather than simply cast stones however, this article form Chris Castle looks at potential solution for fixing the clause.

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Guest post by Chris Castle of Music Tech Policy

Доверяй, но проверяй

The famous old Russian proverb reminds us to trust but verify.  That’s been the story in the record business since the cylindrical disc.   All the “modernization” in the world will not soothe songwriter’s genetic suspicion of their accounting statements.

The collective to be established by the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) undertakes the obligation to handle other people’s money.  It quickly follows that those whose money the collective handles need to be able to verify their royalty payments from time to time.  This has been an absolutely standard part of every royalty-based agreement in the music business for a good 50 years if not longer.

But like every aspect of the MMA, one has to always remember that while all songwriters may be equal, some songwriters are more equal than others.  The MMA creates a two tier system–those who opt out of the compulsory blanket license by the mutual agreement of a rights owner and a digital service in the form of a voluntary agreement and those who do not.  Those who do not have this opt-out right appear to receive payment directly from the collective instead of directly from the service–adding another set of hands and transaction costs.  (It must be said that this group receiving payment under the compulsory blanket license will presumably also include those who currently have a voluntary license with digital services that is not renewed it in future.)

The collective undertakes the responsibility of accounting should anticipate concerns of songwriters regarding verifying the accuracy of the statements and payments it renders.  However, the MMA provides no supervisory oversight and in my view has a rather punitive black box clause that allows “unmatched” royalties to be paid on a market share basis to publishers, and then on to their lucky songwriters pro rata.  This suggests that everyone who is in that lucky songwriter’s chain, like managers, business managers and lawyers working on a percentage basis may also get a share of these black box distributions in compensation.

So on the face of it, the MMA creates a relatively large category of people who have an economic interest in the black box.  You can be cynical and think that they have an interest in the black box being as large as possible (meaning the accounting controls are as weak as possible), or you can agree with five-time Grammy winner Maria Schneider that if the “lucky” songwriters actually knew that they were being paid with money that belonged to the “unlucky” songwriters, they would be angry about that unfairness.  Emphasis on the “actually knew”.

2Or you could say, let’s not go either direction–let’s set up transparency and controls so that the incentives are properly aligned to create the smallest black box possible.  No publisher needs the writer-relations headache of suspicious minds, and the collective should do what it can to be above reproach.  Here are a couple solutions to increase the trust level:  Add oversight of the collective by the Office of the Inspector General (as a quasi-governmental organand at least  designated by the Copyright Office and operating under the control of the Copyright Office, and also tighten up the audit clauses in the MMA to treat songwriters auditing the collective the same as the collective is treated by the digital services.

The Inspector General

One way to make sure that the collective–a quasi governmental organization in my view–is run honestly is to make it subject to oversight review by one of the U.S. Government’s many Inspectors General.  Rick Carnes of the Songwriters Guild of America suggested this to Rep. Doug Collins at the University of Georgia Artist Rights Symposium in a question from the floor.

For example, the Library of Congress (currently where the Copyright Office is housed) has an Inspector General.  Since the Copyright Office has a lot to do with the creation and periodic review of the collective, they could save themselves a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests from angry songwriters by having an Inspector General  review the collective annually (or better yet, in real time).

My understanding is that giving an IG jurisdiction over the collective will require some enabling legislation, but I think it’s something well worth looking into.  It would give the songwriters of the world a true-blue fiduciary to represent their interests as well as comfort that they had a line of appeal with some teeth short of expensive litigation.

Audits

The Inspector General is not in the current draft of the MMA, but audits are–both audits of the collective by songwriters and audits by the collective of digital music services.  We’ll focus on audits of the collective in this post.  It should be said that under the current compulsory license now in effect (i.e., pre-MMA), songwriters get no audit right, so the fact that there is an audit right at all is an incremental improvement.

Unfortunately, the MMA’s audit right still keeps songwriters away from auditing the right party–the digital services–and keeps that upstream data away from them.  Plus, all audits under MMA appear to be subject to confidential treatment.  I don’t think there’s a good reason to keep these secret.  If a smart auditor finds a flaw in the collective’s accounting systems, that flaw should be disclosed and there should be an automatic true up of everyone affected.

But first, let’s realize what an “audit” actually is.  It is a term of art in the music business and really means a “royalty compliance examination” which is solely focused on making sure that statements and payments rendered conform to the contract concerned, or in this case, the statutory requirements of the compulsory blanket license.

(It also must be said that as Maria notes, the MMA specifically exempts the collective from any responsibility for incompetent royalty accounting other than “gross negligence”, which usually means blatant indifference to a legal duty or something along those lines–assuming the collective’s board or employees actually have a legal duty to account correctly which it may not.)

The person conducting a royalty audit is typically not a certified public accountant as there is nothing about conducting this examination that requires a knowledge of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”), financial accounting, or Sarbannes Oxley compliance.  It is, in fact, quite rare for a royalty audit to be conducted by a CPA, and I’ve even had lawyers conduct an audit because the analysis involved is mostly that of contractual, or statutory, interpretation.  Analysis of music industry-specific contracts is typically not part of the training of CPAs.  So even if an auditor is a CPA, the skills needed to conduct the audit are typically learned through on the job training.

What is very common, however, is for someone on the receiving end of the audit to try to require the auditor be a CPA, arguably to increase the cost of the audit on the person owed money.  CPAs often bill at higher rates than do royalty auditors, which creates a disincentive for audits.  What is also common is for lawyers to think that every time they draft a clause about anyone conducting anything having to do with accounting, that they need to limit the person doing that examination to a CPA, because…well, because…  This is what I call stupid lawyer tricks, and the CPA requirement is something that is routinely negotiated away in record deals and publishing deals if you have an ounce of leverage.

Here’s the preamble of the MMA’s audit clause for audits of the collective:’

A copyright owner entitled to receive payments of royalties for covered activities from the mechanical licensing collective may, individually or with other copyright owners, conduct an audit of the mechanical licensing collective to verify the accuracy of royalty payments and distributions by the mechanical licensing collective to such copyright owner

Remember–copyright owners under the compulsory are not allowed to audit the service, although the collective may audit the service.  (And, of course, voluntary agreements are governed by their terms regarding audits and are not subject to the compulsory.)

Limiting the audit right to “copyright owners entitled to receive payments” means that if songwriters have an administration or co-publishing agreement, they will probably not be able to conduct an audit of the collective (even if their administrator or co-publisher is a board member of the collective).  Because the audit is limited to “verifying the accuracy” of prior payments, the audit of the collective will not be able to look “upstream” to the service making the payment and may not be able to look at payments made to the collective, just the payments by the collective.

The audit shall be conducted by a qualified auditor, who shall perform the audit during the ordinary course of business by examining the books, records and systems of the mechanical licensing collective, as well as underlying data, according to generally accepted auditing standards and subject to applicable confidentiality requirements prescribed by the Register of Copyrights…

Sounds good, right?  A “qualified auditor” is a defined term, however:

QUALIFIED AUDITOR.—The term ‘qualified auditor’ means an independent, certified public accountant with experience performing music royalty audits.

Again, I don’t think that the auditor needs to be both a CPA and have experience.  Experience is enough.  For example, if the auditor has performed audits for members of the collective’s board of directors, perhaps that would be enough.

The qualified auditor shall determine the accuracy of royalty payments, including whether an underpayment or overpayment of royalties was made by the mechanical licensing collective to the auditing copyright owner(s); provided, however, that before providing a final audit report to such copyright owner(s), the qualified auditor shall provide a tentative draft of the report to the mechanical licensing collective and allow the mechanical licensing collective a reasonable opportunity to respond to the findings, including by clarifying issues and correcting factual errors.

This clause is a problem.  First, the auditor is hired–and has a professional duty–to find underpayments of royalties.  That’s what they look for.  The auditor does not have a duty to do the collective’s work for it and find overpayments.  The auditor is not hired to find overpayments, they are hired to find underpayments.

The collective should hire its own accountants to review its royalty statements, and it surely will do so if it gets an audit notice.  Otherwise the US Government is placing a heavy burden on the auditor and the copyright owners to look for overpayments as though the auditor played the role of a public financial accounting firm looking for accuracy on behalf of stockholders.

Plus, the requirement to force that auditor to give the collective the audit report before giving it to the people who hired that auditor is a bit much.  Fair enough to meet and confer at the work paper stage to make sure there weren’t inaccuracies in the analysis, but that should not place any prohibition on whether the auditor’s own client can see the report first.

If this is really the role that the Government wants the auditor to play, then by all means let’s make any miscalculations by the collective available to the public and publish them in the Federal Register.  Let’s not have the auditor’s findings subject to any confidential treatment.  If that brings down a host of other audits or a need to restate millions of royalty payments, then so be it.  Because we are not just looking for underpayments we are searching for the truth, right?

I don’t think so.  And the next part of the audit clause shows why:

The auditing copyright owner(s) shall bear the cost of the audit. In case of an underpayment to the copyright owner(s), the mechanical licensing collective shall pay the amounts of any such underpayment to the auditing copyright owner(s), as appropriate. In case of an overpayment by the mechanical licensing collective, the mechanical licensing collective may debit the accounts of the auditing copyright owner(s) for such overpaid amounts, or such owner(s) shall refund overpaid amounts to the mechanical licensing collective, as appropriate.

Like so many other parts of the MMA, this is essentially an “ad terrorem” clause, or a right coupled with a penalty if it is exercised.  What I think this means is that regardless of how much the underpayment might be–including both a material and nonmaterial amount–the songwriter bears 100% of the cost of the audit.  The songwriter’s auditor has to look for overpayments (and bill their client for that extra review), and if the auditor finds any, the auditor has to report the overpayment.  The songwriter then not only has to repay that amount (whatever “as appropriate” means), but also pay for the expense of finding it.

Compare this to the rights of the collective when auditing a digital music service:

The mechanical licensing collective shall pay the cost of the audit, unless the qualified auditor determines that there was an underpayment by the digital music provider of 10 percent or more, in which case the digital music provider shall bear the reasonable costs of the audit, in addition to paying the amount of any underpayment to the mechanical licensing collective. In case of an overpayment by the digital music provider, the mechanical licensing collective shall provide a credit to the digital music provider.

So what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.  When the collective is auditing upstream, the collective gets the benefit of that standard underpayment penalty.  That means that the service has to pay for the cost of the audit if the underpayment exceeds a fixed percentage, in this case 10%.  If there is an overpayment, the collective never has to repay the overpayment, just credit the account with an offsetting amount.

There should be no obligation on the part of the songwriter to have to find overpayments and if an overpayment is found in the normal course, it should simply be credited (which is the effect of the collective’s audit clause on songwriters downstream).

Songwriters should get the same underpayment protection on audit costs that the collective enjoys.

Appointing an Inspector General and cleaning up the audit clause would certainly make the MMA more fair for songwriters than it currently is.

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