Rep. Collins Wonks Out On Intellectual Property Rights For Songwriters

It is easy for politicians to take positions on high profile issues that voters get passionate about. Most people have opinions on abortion, same-sex marriage, bathroom rules, etc. It is always refreshing to see representatives take a break from the culture wars and dive into the weeds on issues that many are unaware of. If there is one thing Washington could use more of, it’s policy wonks.

Kudos to Representative Doug Collins (R-09) for his interest in intellectual property rights for songwriters. It turns out that people who write music get just as angry as people who perform it when their lyrics are played on radio, TV, or digital streaming apps like Spotify and they do not receive a payoff. To ensure that they receive royalties when their works are used, songwriters join Performing Rights Organizations (PRO) that collect copyright licensing fees from music users (radio and TV stations, live venues, and digital apps). The licensing fees are then redistributed to the songwriters by the PRO.

In the 1940s, however, the Department of Justice began thinking that PROs promoted anticompetitive business practices. ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, controlled access to almost all music copyrights and served as the “gatekeeper” for the users. With its large market share, ASCAP could play favorites, picking and choosing which users would get access to copyrights. To counter this, the DOJ issued a consent decree to promote competition between ASCAP and rival BMI, Broadcast Music Inc. The consent decree prevented the PROs from offering different rates to users so that, for example, radio and TV users would pay the same copyright fees. This encouraged more music users to enter the marketplace and, ultimately, it increased the number of mediums through which music could be distributed. We probably wouldn’t have Spotify or Pandora without the consent decree.

Over time though, the consent decree has become outdated. The DOJ recently interpreted its “full licensing” clause to mean that songwriters who own a small part of a copyright have to offer a license for the entire work. So, if two songwriters who belong to different PROs want to collaborate on a work then both of their PROs will be able to collect royalties. This decreases the negotiating power of the PROs and, according to the Future of Music Coalition, it would increase administrative costs, discourage collaboration, and complicate dealings with international royalty societies. Despite their rivalry, ASCAP and BMI have teamed up to lobby against the ruling.

Collins, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, wants to fight against the full licensing interpretation and other perceived inequities in the music industry. He is already a sponsor of the Songwriter Equity Act. It requires the rate court to factor in a song’s free market value when setting royalties for Spotify and other digital services. Using the free market standard will increase the royalty fees for songwriters as it accounts for sync licensing, which factors in internet videos or radio commercials that incorporate songs with images and other audio recordings. Collins is still deciding on whether to attach the consent decree reform to the Songwriter Equity Act. ASCAP and BMI are currently working on a legislative fix for the consent decree, so he will probably wait until they unveil their proposal before acting.

Apart from his committee assignment, Collins has good reason to be interested in songwriters and the music industry in general. ASCAP and BMI both have offices in Atlanta and the industry generates $3.7 billion a year while employing 20,000 Georgians. The entertainment industry has also been supportive of his campaign, so perhaps his journey into the intellectual property rights weeds has been well worth it. Like Paul Ryan, a known budget-guru, Collins is proving that wonkiness in Washington is not out of style quite yet.

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