Stop shortchanging songwriters

Two-thirds of the income for songwriters is regulated by outdated laws and antiquated government oversight.  The result is undervalued royalty rates and devalued intellectual property rights and fewer songwriters.   Many songwriters simply stop writing and others never start.  

Outrage among songwriters is growing as witnessed by recent Congressional testimony from three-time Grammy winning composer, bandleader and conductor Maria Schneider and advocacy efforts by Steven Tyler, Dr. Dre, deadmau5 and more opposing a compulsory license for remixes, mash-ups and derivatives.  In fact, we're recognizing Mr. Tyler for his work at our Celebration of an American Songwriter tonight. As Congress reviews copyright, segments of the law must be updated so songwriters can earn a fair return on their innovation and hard work.  The “Songwriter Equity Act”, (SEA) recently introduced by Representative Doug Collins, begins an important discussion of changes to two provisions of the current law that unfairly penalize songwriters.   

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When you download a song from iTunes or stream music interactively through services such as Spotify, a songwriter’s royalty – unlike royalties for a recording artist – is dictated by the Copyright Act.  A compulsory license system for “mechanical reproduction” that dates back to 1909 effectively prevents songwriters and music publishers from negotiating for the use of their songs in a free marketplace.  Another provision further disadvantages songwriters by directing the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) to apply a below-market standard when it sets rates for mechanical reproductions.  As a result, the two-cent royalty paid when a song was reproduced in 1909 has increased to only 9.1 cents today.  To put things in perspective, the dozen eggs that you buy for almost $3 at the grocery store today would have cost 14 cents in 1909, demonstrating that standard rates of inflation seem to somehow not apply to songwriters.  The SEA stops short of deregulating the market for mechanical reproductions. However, it takes an important step directing the CRB to use a “willing-buyer/willing-seller” rate standard to more fairly approximate what a song is worth in the free market.

Additionally, when music is performed publicly through things like radio and webcasting, the fee songwriters receive is determined by a federal court, not negotiated in a free market.  In fact, the rate court is prohibited by law from even considering evidence that would help it establish accurate market rates.  The SEA lifts this ban and allows ASCAP and BMI – performance rights organizations that license and collect performance royalties on behalf of songwriters – to provide relevant evidence the court can consider.

As our global digital marketplace rapidly evolves growing pains are inevitable. The music industry – songwriters, recording artists, record labels and others – is doing its part to adapt by empowering new business models and finding ways to streamline, but much of the copyright framework is outdated.  A copyright update should build upon a foundation of intellectual property rights that enable a vibrant, legal music marketplace.  Not just for songwriters, but for all creators.

Without updates to the law songwriting as a profession will give to way songwriting as a hobby and an important American treasure will be in jeopardy. Unlike recording artists, songwriters can’t supplement their income through touring, merchandise sales, or endorsements. The Founding Fathers demanded that Congress constitutionally promote “progress.”  Shortchanging songwriters is not progress – it is exactly the opposite.

Israelite is president and CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA). Founded in 1917, the NMPA is the trade association representing American music publishers and their songwriting partners. The NMPA's mandate is to protect and advance the interests of music publishers and songwriters in matters relating to the domestic and global protection of music copyrights.