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Artist Advice: The Music Modernization Act Explained

The Music Modernization Act has been years in the making and looks to bring copyright law into the digital age.
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US Congress Capitol

If you live in the United States or have your music played in the United States, you probably have dealt with the byzantine and outdated U.S. copyright and publishing apparatus that pays artists royalties for when their songs are paid in various mediums from radio to TV to the internet. Figuring out how and when you will be paid can be complicated if you aren’t clued in, even for lawyers. The Music Modernization Act, which was passed on October 11, 2018, looks to update many of these rules for the internet age, creating better ways for artists to get paid, simplifies things along the way, closes some crucial loopholes and provides copyright protection for key players. So what does the Music Modernization Act do and how will it impact you as an artist, producer, songwriter or engineer? It will depend on your career, but we will go into how the bill updates current music law and helps out music makers across the board.

One of the large components of the law is the updating section 115 of the U.S. Copyright Act and the creation of a new central U.S. mechanical licensing collective (MLC), which would be funded by digital services. It ends the bulk notice of intent process for songwriters, which would require paper notices to be sent in the mail for mechanical royalties. This has been a sticking point for large lawsuits against major streaming services and also a problem with copyright agencies that can’t keep up with the massive piles of paper involved with these NOIs.

The MLC gives out blanket licenses to streaming services to license a song and the MLC will go out and find the correct songwriters and pay them. Before, companies would have to go out and license from each songwriter, which could be very difficult to try and find them if they weren’t prolific, retired or even dead and never left a clear line of succession for the rights to that song. This will help eliminate some paperwork needed to clear music and potentially allow more competitors for the major streaming players to come to market since this process was quite time consuming and opened up players to big lawsuits. A board of publishers and songwriters will run the MLC. This will make it easier for songwriters to get paid and the proper amount.

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A public database has been created that would identify songs that have not been matched to songwriters or publishers and allow them to be claimed. MMA also tweaks the way rates are set by the copyright board to consider free market conditions. When settling rate disputes, there wouldn’t just be one judge from the Southern District of New York that would adjudicate all cases, as in the past, but rather a group of judges who rotate to take turns looking at rate disputes.

A massive portion of the law that may not impact some of our readers, but will be important to a lot of artists is the Classics Act portion of the bill. FINALLY, artists and songwriters will receive royalties on songs recorded pre-1972 as protected by federal law, instead of dealing with state copyright law. This will also extend federal protection for pre-1972 recordings for another 95 years. For pre-1923 recordings, this “transition period” is three years; recordings published between 1923 and 1946 get five additional years; and recordings from 1947–1956 get 15 additional years according to the Congressional Research Office.

Another big deal from this portion of the CLASSICS portion of the law is how royalties get paid to artists pre-1972. Royalties normally get sent to the label and then according to whatever contract was signed with the artist, some amount of money may get to the artist. MMA changes that to shift 50% of royalties to the label and then 50% to SoundExchange, who then pay it to the artist. This is huge for legacy artists, notably artists of color, who may have been exploited with contracts that did not pay them fairly or gave them a fair cut of publishing and royalties.

As part of the third section, the AMP Act, for the first time in music copyright law, producers and engineers get legal protection. With SoundExchange, artists could send in a written notice and say they wanted their producer to get a percentage of the royalties. This had been standard practice for some time, but now the AMP Act makes these notices legally binding and provides money for producers and engineers to get paid as part of the whole royalty ecosystem.

There is still a long way to go with the law and the copyright system is still incredibly complicated. However, the MMA helps bring it to the modern age and should help songwriters get paid easier. 

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