In a blow to songwriters, the Department of Justice has decided not to update a 1941 law that governs how rights to music are licensed.
Songwriters say the DOJ’s refusal to change the outdated law for the digital music reality — downloads and streaming services — prevent them from making money on their craft, which inhibits their ability to continue doing it. The ruling keeps in place decades-old consent decrees, which were created as a part of industry anti-trust enforcement long before cassette tapes even existed, let alone Spotify.
The consent decrees govern how songwriters can be paid when their work is played publicly, like in retail stores, at events, on television and the radio. Songwriters are represented by a performing rights organization, which is responsible for collecting the royalties on artists’ behalf.
One of the largest such organizations, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishes, vehemently opposes the DOJ ruling. The organization was lobbying along with Broadcast Music Inc. for the department to modernize the law.
Not only did that not happen, the government is putting in place a “100 percent consent” law, which complicates licensing for songs that were written by more than one person belonging to a different performing rights organization. Before, if a song were written by multiple people in different organizations, each one had to license a song for use. Under the new proposal, only one of the organizations could license the song without consent of the other artists.
“As an organization of music creators, we believe in a level playing field for all songwriters and composers, whether they are members of ASCAP or not,” said ASCAP president Paul Williams in a statement. “The DOJ decision requiring 100 percent licensing will create challenges for all music creators, whether they are represented by ASCAP, BMI, or one of the smaller performing rights organizations.”
The Antitrust Division of the DOJ opened an investigation into changing the consent law in 2014, but said that after speaking to “dozens of industry stakeholders” it determined “no modifications are warranted at this time.”