[This post is by FMC Policy Intern Joe Silver]
If you follow our work, then you probably know that we think there’s a lot to be done to make today’s music marketplace more efficient. The growth of the internet as a global musical delivery device has strained our copyright architecture, likely necessitating new ways of doing business. Which is why you often hear talk about the difficulties of music licensing in today’s networked environment.
But what is licensing, exactly? Well, to oversimplify, it’s the process through which music is acquired for lawful uses, from motion picture and TV “synchs” to newer services like Spotify and Rdio. Remember, there are two copyrights in any piece of music: the composition copyright (think notes on paper) and the sound copyright (think music captured on tape or hard drive). As you can imagine, it can be difficult to keep track of who owns what. Hence the idea of a global database (or databases) to help keep track of rights and permissions.
For years, FMC has been saying that rights databases would be a good idea. We’re hardly alone. One of the biggest proponents of the concept is digital music doyen Jim Griffin, Director of One House LLC and former head of Geffen Records’ technology department. Jim believes strongly a comprehensive, centralized database for locating rightsholders and facilitating licensing agreements is a necessary precondition for creating an efficient and transparent worldwide music marketplace. This type of global registry for music rights information, as Griffin has explained, is “a predicate for licensing progress.”
Currently, a number of related projects are brewing around the world, although most remain largely in the planning stages. One such endeavor is the International Music Registry (IMR), spearheaded by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an agency of the United Nations. As WIPO Director General Francis Gurry has explained, the IMR: “would need to be a global public asset, based on voluntary participation and available to all as a basis for operating or building business models for the management or exploitation of rights.”
Another project that has gained some traction is the Global Repertoire Database (GRD), established by the Global Repertoire Database Working Group at the request of the European Commission in 2009. Like the IMR, the GRD aims to provide a single, comprehensive and authoritative database consisting of the global ownership and control of musical works and rights ownership information, with the hopes of increasing the licensed uses of music while benefitting both artists and rights-holders. The GRD has received support from an impressive array of different music interest groups including EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing, iTunes, the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance (ECSA), the International Confederation of Societies of Composers and Authors (ICSCA), and Google.
While a global registry will not solve the multitude of music licensing challenges, it will likely eliminate some of the difficulty in trying to locate rightsholders, while establishing a basic architecture for monetizing creative expression on a global scale. This is important because even where a license is compulsory (such as a use of another’s copyrighted musical composition), in order for a rightsholder to get paid, the user needs to know who to pay and how to pay. Most importantly, more money flowing more efficiently should mean more money for creators.
Although an array of music biz experts, companies and public interest organizations are largely supportive of these efforts, implementation challenges remain. One such set of questions is which company, government or entity should incur the costs associated with building and maintaining such an archive, and what mechanisms will be employed to ensure that the information on file is current, accurate and comprehensive.
Another concern is the lack of copyright formalities (such as placing a copyright notice on one’s work or registering it with a copyright office). Contries like the U.S., which adhere to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, are prohibited from requiring formalities. As a result, the U.S. Copyright Office has fewer records on file than it would have had if registration remained a requirement for gaining copyright protection. Meaning, artists and rights holders — who will still not be required to register their works — will have to voluntarily submit their rights information to the databases of projects like the IMR or the GRD to make either of them comprehensive enough to serve as true public assets.
But it can be done. We already have registries in various walks of life, from state-by-state and largely mandatory vehicle registration requirements that help catch carjackers, to a country-wide and completely voluntary National Kidney Registry that allows for such innovative mechanisms as “kidney chains” or “paired exchange donations”— whereby living donors whose own kidneys are incompatible for friends or loved ones in need can “swap” kidneys in order to establish better matches. These registries already play an important role in civil society. Still, in the internet era, we have merely scratched the surface of the possible benefits of informational databases. We think it’s time to make it happen.
If you are interested in learning more about the music registry movement, be sure to check out the video from the “Data Without Borders” discussion that took place at our 2011 Future of Music Policy Summit.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
 While the U.S. removed copyright formalities in 1988 in order to adhere to Berne, it continued to incentivize registration of copyrights by only making statutory damages and attorneys fees available for registered works.