Surprise! If You Don’t Register With the US Government’s Song Database, You Lose Your Copyright

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Fun fact: if you don’t properly register for Congress’ proposed universal song database, you’ll lose the rights to your entire life’s work.

Looks like Congress’ proposed ‘Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act’ forgot to include the ‘Transparency’ part.  In fact, there’s an insane poison pill that essentially strips copyright owners of their licenses if they don’t participate.

It’s all in the fine print.  But any copyright owner that fails to register with this database automatically forfeits their entire legal right to defend their copyright.  Which means, their entire copyright becomes effectively useless.

You might as well dump it into the public domain — while everyone else makes money off of it.

So what’s the ‘Transparency in Music Licensing Act’?

Unfortunately, few artists and songwriters have heard of this proposed law.  Which means, they’re highly unlikely to register if it gets passed.  But the ‘Transparency in Music Licensing Act’ is Congress’ attempt to ‘fix the music industry’ by creating a universal, one-stop licensing database that everyone can use.

Currently, the bill is known as HR 3350, sponsored by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Suzan DelBene (D-WA).

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Also backing the bill is the MIC Coalition, which is basically at war with other organizations like the Content Creators Coalition (C3).  Separately, Sensenbrenner has attacked both ASCAP and BMI, both of whom are backing their own universal rights database project.

None of which sounds like a promising start to a large-scale, massive effort that requires participation from all industry stakeholders.  And definitely not what we should be paying taxes for.

So here’s what the Content Creators Coalition (C3) just highlighted in a letter to Sensenbrenner and other bill backers.

“HR 3350 does not further efforts to reach consensus – instead, it represents a one-sided approach that would fail to simplify music licensing,” the group stated.

“We are deeply concerned about the bill’s onerous registration system and financial penalty (forfeiture of statutory damages and attorneys’ fees) for songwriters or publishers who fail to register their works in a new database, created and run by the government.”

Technically, you still get to keep your copyrights if you don’t register.  But you can’t protect them.

And just like a patent, if you can’t protect it, you basically don’t own it.

So, just register.  Right?

As mentioned previously, it’s highly likely that only a fraction of copyright owners will even know that ‘Transparency’ exists.  But C3 took a closer look at the registration requirements, and found them absolutely inscrutable.

“The record keeping mandates in the bill are voluminous and incredibly vague,” C3 stated.  “Terms like ‘catalog number’ are undefined and could mean a number of things.  Other requirements are intricate, time consuming and in many cases, appear impossible to satisfy.

“How is an artist supposed to register every album on which one of her songs has been recorded, including recordings by other artists they may not even know about?  If these requirements are time consuming and uncertain for successful and well-known songwriters and publishers, they will be impossible for independent songwriters.”

So, millions of songs go off the grid.  All of which means that large, sophisticated services like Spotify and Apple will have little problem with this database.  But rights owners will.

But C3 pointed out another likely possibility.  Not only will bigger players benefit from royalty-free music, unscrupulous actors will use this flawed system to take advantage of unsophisticated rights owners.

That sounds highly likely.  In fact, an investigation by DMN several years ago found this exact problem occurring within SoundExchange’s database.  Which means someone else’s royalty checks were being sent to a sketchy PO Box somewhere, with potentially millions being stolen.

Meanwhile, SoundExchange can’t even get superstar artists to register.

That’s because most people are completely unaware that SoundExchange:

(a) exists

(b) has a database of songs played

(c) is capturing royalties from online radio and is holding millions in an ‘unmatched account’.

But wait: do you even know what SoundExchange is?  

So a US Government agency with little familiarization with US Copyright Law and the music industry will fare better?  The US Copyright Office doesn’t even have a leader!

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Meanwhile, SoundExchange’s chronic failure to identify and pay rights owners has drawn accusations of fraud.  But whether this is sheer incompetence or outright duplicity, the private marketplace is working around deadweight bureaucracies like SoundExchange.

Case in point: Pandora, which recently started structuring direct licensing deals with labels.  Which also might explain why SoundExchange’s artist royalties started plunging without any warning.

C’mon music industry.  I know we can do better than this.

There are so many smart, innovative, game-changing companies that are figuring this stuff out.  Just off the top of my head, I can think of half-a-dozen companies killing it in rights identification, metadata, royalty distribution, and copyright management.  Kobalt, Rebeat MES, STEM, Source3/Facebook, Audiam/SOCAN, Exactuals, Vydia, and the just-financed HAAWK.  Just for starters.

And I wonder why ASCAP and BMI are getting attacked for making the most progress on this issue in years.

The technology has never been better to solve this problem.  And the US Government has never been worse.

And this legislation proves it.

You can read C3’s complete letter here.

15 Responses

  1. David Rosen

    I can’t figure out Sound Exchange for the life of me. I sent in a big spreadsheet of all my albums… The only one that’s listed in my account is the newest one. I emailed support about this and they told me that it’s not the kind of service that you’re supposed to register all your music and if any of my other stuff is played in a way that could generate royalties it will show up… But then why is my newest album which certainly hasn’t been played anywhere showing up? It just makes no sense…

  2. Anonymous

    OK, your clickbait could in fact get worse:

    Now, we’re losing our rights because of a non-existing law?

    You’re clickbaiting your blog right out of existence.

  3. Esquire

    I expect better from DMN than this sort of drivel. In fact, you don’t get paid mechanical royalties NOW under existing law (115-c-1):

    (c) Royalty Payable Under Compulsory License.—
    (1) To be entitled to receive royalties under a compulsory license, the copyright owner must be identified in the registration or other public records of the Copyright Office. The owner is entitled to royalties for phonorecords made and distributed after being so identified, but is not entitled to recover for any phonorecords previously made and distributed.

    Likewise performance money: If you don’t register with ASCAP, BMI, SX, you don’t get paid. Or litigation: Try enforcing your copyright without registering it.

    Ari, you’re better than this. Not to mention: This isn’t the law, it’s merely one proposal.

  4. Paul Resnikoff

    Sounds like this law as proposed is the real drivel. Ask yourself: are the measures for stripping a copyright owner of the right to litigate and defend a copyright really thought through?

    Of course they’re not. Instead, this looks like a mechanism to reduce copyright royalties owed, divert royalties towards a few gigantic rights owners, and dramatically reduce cooperation with the industry itself (see Sensenbrenner’s lashing out at two of the largest organizations in the music industry, ASCAP and BMI).

    And yes, removing the ability to defend a copyright equates to removing that copyright entirely.

  5. A Lawyer

    I haven’t yet read the proposed law, but based on this article, I don’t see how it stops you enforcing your copyrights (let alone losing your copyrights). You just can’t receive statutory damages or attorneys fees. Not ideal, but that’s not saying that you can’t get damages or that you lost any rights.

    In fact, the CURRENT Copyright Act provides that you are only entitled to statutory damages if you register prior to the infringement. Is this much different?

    I would love to read more unbiased facts about this bill. Respectfully, please bring DMN back to a place of actual reporting, not just click-bait and inflammatory stories.

    • Entertainment Publicist

      Good rebuttal. I’d rather see the facts as well…not speculation.

      • Paul Resnikoff

        Interesting: ‘attorneys’ and a ‘publicist’ who won’t even identify themselves while slamming this piece. In my mind, that only reinforces the one-sided, special interest driven nature of this legislation.

        But okay, I have no problem debating some critics who hide behind anonymity. To start, this bill is so flawed and tech-backward, I’m not even sure where to begin.

        Let me ask: why is the onus and responsibility on every last songwriter to register in another database (many of whom are not even alive and do not have competent management)? After all, almost all of this data is out there, and if anyone can have access to the dozens of proprietary databases that have already been compiled, it would be the US Gov’t.

        In fact, two of the largest databases in the world are from ASCAP and BMI, who are now combining their efforts to start a unified DB. But wait: Sensenbrenner attacked that effort, even though a successful unified database desperately needs the participation of those two giant players.

        Your turn.

        • A Lawyer

          I’m not defending this legislation. It seems flawed for a number of reasons and certainly is not a comprehensive fix for our very broken copyright system in the US. But just because there are flaws with this legislation doesn’t mean an article should publish conclusions that are factually incorrect.

          Nothing in this legislation would cause you to “lose your copyright” or “forfeit their entire legal right to defend their copyright,” it only removes the possibility of certain recoveries if you don’t register. As mentioned in my previous post, the Copyright Act currently only allows for statutory damages if the work was registered prior to the infringement. This just doesn’t seem that different to me.

          • Paul Resnikoff

            OK, so, the plaintiff is automatically handicapped prior to entering any trial. Which means lowered possible rewards, and even lower chance of getting anything.

            C’mon. At that point it doesn’t matter what you ‘technically’ own. I think people are smarter than that. This is special interest garbage.

        • Esquire


          1. If you discredit or don’t want anonymous or pseudononymous comment, verify all posts. You’re the publisher here.

          2. It seems prudent to similarly verify claims of owning property, so the law requires the registration of vehicles, real property and significant property transactions. As an industry, we cannot both claim our property interests deserve respect but claim exemption from the need to record those property interests. Besides, it’s the law today: 115-C-1 says no one owes mechanicals for unregistered works, and the law denies statutory damages to unregistered works, and so on. This is par for the course for property generally and music in specific.

  6. Go Redskins Go!

    The sooner DotBlockchain, the better. I’m sure most are familiar with what Benji Rogers is doing, right? Copyright law has failed us for several years now. I honestly believe we’re smarter than them.

  7. Vail, CO

    Blockchain is a delusional joke. If the industry doesn’t want to use this ‘transparent’ platform, they won’t.

  8. Jeffery Haas

    Why leave out a piddling little detail like maybe a link to how to go about registering?

  9. Anonymous

    There are some things congress should leave alone. Things they don’t understand being at the top of the list. Obviously they are clueless about songs and copywriting songs. Or maybe they listened to influencers from big corporations who wanted to be able to take advantage. Either way we are left with a useless law that offers little to no protection to songwriters.