Is the US Copyright Office’s Black Box Initiative Doomed to Fail?

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A newly published statement from the Artist Rights Alliance (ARA) is drawing additional attention to the U.S. Copyright Office’s Unpaid Royalties Study – and prompting some music industry voices to ask whether the Office’s overarching “Black Box” royalty-recovery initiative is destined for failure.

The Artist Rights Alliance relayed its commentary on the U.S. Copyright Office’s Black Box recovery plan this morning, and the message was shared with Digital Music News via email. Before laying out the ARA’s stance on the matter in full (that is, with the entirety of the text that was forwarded to the Copyright Office in response to its June “Notice of Inquiry” on the Black Box royalty-recovery initiative), the roughly 1,200-word-long piece reiterates that the ARA “was instrumental in devising the idea of a Best Practices study for unclaimed royalties” as the Music Modernization Act (MMA) was negotiated in Congress ahead of its 2018 signing.

And from there, the piece explores the idea that the Copyright Office’s Unpaid Royalties Study stands to benefit from opinions and knowledge offered by experts and organizations outside the music community entirely – the analysis “must not be limited to music industry experiences and stakeholders.” This external information, including from those who coordinate class-action lawsuit settlement outreach efforts, U.S. Census organizers, and several others, “may all have relevant lessons,” per the ARA.

“At the core of our concern,” the commentary continues, “is the risk that the MLC’s [the Mechanical Licensing Collective’s] royalty matching processes and procedures will ultimately place too great a burden on individual songwriters and publishers.” In other words, it appears that the ARA’s opinion centers on the potential pitfalls associated with a disproportionate degree of music industry influence on the Black Box royalty-recovery initiative – and specifically, that this influence may prevent the underlying problems from being remedied.

“We urge the Copyright Office to conduct a broad, cross-industry, multidisciplinary, creative and open-ended study that actively seeks a path forward on unmatched royalties designed to vindicate songwriter rights and ensure they are paid everything they have earned,” the Artist Rights Alliance indicates at the document’s close.

At the time of this writing, U.S. Copyright officials hadn’t responded to the ARA’s comments – or their being publicly published. Last month, we reported that the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) is set to launch its user portal “later this quarter” – though the digital tool hasn’t yet rolled out, and its precise release date is unclear presently.