Beware Songwriters: The Music Modernization Act Sets the Stage for a Brutal Songwriter-Publisher Tug-Of-War

The Music Modernization Act is setting the stage for a brutal tug–war over tens millions dollars between individual songwriters and their publishers.

H.R. 4706, also known as the Music Modernization Act, provides many benefits and updates to the arcane royalty structure US Copyright Law.  However, there are some provisions concerning unclaimed and unmatched monies which, as currently drafted, could lead to a myriad problems for creators.

One potential pitfall stems from the bill directing the mechanical licensing collective — the entity designated to collect and distribute funds —  to distribute unmatched royalties on a market share basis to music publishers.  However, most songwriter publishing contracts (other than superstar artist/writer contracts) include a clause which excludes writer participation in monies collected by publishers.  That is, unless those monies are specifically identified as tied to titles created by such writer and administered by the publisher.

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This bill specifically directs publishers to distribute the unmatched royalties it receives pursuant to writer contracts.  But the actual result would be that the unmatched royalties would only be required to be distributed by a publisher to those superstar writers that do not have such an exclusion clause.

The bill does attempt to balance this discrepancy with a clause that requires publishers to distribute no less than 50% the unmatched royalties to songwriters.  Those would be allocated on a “use basis” during the time period in which the unmatched royalties were accrued.

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However, this sets up a scenario whereby a publisher or administrator with a 90-10 deal in favor the songwriter could claim that the writer should receive no portion the unmatched royalties under his or her 90-10 contract.  Or, that the writer is entitled only to a pro-rated share the 50% the unmatched monies received by the publisher on a use basis as designated by the bill.

This would provide an automatic windfall for the publisher contrary to both contractual and statutory intent, with tens millions dollars at stake.

All this may sound as obtuse as those annoying word problems in math class.  But they are real life concerns with actual consequences in the real world.

These problems could be solved by having the mechanical licensing collective do the initial title-by-title allocations.  These would be based upon the market uses reported by the users prior to delivering the formerly unmatched royalties to the publishers.  The works would now be matched and allocated by title.

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Other simple fixes are also possible.  So far, however, some the other music industry parties involved in drafting the bill have balked at incorporating such solutions.  The same goes for suggestions concerning implementation more balanced representation knowledgeable, unbiased pressional songwriters and composers on the board directors the mechanical licensing collective.  Or, the inclusion songwriter and composer identifier numbers in the database set-up mandated under the bill.

The best course action for most songwriters is to contact their performing rights organizations, their independent songwriter advocacy groups, and their publishers to let them know that they will actively support this bill only if these simple fairness issues are properly addressed.

There appears absolutely no reason why these internal music community problems should not addressed and fixed right now, so that the bill may then move forward with full and unanimous music community support.

There is no doubt that the Music Modernization does move the ball down the field for songwriters and publishers in a way that is long past due. Songwriters just need to be more vigilant in making sure they get their fair share.


Wallace Collins is a lawyer based in New York practicing primarily entertainment and intellectual law handling both transactional and litigation matters.