Government-Controlled Music Licensing Database is the Wrong Approach

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by: Holly Sadler

There is broad consensus that America's copyright and music licensing systems need to be updated. The rise of music streaming technology has introduced new challenges to an already flawed system. One of the results has been confusion for many small business owners who are struggling to figure out who they’re legally responsible to pay for the music they play in public spaces – and an estimated $2.5 billion in unpaid royalties to artists.

Clearly, a solution is needed – both to streamline the copyright holder identification process for those who are required to pay royalties and to ensure that creators are fairly compensated for their work.

But a recent legislative proposal by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is wrong to propose another layer of government involvement.

Rep. Sensenbrenner’s Transparency in Music Licensing Ownership Act mandates the creation of a government database that would provide information on all copyright holders. This database would be housed in the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress and if information in the database is incorrect, it would limit the recourse of artists to seek compensation.

There are several problems with this approach.

The music industry is complicated when it comes to licensing – a problem created, in part, by existing government regulation. Rather than expanding the role of government in this private industry, we should allow the industry itself to come up with a solution to this problem – something they are ready and willing to do. The last thing we need is another government-run database.

Furthermore, the Library of Congress – specifically the U.S. Copyright Office – has a reputation for struggling to keep up with technology. Currently, their website states that the estimated processing time for registering a copyright is 6-10 months. The type of music database proposed in this legislation would need to be extremely dynamic – as the content is constantly changing – and would require a significant amount of maintenance. A task the Copyright Office seems ill-prepared to manage. Just check out what their current copyright database looks like.

Compare this database to a voluntary initiative called WheretoWatch.com. This website was designed by the entertainment industry to make video streaming information easily available to consumers, while curbing pirating and illegal streaming. It’s simple, always up-to-date, and easy to use.

Finally, it is concerning how the U.S. Copyright Office has, in recent years, become quite politicized, with tech and anti-intellectual property advocates courting the Librarian of Congress and the Register of Copyrights to undermine intellectual property rights.  

Just last year when the Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, stood up for the rights of content creators and advocated for greater political accountability for the office, she was promptly “demoted” by the Librarian of Congress.  Pallante was unceremoniously locked out of her computer overnight and essentially placed in charge of marketing for the Library of Congress’ gift shop. Understandably, she resigned. Congress should not be assigning even greater authority to oversee and alter the rights of copyright holders to an office plagued by such political pressure and turmoil.

Congressman Sensenbrenner correctly observes that “When it comes to rules and regulations, simpler is always better.”

The music industry is prepared to come together and create a database voluntarily. Why should Congress, especially conservatives in Congress, stand in their way?