WIPO Tallies Song Credits Worldwide

Originally published in the Oct-11 issue of The Music Business Journal – Berklee College of Music

Considering the vast array of music services that were launched this year, including Amazon Cloud Drive, Spotify, and Google Music, it seems a new order for the consumption of music is taking shape. Indeed, legislation is being reformulated to facilitate new forms of music consumption, with consumers substituting piracy practices and moving to legal services. However, the existing music rights management architecture is being challenged. The difficulty is to know exactly who all the copyright owners of a song really are–and where they can be located. Transactions for the appropriate licenses cannot happen without this knowledge.
For each song recorded there are two copyrights involved: one for the composition itself (©) and one for the sound recording (℗). The first one is owned and controlled by different songwriters and publishers, while the other is usually owned by record labels and performing artists. When each of those rights are owned by a significant large group of people, someone needs to locate all of them in order to obtain licenses that need to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, many popular artists are now emerging outside traditional corporate structures, and not having them in the current databases of copyright ownership impedes the legal consumption of music. Two recent examples are Choruss and SoundExchange. Choruss, an experiment meant to allow college students across the country to download an unlimited amount of music in exchange for a small fee built into the their tuition, was not able to gain traction because of the difficulty in finding out exactly who it had to compensate. SoundExchange, a Performance Rights Organization created to collect royalties from digital music services, has had millions of dollars stuck in its accounts for some time now because it simply cannot find the appropriate right owner.
Jim Griffin, founder of Choruss, is a former label executive that now is channeling his efforts to tackle this situation. As he recently pointed to Billboard, “[the] big problem we ended up facing…is that we couldn’t find at least half the rights holders.” He advised that an extensive global registry of copyright owners be created to facilitate the licensing process across borders.
Such an ambitious plan started to be brainstormed at the end of 2010 and took form as the International Music Registry (IMR), currently functioning under the auspices of World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an agency of the UN. In order to be viable, the organization needed representation of all the stakeholders involved in the process of licensing. Indeed, its first Consultative Committee included Jim Griffin and brought together a wide variety of players in the music industry. In its initial planning stage, the IMR will be an internationally transparent global registry of all rights and right holders sharing all the necessary information needed to ease the process of multi-territorial licenses. “This”, it said “will preserve the public good [character of music] both [for] culture and commerce.”
The system is designed to be an inclusive platform, creating a single point of access for multiple databases already in existence around the globe, tying the information together and diminishing overlapping efforts and conflicting information. In fact, critics of IMR argue that there are a number of similar initiatives trying to achieve the same goal, such as the Global Repertoire Database being developed in Europe.
However, WIPO has advantages over other entities in creating and maintaining a successful global registry. Being an agency of the United Nations ensure worldwide involvement in the project. Furthermore, the agency already developed and runs established global registries in other intellectual property fields such as patents and trademarks. WIPO generates most of their income through the operation of these systems, but also counts on contributions from member states. Due to its public character, the agency is free of antitrust regulations and can focus on developing such a system without being concerned on an immediate return on investment – which would usually hinder the major music companies.
The IMR wishes for a comprehensive geographical representation in order to facilitate a truly global dialogue. The idea is to not only focus on the most powerful countries, but to enforce the inclusion of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, China, South Africa) and other fast developing regions. Brazil for instance was one of the few music markets that showed growth last year, despite the fact that it lacks download stores such as iTunes and streaming services. The structure and organization that IMR will provide will be essential to the development of new services in these countries, shifting the audience to legal services and therefore reenergizing the music market globally. (Still, how fees will be collected, be it by individual entry or by subscription, is yet unclear.)
Overall, the development of this comprehensive database is a long process that depends significantly on compromise. Skeptics will be afraid of losing control over their information, fearing that data that was private may go public. A good balance has to be found between what data will remain confidential, and thus not hurt licensors and licensees, and what data can be made readily available to promote what really is an ailing music trade. It is not an entirely new problem for the business. Record industry organizations, like the RIAA in the US, have long tallied rival company recorded music sales promising confidentiality to the individual labels. Back in the day, trust was good for business. The hope is that the same will happen with the International Music Registry.
By Luiz Augusto Buff

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