When a musician desires to record a cover version of a song (i.e., their own version of a song written or made famous by someone else), the process for obtaining the rights to do so is quite simple: they obtain a mechanical license—a compulsory license that can be obtained by paying the appropriate fee to the copyright holder or their representative—but only after the copyright holder has exercised their right of first publishing. And that’s all there is to it. The artist records their version of the song, releases it into the world, pays royalties to the copyright holder, and, so long as they have abided by all the aforementioned steps, they likely do not run into any issues relating to this process. This process is simple, but in a time where musicians liberally borrow material from others and the resulting songwriting credits read like novellas, it creates issues in a discrete subset of cases.
17 USC § 115(a)(2) provides that
A compulsory license includes the privilege of making a musical arrangement of the work to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved, but the arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work, and shall not be subject to protection as a derivative work under this title, except with the express consent of the copyright owner.
Under this provision, arrangements of musical works prepared under mechanical licenses do not receive copyright protection unless expressly granted by the copyright holder. For most musicians preparing recordings under this type of license, this is not a very concerning issue—they still retain a copyright in their sound recording, and they are likely to be the only users of their arrangement. But consider the following situation:
What happens here? The arrangement is not provided copyright protection, but the new artist has to credit someone for the ideas that they repurposed in their new song. So, the songwriting credit for the portion borrowed goes to the original songwriters, even though they were not involved in writing the particular musical ideas.
Consider the following real-life example in order to understand the strange results that occur in these situations. In 1979, “And the Beat Goes On” was released by The Whispers. In 2002, “Reggae Beat Goes On,” a reggae cover of “And the Beat Goes On,” was released by Family Choice. Then in 2019, “How Long?”, a song containing elements of “Reggae Beat Goes On,” was released by Vampire Weekend.
“Reggae Beat Goes On” is a cover of “And the Beat Goes On,” and uses a very original arrangement in order to shift the genre from disco to reggae. The melody and lyrics remain the same and the chord structure is nearly the same as well, but the rest of the musical setting is different. “How Long?” takes elements from the musical setting of “Reggae Beat Goes On” and interpolates them in the new song. Namely, the guitar part from “Reggae Beat Goes On” is played on bass guitar in “How Long?” There are string parts brought over to “How Long?” from “Reggae Beat Goes On,” and the chords in both songs match as well.
Who are the credited writers for “How Long?”? There are five: Ezra Koenig, member of Vampire Weekend; Ariel Rechtshaid, producer of the record; and William Shelby, Stephen Shockley, and Leon F. Sylvers III, all writers of “And the Beat Goes On.” Bill Campbell, arranger of “Reggae Beat Goes On,” receives no songwriting credit for “How Long?” despite having written the external elements that are present in “How Long?”, while Shelby, Shockley, and Silvers receive credit despite not having written the material that was borrowed.
The result here seems absurd—the people receiving credit (and thus, also receiving royalties) did not actually write the borrowed material. However, the result is somehow in line with the purposes of and justifications for US copyright law. US copyright law is explicitly founded upon a utilitarian theory. Under a utilitarian theory, lawmakers have to decide which types of works to prioritize for copyright protection. And in reading 17 USC § 115(a)(2), it is clear that Congress chose not to give priority to arrangements of songs prepared under mechanical licenses. If US copyright law was founded upon a natural rights theory and all new works were automatically granted protection, this problem would likely not exist, but that is not the case—Congress must weigh the costs and benefits of expanding protection. Here, the absurd results justify Congress intervening.
One way to remedy this problem is to revise 17 USC § 115(a)(2) to automatically extend protection to arrangements prepared under mechanical licenses, even if the copyright owner has not expressly granted consent for the arrangement to receive copyright protection. If drafted carefully, the consequences would be minimal—the law would have to delineate which elements of the new arrangement are not eligible for protection, and in order to do that, the arranger would only have to look back to see what elements of the original song are afforded protection. Those protected elements would then be excluded from the protection afforded to the arrangement, while the rest of the elements, as well as the arrangement as a whole, would receive copyright protection. A revised version of 17 USC § 115(a)(2) could read as follows
A compulsory license includes the privilege of making a musical arrangement of the work to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved, but the arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work. All elements of the arrangement that are not subject to copyright protection under the original copyright shall be subject to protection as a derivative work under this title.
Congress made an explicit choice to not automatically extend copyright protections to arrangements prepared under mechanical licenses. In order to prevent absurd results that end with authors receiving credit for material they did not write and thus, receiving royalties for this work that they did not create, it would be prudent of Congress to revise 17 USC § 115(a)(2) to automatically provide copyright protection to arrangements of musical works prepared under mechanical licenses.
Michael Pranger is a 2nd year JD student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.
What’s The Issue?
It seems logical that the creator of a work would own the rights to that work. This general idea imports easily into some industries but creates problems in the music industry. The reality is that the main rights holder of a creative musical work is often not the musicians but collective management organizations (CMOs). After pouring countless hours, days, months, and years into perfecting a single music work or album, the musician often ends up not having total control over his or her work. The music industry is driven by smoke and mirrors where the distributors and records labels often do not disclose who owns the rights to which musical work. George Howard, co-founder of a digital music distributor called TuneCore and professor at Berklee College of Music, describes the music industry as one that lacks transparency. He explains that the music industry is built on asymmetry where the “under-educated, underrepresented, or under-experienced” musicians are deprived of their rights because they are often kept in the dark about their rights as creators.
As a result of the industry having only a few power players, profit is meek for musicians. Back in the day, musicians and their labels were able to get a somewhat steady source of income through physical album sales. However, with the prominence of online streaming, their main source of income has changed. The source of this issue seems to stem from how creators’ rights are tracked and managed.
A piece of music has two copyrights, one for the composition and one for the sound recording, and it is often difficult to keep track of both because the ownership of these rights are split amongst several songwriters and performers. The music industry does not have a way to keep track of these copyrights, and this is an issue especially when there are several individuals involved in creating a single musical work. With the development of digital ledger technology and its influence in various industries, it could be time that this development makes its way into the music industry and provide a solution to compensate musicians for their lost profits.
Blockchains: the solution?
Lately, blockchain technology has been at the forefront of conversations. For example, the variation in Bitcoin’s pricing has been a hot topic. Blockchain technology seems like a mouthful, but it is simply a “database maintained by a distributed network of computers.” Blockchains allow information to be recorded, distributed across decentralized ledgers, and stored in a network that is secure against outside tampering.
With the advancement of online music streaming, and entertainment going digital, blockchain seems like the perfect tool to be used in this industry. Since the issue of weakened profits seems to stem from disorganized tracking and monitoring of creators, blockchain technology could be utilized to improve the systems used for licensing and royalty payments. A blockchain ledger would allow a third party to track the process of a creative work and be an accessible way of managing intellectual property rights of these creative works. By tracking and monitoring their works, musicians could potentially gain back their profits, or at least recuperate some of their losses.
In 1998, there were several companies that came together to create a centralized database to organize copyrights for copyright owners so that royalty payments would be made in an orderly fashion. This effort was called the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMIT) and its purpose was to “create an open framework for sharing encrypting music by not only respecting copyrights, but also allowing the use of them in unprotected formats.” Unfortunately, this initiative failed to provide a universal standard for encrypting music.
The latest venture was the Global Repertoire Database (GRD) which aimed to “create a singular, compiled, and authoritative ledger of ownership and control of musical works around the world.” This was a very ambitious move and required two rounds of financing which consisted of the initial startup funds and the funds to cover the budgeting for the year. Although there were significant contributions to this mission, some collection societies, such as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), started to pull out of the fund due to GRD’s failure and debt that it accumulated.
Even though this venture failed to provide a centralized database that could resolve royalty and licensing issues, there is now a growing consensus in the music industry for a global, digital database that properly, and efficiently, manages copyright ownership information. The next venture could utilize blockchain technology because of the advantages for storage, tracking, and security that it offers. In addition, not only could blockchain provide a centralized database so that music content information is accurately organized, it could provide a way to close the gap between creators and consumers and dispose of intermediaries. This would allow for a more seamless experience and transparency for the consumer and allow the creators to have more control over their works. Further, this ledger would allow these creators to upload all of their musical work elements, such as the composition, lyrics, cover art, video performances and licensing information, to a single, uniform database. This information would be available globally in an easily verified peer-to-peer system.
On the other hand, since blockchains are tamper-resistant, the data could not be “changed or deleted without affecting the entire system” even with a central authority. This means that if someone decides to delete a file from the system, such a deletion will disrupt the whole chain. There could also be issues with implementing such a large network of systems, or computers, due to the sheer amount of music that is globally available. Additionally, to identify each registered work, the right holders have to upload digital copies of their works which would require an extensive amount of storage and computational power to save entire songs.
Nevertheless, blockchain could provide the base for implementing a centralized database using a network of systems, or computers, in order to organize royalty payments for these musicians. Proponents contend that, with the help of Congress, this could be made possible. Congress recently introduced Bill HR 3350, Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act. This act, if passed, will require musicians to register their songs in a federal database or else forfeit the ability to enforce their copyright, which would prevent them from collecting their royalties for those works. Although this might seem like an ultimatum, this proposed Act would provide the best way of changing how the music industry stores its information to provide an efficient way to distribute royalties and licensing payments to these artists.
People are split in their opinions about blockchain technology in the music industry. There are some who see this as a more accurate way of managing “consumer content ownership in the digital domain.” Others do not see this as a viable plan due to its lack of scalability to compensate for the vast amount of musical works. Even with the development of the music industry into the digital field, the goal is always to protect the artists’ works. Plan [B]lockchain ledger may not completely solve the royalty problem in the music industry, but it can provide a starting point in creating a more robust metadata database and, in combination with legislative change, the musical works could remain in the hands of their respectable owners.
Jenny Kim is a second-year law student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.
Throughout the past two years, AI-powered stem-splitting services have emerged online, allowing users to upload any audio file and access extracted, downloadable audio stems. A “stem” is an audio file that contains a mixture of a song’s similarly situated musical components. For example, if one records a mix of twenty harmonized vocal tracks, that recording constitutes a vocal stem. Stems’ primary purpose is to ease integrating or transferring their contents into either a larger project or a different work. Traditionally, only producers or engineers created and accessed stems. Even when stem sharing became commonplace, it was only for other industry insiders or those with licenses. But AI stem-splitting technology has transformed stem access. For the first time, anyone with internet access can obtain a stem through stem extraction software, which will likely push music production’s creative envelope into new realms. One inevitable consequence, however, is the question of copyright protection over stems extracted from copyrighted works.
Section 102 of Title 17 extends copyright protection not only over the stems’ original copyrighted audio source but also over that source’s components, such as the stems. Any modification of that work, such as extracting a stem and using it elsewhere, likely qualifies as a “derivative work” under Section 103. Importantly, Section 106 allows only copyright owners to authorize making derivative works. In light of this regime, what flexibility, if any, do artists have in using AI-extracted, copyrighted stems? Three considerations shed light on an answer: fair use, de minimis use, and the use of content recognition software coupled with licensing.
Codified under Section 107, the fair use defense provides a possible safeguard for would-be infringers. To establish this affirmative defense, a court would need to find the statute’s four factors sufficiently weigh toward “fair use.” Unfortunately, courts reach incongruous interpretations of what permissible fair use includes, rendering the defense a muddled construct for many artists. Squaring the four factors with stem usage, however, may offer guidance.
In the seminal music fair use case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., the Supreme Court emphasized that this first factor will likely weigh toward fair use when the work is “transformative.” The Court went so far as to note “the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors . . . .” Thus, an artist fearing infringement should strive toward transforming the copyrighted material into something distinct, used for noncommercial purposes. In the absence of a bright-line rule from the Court, however, artists will still need to use reasonable judgment about what types of stem usage is “distinct.” For example, suppose Artist A extracts a strings stem from a copyrighted work and only uses two seconds of it within another work that comprises numerous other instruments and melodies. Meanwhile, Artist B extracts the same strings stem; however, Artist B uses the entire strings melody within their work and only adds percussion and minor counter-melodies. Artist A would likely be in a more favorable legal position than Artist B given A’s efforts to materially transform the copyrighted audio.
The commercial nature of copyrighted stem usage is also unclear. An artist may choose to work with stems for solely experimental purposes. For example, an artist who shares their work via Soundcloud or YouTube does not expect another person to use those platforms to directly purchase the work. With stems’ increasing public accessibility, many will simply want to experiment with a music tool that, until recently, has largely remained a foreign concept. If this issue reaches a court, the court would need to conduct an analysis set against the landscape of such heightened accessibility. An increase in this noncommercial, creative use may offer hope to artists in the future, but it is too soon to tell.
The second factor favors artists borrowing from copyrighted works with lower creative value. Unfortunately, music is typically found to be one of the most creative forms of copyrighted work. For example, a district court in UMG Recordings, Inc. v. MP3.Com, Inc. analyzing this second factor noted that the disputed material—copyrighted musical works—was “close to the core of intended copyright protection” and “far removed from the more factual or descriptive work more amenable to ‘fair use.’”
Though courts’ future inquiries into stem usage may differ from previous analyses of sample usage, the inquiry will likely change very little for this factor. Although a stem could potentially represent only a minute portion of the song, this factor’s inquiry focuses on the source of the stem, rather than the stem itself. Consequently, rarely will this factor work to a potentially infringing artist’s benefit, even if their stem usage is quite minor.
The third factor, however, may offer hope for such minor stem usage. Courts will undoubtedly reach differing interpretations about how minimal the copyrighted portion’s “amount” and “substantiality” must be for this factor to weigh toward fair use. A court will need to weigh numerous variables and how they intersect. For example, is an artist using a thirty-second loop of a vocal stem or a five-second loop? Does that vocal stem include the chorus of a song? What about any distinct lyrics? Just minor humming? These considerations are not entirely novel. Artists purporting to use copyrighted samples have long been able to argue—with little success—that their samples’ amount and substance pass muster under this factor. Yet, stems are not samples; in fact, they typically represent a considerably smaller portion of a work. Given just how recent and novel their public accessibility is, it remains unclear whether a court would treat stem use any differently under this factor than it has treated instances of sample use. Carefully using a minor portion of a vestigial stem to avoid a work’s core substance, therefore, could potentially facilitate a favorable outcome.
The fourth and final factor of fair use is “[u]ndoubtedly the single most important element.” This factor examines both the infringement’s effect on the potential market and “whether unrestricted and widespread conduct of the sort engaged in by the defendant . . . would result in a substantially adverse impact on the potential market for the original.”
In the sampling realm, this factor has tipped the scales before. For example, in Estate of Smith v. Cash Money Records, Inc., a district court found fair use when the defendants inserted a thirty-five-second “spoken-word criticism of non-jazz music” into a hip-hop track. In its analysis of this fourth factor, the court emphasized that “there [was] no evidence” that pointed to overlapping markets between the spoken jazz track and the hip-hop track. The court, noting this factor’s high probative value, then weighed this factor in the defendants’ favor.
In the stem realm, the novel nature of widespread public use means courts will need to determine both whether this factor should remain highly probative and how much deference to give stem users in analyzing market overlap. After all, an artist who incorporates a stem into a work intended for a twenty-five-person YouTube following likely affects the original work’s market differently than an artist who disseminates that work to millions of followers. This factor’s outcome will also rely on the stem’s source. Similar to sampling, if an artist uses a stem in a drastically different arena than the one for which the stem was created, this factor will weigh more toward fair use.
For example, suppose Artist A locates an insurance advertisement jingle. Artist A then extracts a stem from that advertisement audio and uses the stem in a new hip-hop track. The advertisement’s potential market is likely different from the hip-hop track’s potential market. Artist A’s work would likely have little impact, if any, on the advertisement’s market. Artist B, meanwhile, creates a hip-hop track but uses a stem from another hip-hop song produced twenty-five years ago. Though Artist B may believe the stem from the older hip-hop track no longer caters to the same hip-hop market to which Artist B is targeting, a court may be more inclined to find a material impact on the older track’s market: it would provide another way in which music listeners, particularly hip-hop listeners, could hear that older track. Nonetheless, it would remain up for a court to decide.
De Minimis Use
Artists might also be able to use extracted, copyrighted stems if such use is de minimis. The Ninth Circuit in Newton v. Diamond held de minimis use—“when the average audience would not recognize the appropriation”—is permissible. Yet, following the Newton decision, the Sixth Circuit in Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films foreclosed the possibility of de minimis copying. Similar to fair use analysis, it is difficult for an artist to determine whether the use of a stem in their work is de minimis under this standard.
Thus, an artist who loops only a small, relatively generic-sounding portion of a stem may find additional legal protection. But they might not. If they are in a jurisdiction that does not recognize de minimis use, or they use a stem in a way that extends beyond what a court considers de minimis in a de minimis jurisdiction, this avenue will be unavailable.
Content Recognition Software
Beyond legal defenses, a newer scheme of licensing deals coupled with content recognition software may offer protection for stem usage. For example, if a user on the content platform TikTok uploads content with copyrighted audio, TikTok’s content recognition software recognizes the audio, then pays the appropriate royalties to the audio’s copyright holder through preexisting licensing deals. Yet, because schemes like TikTok’s and stem usage are both relatively new, it remains unclear whether artists could find the same protection through individual stem use. Indeed, if an artist uses only a small part of a single stem, it may very well be impossible to detect the stem’s source; however, emerging technology may change this soon. Further, these licensing deals restrict such artists to sharing work only on particular platforms—notably, neither Soundcloud nor YouTube. Ultimately, this protection carries promising potential for expanded, authorized stem use. But perhaps not quite yet.
Matthew Danaher is a second-year law student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.