Patent law and copyright law are widely understood to diverge in how they approach prior art, the universe of information that already existed before a particular innovation’s development. For patents, prior art is paramount. An invention can’t be patented unless it is both novel and nonobvious when viewed against the backdrop of all the earlier inventions that paved the way. But for copyrights, prior art is supposed to be virtually irrelevant. Black-letter copyright doctrine doesn’t care if a creative work happens to resemble its predecessors, only that it isn’t actually copied from them. In principle, then, outside of the narrow question of whether someone might have drawn from a preexisting third-party source, copyright infringement disputes would seem to have little doctrinal use for prior art.
But that principle turns out to be missing a big part of what’s actually going on in copyright litigation today. In this Article, we identify a surprising trend: parties in cases involving music are increasingly discussing anticipatory earlier works, and judges are increasingly holding it against them if they don’t. The concept of prior art, once for inventors only, is now for authors, too.
The primary cause for this change, we argue, is the influence of a small cadre of expert witnesses. We interviewed several of the most active experts in music copyright disputes, and we analyzed dozens of reports that they have filed over the last two decades. Our data revealed a group that has been focused on authorial prior art since well before the courts were. These experts’ professional self-understanding, moreover, diverges sharply from the traditionally limited role that experts are supposed to play in evaluating copyright infringement. They view prior art research as a major part of their job. And for many of them, that research is important not just because it can sift between copying and independent creation, but also because it informs their normative view of what expression deserves legal exclusivity in the first place. Because of this expert community, prior art isn’t just for patents anymore.
Payola—sometimes referred to as “pay-for-play”—is the undisclosed payment, or acceptance of payment, in cash or in kind, for promotion of a song, album, or artist. Some form of pay-for-play has existed in the music industry since the 19th century. Most prominently, the term has been used to refer to the practice of record labels paying radio DJs to play certain songs in order to boost their popularity and sales. Since the middle of the 20th century, the FCC has regulated this behavior—ostensibly because of its propensity to harm consumers and competition—by requiring that broadcasters disclose such payments.
As streaming music platforms continue to siphon off listeners from analog radio, a new form of payola has emerged. In this new streaming payola, record labels, artists, and managers simply shift their payments from radio to streaming music platforms like Spotify, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. Instead of going to DJs, payments go to playlisters or to influencers who can help promote a song by directing audiences toward it. Because online platforms do not fall under the FCC’s jurisdiction, streaming pay-for-play is not currently regulated at the federal level, although some of it may be subject to state advertising disclosure laws.
In this Article, we describe the history and regulation of traditional forms of pay-for-play, and explain how streaming practices differ. Our account is based, in substantive part, on a novel series of qualitative interviews with music industry professionals. Our analysis finds the normative case for regulating streaming payola lacking: contrary to conventional wisdom, we show that streaming pay-for-play, whether disclosed or not, likely causes little to no harm to consumers, and it may even help independent artists gain access to a broader audience. Given this state of affairs, regulators should proceed with caution to preserve the potential advantages afforded by streaming payola and to avoid further exacerbating extant inequalities in the music industry.
Copyright provides a long term of legal excludability, ostensibly to encourage the production of new creative works. How. long this term should last, and the extent to which current law aligns with the economic incentives of copyright owners, has been the subject of vigorous theoretical debate. We investigate the economic viability of content in a major content industry—commercial music—using a novel longitudinal dataset of weekly sales and streaming counts. We find that the typical sound recording has an extremely short commercial half-life—on the order of months, rather than years of decades—but also see evidence that subscription streaming services are extending this period of economic viability. Strikingly, though, we find that decay rates are sharp even for blockbuster songs, and that the patterns persist when we approximate weekly revenue. Although our results do not provide an estimate of the causal effect of copyright on incentives, they do put bounds on the problem, suggesting a misalignment between the economic realities of the music industry and the current life-plus-seventy copyright term.
The conventional wisdom is that property rules induce more (and more efficient) contracting, and that when faced with rigid property rules, intellectual property owners will contract into more flexible liability rules. A series of recent, private copyright deals show some intellectual property owners doing just the opposite: faced with statutory liability rules, they are contracting for more protection than that dictated by law, something this Article calls “super-statutory contracting”—either by opting for a stronger, more tailored liability rule, or by contracting into property rule protection. Through a series of deal analyses, this Article explores this counterintuitive phenomenon, and updates seminal thinking on property entitlements and private ordering in the intellectual property context.
While law and economics scholars have long grappled with the question of whether property rules or liability rules are preferable, and when, they have traditionally ignored a key lever: “perceived control,” or a rights holder’s impression of their ability to grant or withhold permission to use their work, and/or to name their price for such use. In addition to proposing a recalibration of the relative importance of consolidation, transaction costs, defaults, and damages, this Article identifies and describes perceived control as an essential factor in the licensing enterprise. This has significant implications for legislators and policymakers seeking to better align incentives between licensors and licensees, and for administrators tasked with term and rate setting.
The deterrence of copyright infringement and the evils of piracy have long been an axiomatic focus of both legislators and scholars. The conventional view is that infringement must be curbed and/or punished in order for copyright to fulfill its purported goals of incentivizing creation and ensuring access to works. This Essay proves this view false by demonstrating that some rightsholders don’t merely tolerate, but actually encourage infringement, both explicitly and implicitly, in a variety of different situations and for one common reason: they benefit from it. Rightsholders’ ability to monetize infringement destabilizes long-held but problematic assumptions about both rightsholder preferences, and about copyright’s optimal infringement policy.
Through a series of case studies, this Essay describes the impetuses and normative implications of this counterintuitive—but not so unusual—phenomenon. Recognition of monetized infringement in copyright is interesting not only for its unexpectedness, but also for the broader point that its existence suggests: we have an impoverished descriptive account of why some laws operate the way that they do. This is particularly unsettling in an area like copyright, where advocates are sharply divided along policy lines. This Essay is an important first step toward a positive theory of copyright— one that recognizes the underappreciated role, both positive and negative, that private parties play in policymaking.
For well over a century, legislators, courts, lawyers, and scholars have spent significant time and energy debating the optimal duration of copyright protection. While there is general consensus that copyright’s term is of legal and economic significance, arguments both for and against a lengthy term are often impressionistic. Utilizing music industry sales data not previously available for academic analysis, this article fills an important evidentiary gap in the literature. Using recorded music as a case study, we determine that most copyrighted music earns the majority of its lifetime revenue in the first 5-10 years following its initial release (and in many cases, far sooner than that).
Our analysis suggests at least two results of interest to legislators, lawyers, and scholars alike: First, it contributes to the normative debate around copyright’s incentive-access paradigm by proposing a more efficient conception of copyright’s term for information goods; namely, one that replaces the conventional “life plus” durational standard with one based on the commercial viability of the average work. Second, it demonstrates that advocates’ and legislators’ tendency to focus on atypical works leads to overprotection of the average work, suggesting that copyright’s term is not nearly as significant for copyright owners as conventional wisdom submits.
Regulatory arbitrage—defined as the manipulation of regulatory treatment for the purpose of reducing regulatory costs or increasing statutory earnings—is often seen in heavily regulated industries. An increase in the regulatory nature of copyright, coupled with rapid technological advances and evolving consumer preferences, have led to an unprecedented proliferation of regulatory arbitrage in the area of copyright law. This Article offers a new scholarly account of the phenomenon herein referred to as “copyright arbitrage.”
In some cases, copyright arbitrage may work to expose and/or correct for an extant gap or inefficiency in the regulatory regime. In other cases, copyright arbitrage may contravene one or another of copyright’s foundational goals of incentivizing the creation of, and ensuring access to, copyrightable works. In either case, the existence of copyright arbitrage provides strong support for the classification (and clarification) of copyright as a complex regulatory regime in need of a strong regulatory apparatus.
This Article discusses several options available for identifying and curbing problematic copyright arbitrage. First, courts can take a purposive, substantive approach to interpretations of the Copyright Act. Second, Congress can empower a regulatory agency with rulemaking and enforcement authority. Finally, antitrust law can help to curb the anticompetitive effects of copyright arbitrage resulting from legislative capture.
In music licensing, powerful music publishers have begun—for the first time ever— to withdraw their digital copyrights from the collectives that license those rights, in order to negotiate considerably higher rates in private deals. At the beginning of the year, two of these publishers commanded a private royalty rate nearly twice that of the going collective rate. This result could be seen as a coup for the free market: Constrained by consent decrees and conflicting interests, collectives are simply not able to establish and enforce a true market rate in the new, digital age. This could also be seen as a pathological form of private ordering: Powerful licensors using their considerable market power to impose a supracompetitive rate on a hapless licensee. While there is no way to know what the market rate looks like in a highly regulated industry like music publishing, the anticompetitive effects of these withdrawals may have detrimental consequences for artists, licensees and consumers. In industries such as music licensing, network effects, parallel pricing and tacit collusion can work to eliminate meaningful competition from the marketplace. The resulting lack of competition threatens to stifle innovation in both the affected, and related, industries.
Normally, where a market operates in a workably competitive manner, the remedy for anticompetitive behavior can be found in antitrust law. In music licensing, however, some concerning behaviors, including both parallel pricing and tacit collusion, do not rise to the level of antitrust violations; as such, they cannot be addressed by antitrust law. This is no small irony. At one point, antitrust served as a check on the licensing collectives by establishing consent decrees to govern behavior. Due to a series of acquisitions that have reduced the music publishing industry to a mere three entities, the collectives that are being circumvented by these withdrawals (and whose conduct is governed by consent decrees) now pose less of a competitive concern than do individual publishing companies acting privately, or in concert through tacit collusion. The case of intellectual property rights, which defer competition for creators and inventors for a limited period of time, is particularly challenging for antitrust.
Running contrary to conventional wisdom, this Article posits that regulation—not antitrust—is the optimal means of enabling entry and innovation in the music licensing market. While regulation is conventionally understood to restrict new entry and to interfere with competition, this Article demonstrates that where a market becomes highly concentrated, regulation can actually encourage competition by ensuring access to key inputs at competitive rates. While not without its drawbacks, including an increase in the cost of private action, remedial regulation in music licensing corrects anticompetitive behavior and ensures ongoing access to content and fair payment to artists, while supporting continued innovation in content distribution.
Research on the statutory license for certain types of copyright-protected content has revealed an unlikely symbiosis between uncertainty and efficiency. Contrary to received wisdom, which tells us that in order to increase efficiency, we must increase stability, this Article suggests that uncertainty can actually be used to increase efficiency in the marketplace. In the music industry, the battle over terrestrial performance rights—that is, the right of a copyright holder to collect royalties for plays of a sound recording on terrestrial radio—has raged for decades. In June 2012, in a deal that circumvented the statutory license for sound recordings for the first time ever, broadcasting giant Clear Channel granted an elusive terrestrial performance right to a small, independent record label named Big Machine and agreed to pay royalties where no such legal obligation exists. This result not only improves upon many of the statutory license’s inefficiencies but is also the opposite of what we would expect given both the tumultuous history surrounding the rights at issue and the respective parties’ bargaining positions. It suggests an underexplored mechanism at play: uncertainty. Using the statutory license for sound recordings and the Clear Channel–Big Machine deal to motivate the analysis, this Article argues that bounded uncertainty—such as uncertainty about the future legal status of terrestrial performance rights and uncertainty about future digital business models—converts a statutory license into a “penalty default license.” Just as penalty default rules encourage more efficient information exchange between asymmetrical parties, penalty default licenses encourage more efficient licensing among otherwise divergent parties by motivating them to circumvent an inefficient statutory license in favor of private ordering. While not without its drawbacks, which previous work identified and ameliorated, private ordering improves upon the statutory approach, resulting in greater efficiency not only for the parties involved but for society overall. Recognition of the role that uncertainty plays in converting an inefficient statutory license into a penalty default license that improves market efficiency while mitigating inequality has implications beyond the statutory licensing context. It suggests a revision in the way we view the relationship between uncertainty and efficiency. Specifically, it shows that when coupled with a penalty default, uncertainty can bring greater efficiency to the marketplace by encouraging private ordering—with its tailored terms and responsiveness to rapid legal and technological change—while mitigating concerns about inequality and gamesmanship.
The government is not the only player in copyright reform, and perhaps not even the most important. Left to free market negotiation, risk averse licensors and licensees are contracting around the statutory license for certain types of copyright-protected content, and achieving greater efficiency via private ordering. This emerging phenomenon, herein termed “private copyright reform,” presents both adverse selection and distributive justice concerns: first, circumvention of the statutory license goes against legislative intent by allowing for the reduction, and even elimination, of statutorily mandated royalties owed to non-parties. In addition, when presented without full term disclosure, privately determined royalty rates can lead to industrial and statutory adoption of inaccurate “market” valuations. Finally, private copyright reform can exacerbate market inequalities by leaving smaller, less powerful parties with a weaker, less effective statutory regime. These concerns could be addressed by comprehensive copyright reform, an ambitious and lengthy process at best. The concerns might also be eliminated by making compliance with the statutory license mandatory, thereby eliminating private copyright reform as an option. Recognizing the efficiency-enhancing value of private copyright reform, however, this Article leaves the option to circumvent in place, and instead suggests two modest statutory amendments to alleviate the adverse selection and distributive justice concerns presented. Private copyright reform also challenges traditional intellectual property doctrine; specifically, it questions the efficiency of statutory licenses and collective rights organizations, while also raising questions of fairness around the ability of private parties to make law. While resolution of these doctrinal questions is outside the scope of this Article, the recent proliferation of private copyright reform suggests they are ripe for reconsidera
Rights holders typically earn money from their copyrighted works in one of three ways. The first is through a statutory license, such as exists for public performance royalties. The second is through negotiated licenses, such as a sync license. The third is through recovery of actual or statutory damages owing to a successful suit for copyright infringement. All of these income streams are made possible by statutory rights granted to, or reserved for, rights holders by the Copyright Act.
This Essay explores another, heretofore unrecognized, way that some rights holders earn money on their copyrighted works—a way unanticipated by, and in some cases potentially in contravention of, copyright law. Through a series of case studies, this Essay identifies and defines this extra-statutory income stream as “monetized non-infringement.” Some monetized non-infringement is made possible by platforms, such as YouTube, effectively overriding statutory law via private policymaking. Other monetized non-infringement occurs when private parties wield market power in order to close perceived gaps in the statutory law. Still other monetized noninfringement stems from abuse or misuse of statutory rights, both incidental and intentional, or from outright chicanery. In each case, the rights holder derives revenue from a non-existent right. This Essay is the first to delve into this underexamined, extra-statutory revenue stream that seeks to quite literally make something out of nothing.
Acknowledgement of this phenomenon serves several important purposes. First, it recognizes the potential for platforms to serve in the role of legislator for their respective ecosystems. Second, whether done in the absence of statutory rights or in misuse of them, monetized non-infringement generally amounts to rent-seeking. Finally, the existence of monetized non-infringement highlights the peculiar nature of copyright and its propensity for abuse and misuse.