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After a statutory music rights database is proposed in the US, ASCAP and BMI reveal their existing data initiative

By | Published on Thursday 27 July 2017


US collecting societies ASCAP and BMI yesterday announced that they are working on a combined music rights database that will be publicly available and which – the two organisations say – will “deliver an authoritative view of ownership shares in the vast majority of music licensed in the United States”.

The two societies say that they have been working on developing the combined database for over a year now and that they hope to launch it late next year. The new data platform will bring together the two societies’ existing databases and therefore list every song in which an ASCAP or BMI member has a stake. It will reveal what percentage of each song copyright each society represents, and also whether another collecting society in addition to ASCAP and BMI controls a portion of the work.

The lack of a decent music rights database providing information on the artists and writers behind each track and song – and the labels, distributors, publishers and collecting societies which exert some control over any one track or song – has been much discussed over the years, of course, and was a topic of conversation on the latest edition of the CMU Podcast.

There are plenty of bodies of music rights data around the world, with most of the collecting societies having a database of one description or another, though none of those databases are complete, and many aren’t publicly accessible. Though, since the music publishing sector’s attempt at building a one-stop Global Repertoire Database failed, various societies have been involved in initiatives to join their databases up, and to make some key information more widely available.

In the US, of course, there are four collecting societies just representing the performing rights in songs – whereas in many other countries there is just one – which has further fragmented the data. Hence the move by rivals ASCAP and BMI to more closely align their databases. That won’t be a complete database even for the US market though, because it doesn’t involve the other two performing rights organisations SESAC and GMR. But because co-ownership is so common with song copyrights, there will be quite a lot of crossover between the repertoires of the big two societies and the two smaller ones.

All that said, even if BMI, ASCAP, SESAC and GMR were all to pool their data, that would still only cover song copyrights, not recording copyrights. And for many licensees, one of the key bits of information required is confirmation of what songs are contained within what recordings. That’s something which requires the record industry’s collecting societies to collaborate with the music publishing sector’s societies – which is happening in some parts of the world, not least the UK.

ASCAP and BMI also have ambitions for their data project to widen its scope. While confirming that their data venture is initially about “aggregated information from BMI’s and ASCAP’s repertoire”, they added that: “The joint database will serve as a foundation that can evolve to include a broader range of music information across the entire industry”.

Confirming the data project yesterday, ASCAP chief Elizabeth Matthews said: “ASCAP and BMI are proactively and voluntarily moving the entire industry a step forward to more accurate, reliable and user-friendly data. We believe in a free market with more industry cooperation and alignment on data issues. Together, ASCAP and BMI have the most expertise in building and managing complex copyright ownership databases. With our combined experience, we are best positioned to make faster headway in creating a robust, cost effective market solution to meet the needs of the licensing marketplace”.

Meanwhile BMI boss Mike O’Neill said: “This is an important solution for the marketplace created by the experts who know their data best. We have always advocated for data transparency and supported the need for a user-friendly and comprehensive solution that would benefit music users and music creators alike. While BMI and ASCAP remain fierce competitors in all other regards, we recognise that our combined expertise allows us to create the best solution for our members and the marketplace. We’re excited by our momentum and the promise of what this database can become in the future”.

The timing of ASCAP and BMI’s announcement – about a database already a year into development but more than a year off completion – is telling. It follows the filing of a proposal in US Congress last week by Republican Jim Sensenbrenner that the US Copyright Office set up a one-stop publicly accessible music rights database, with copyright owners forced to provide their data. Music companies which did not would lose some of the remedies available to them if a third party then infringes their copyrights.

Although Sensenbrenner’s proposals do attempt to address the music rights data problem that has been identified by the music industry itself, many within the industry don’t see a government-led solution as a desirable option. Especially when accompanied by the ‘lose your remedies’ stick to force participation. To that end, ASCAP and BMI’s announcement yesterday could be translated into “hey lawmakers, we’re already fixing this problem”.

Hence the conclusion of yesterday’s statement, which reads: “ASCAP and BMI have proven their commitment to industry-wide data transparency by making public aggregated song share ownership through their respective online, searchable repertory databases – ASCAP’s ACE Repertory and BMI’s Repertoire Search. ASCAP’s and BMI’s respective databases will continue to be available on each organisation’s respective website during the creation and initial launch of the joint database”.

Though Sensenbrenner’s proposals already acknowledged and criticised the collecting societies’ existing databases. And yesterday the MIC Coalition – the group lobbying for the tech and radio sector, which has been busy of late championing Sensenbrenner’s proposals – has already declared that the ASCAP/BMI data venture “misses the mark”.

The lobbying group said: “We appreciate that ASCAP and BMI recognise that there is a problem in the current music licensing system, but what they are proposing is not a complete solution. Only Congress has the ability to create a neutral, reliable and comprehensive database”.