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TikTok takes PRS and ICE to Copyright Tribunal

By | Published on Wednesday 24 July 2019


As TikTok tries to get licences in place for the music that swims around its video-sharing platform, in the UK it’s decided to go the adversarial route by taking collecting society PRS and the copyright hub it co-owns to Copyright Tribunal. So that’s fun, isn’t it?

There has been plenty of TikTok chatter in the music industry over the last year, of course, ever since it subsumed that other buzzy user-generated content app

Some of that chatter has concentrated on the marketing potential of TikTok, while others have focused on when and how the app – and its Chinese parent company Bytedance – would sort out licensing deals with the global music industry. As those licensing talks got underway, there was then a new round of gossip to the effect that Bytedance is also plotting a full-on music streaming service that will build on the TikTok phenomenon.

Getting global music licences sorted is quite a task, of course, as the ‘Digital Dollar’ reports CMU Insights has published with the Music Managers Forum have outlined in some detail.

Bytedance needs to get itself deals with the labels and distributors on the recordings side, and then the publishers and societies on the songs side. And while the majors have started throwing some song rights into the deals they do around their recording catalogues – especially with user-generated content platforms – that’s not as helpful as it sounds for services that basically need licences covering pretty much every song.

Quite what led to TikTok deciding to go the Copyright Tribunal route against PRS and ICE in the UK is not yet clear. It was Music Ally that first spotted that said Tribunal had issued a notice confirming that “a dispute has arisen concerning the terms of a licence between [TikTok Inc] and ICE, PRS, STIM and GEMA”.

ICE, of course, is the copyright hub set up by PRS along with Swedish society STIM and German society GEMA. Among other things, it negotiates and administers multi-territory licences in the digital market on behalf of its three shareholders.

The Copyright Tribunal is a special court that can intervene when UK collecting societies are negotiating deals on behalf of their members. It exists to help overcome the competition law concerns that emerge as soon as the music industry adopts a collective licensing approach, where single organisations get to license pretty much all the recordings, or all the songs, or possibly both.

It’s usually broadcasters or concert promoters or trade bodies representing pubs and clubs who take collecting societies like PRS or PPL to Copyright Tribunal.

In the digital domain there are complications. Not least because, for multi-territory digital services, PRS only negotiates licences for a portion of its members. Most of the bigger publishers now negotiate their own deals with streaming services around their Anglo-American catalogues, bundling those elements of the copyright actually controlled by PRS into their directly-negotiated licences.

Therefore, when PRS sits down to negotiate licensing deals with streaming services, it’s only bringing a portion of its repertoire to the table. Which arguably means you no longer have the monopoly issues that the Copyright Tribunal was set up to counter.

Though there’s an added complication that, with an ICE deal, STIM and GEMA catalogue are also included. And those societies do still basically enjoy a virtual monopoly over their members’ works. But if the issue is with Swedish and German rights, why not pursue competition complaints in Sweden or Germany? So, that’s all nice and complicated isn’t it?

Confirming that TikTok had gone the Tribunal route, ICE said in a statement this week: “The TikTok platform is unlicensed and ICE is disappointed an agreement for use of the millions of musical works belonging to the songwriters, composers and publishers we represent has not been reached before this point”.

“We look forward to representing our rightsholders’ interests and securing appropriate value for the vast scale of usage of their repertoire on the platform”, it went on. “Our aim is that by following this legal process TikTok will agree a licence that fairly reflects the value of our rightsholders music”.

Of course, given how faddy internet users have proven to be, there’s always a chance that the TikTok phenomenon will be over by the time all these licensing complexities and disputes have been dealt with. Though the micro-licensing of user-generated platforms remains an under-tapped revenue stream for the music industry at large – even with the big advances Facebook paid to secure its deals – so it’s almost certainly worth music rights owners persevering on all this.

Unless, of course, TikTok manages to find a way to cut out the entire pesky music industry. Maybe by coming up with its own music!

OK, that’s not likely to happen, but another thing MusicAlly noticed while monitoring all things TikTok this week is that Bytedance has seemingly acquired UK-based AI Music set up Jukedeck. And although Jukedeck was always adamant that its aim was never to use artificial intelligence to replace the artist or the songwriter in the music making process, things would be a fuck load easier for TikTok et al if it could.

Meanwhile, we await TikTok’s Copyright Tribunal hearing with interest. I might even buy a new hat.