Payment pending; Canadian recording industry set for six billion penalties?

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The monument to Chet Baker in Amsterdam.
Image: Jeroen Coert.
Logo of the CRIA, the industry body which represents the four record companies named as defendants.

A report published last week in the Toronto Star by Professor Michael Geist of Canada's University of Ottawa claims a copyright case under the Class Proceedings Act of 1992 may see the country's largest players in the music industry facing upwards of C$6 billion in penalties.

The case is being led by the family and estate of the late jazz musician Chet Baker; moving to take legal action against four major labels in the country, and their parent companies. The dispute centres around unpaid royalties and licensing fees for use of Baker's music, and hundreds of thousands of other works. The suit was initially filed in August last year, but amended and reissued on October 6, two months later. At that point both the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) and Society for Reproduction Rights of Authors (SODRAC) were also named defendants.

For publishers, performers, and rightsholders

January this year SODRAC and CMRRA switch sides, joining Baker et al. as plaintiffs against Sony BMG Music, EMI Music Canada, Universal Music Canada and Warner Music Canada. David A. Basskin, President and CEO of CMRRA, with a professional law background, stated in a sworn affidavit that his organisation made numerous attempts over the last 20 years to reduce what is known as the "pending list", a list of works not correctly licensed for reproduction; a list of copyright infringements in the eyes of the Baker legal team.

The theoretical principle of the list is to allow timely commercial release while rights and apportionment of monies due are resolved. Basskin complains that it is "economically infeasible to implement the systems that would be needed to resolve the issues internally". And, "[...] for their part, the record labels have generally been unwilling to take the steps that, in the view of CMRRA, would help to resolve the problem."

The Baker action demands that the four named major labels pay for and submit to an independent audit of their books, "including the contents of the 'Pending Lists'". Seeking an assessment of gains made by the record companies in "failure or refusal to compensate the class members for their musical works", additional demands are for either damages and profits per the law applicable in a class action, or statutory damages per the Copyright Act for copyright infringement.

Cquote1.svg [...] for their part, the record labels have generally been unwilling to take the steps that, in the view of CMRRA, would help to resolve the problem. Cquote2.svg

—David A. Basskin, CMRRA,
Affidavit supporting class action

This forms the basis for Professor Geist's six billion dollar calculation along with Basskin's sworn testimony that the pending lists cover over 300,000 items; with each item counted as an infringement, the minimum statutory damages per case are CA$500, the maximum $20,000.

CMRRA

Basskin's affidavit on behalf of CMRRA goes into detail on the history leading up to the current situation and class action lawsuit; a previous compulsory license scheme, with poor recordkeeping requirements, and which, had a decline in real terms to one of the lowest fees in the world, was eventually abolished and the mechanical license system introduced. The CMRRA went on to become a significant representative of music publishers and copyright holders, and the pending list an instrument to deal with situations where mechanical rights were as-yet not completely negotiated. Basskin's affidavit claiming the list grew and circumstances worsened as time progressed.

The Mechanical Licensing Agreement (MLA) between the "majors'" industry body, an attached exhibit to the affidavit, is set to expire December 31, 2012; this is between CMRRA and the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA). With the original MLA expiring at end September 1990, CMRRA negotiated more detailed terms and a "code of conduct". Subsequent agreements were drawn up in 1998, 2004, 2006, and 2008.

Basskin asserts that the named record company defendants are the "major" labels in Canada and states they "are also responsible for creating, maintaining and administering the so-called "Pending Lists" that are the subject of the current litigation"; that, specific to publishing, divisions of the four represent the "'major' music publishers active in Canada". Yet the number of music publishers they represent has decreased over time due to consolidation and defection from the CRIA.

Geist summarizes the record company strategy as "exploit now, pay later if at all". This despite the CMRRA and SODRAC being required to give lists of all collections they represented to record labels, and for record labels to supply copies of material being released to permit assessment of content that either group may represent interested parties for. Where actual Mechanical License Agreements are in place, Basskin implies their terms are particularly broad and preclude any party exercising their legal right to decline to license.

Specific to the current Mechanical Licensing Agreement (MLA) between the CMRRA and the CRIA; a "label is required to provide an updated cumulative Pending List to CMRRA with each quarterly payment of royalties under the MLA." The CMRRA is required to review the list and collect where appropriate royalties and interest due. Basskin describes his first encounter with pending lists, having never heard of them before 1989, thus:

Cquote1.svg [...I]n the early years of my tenure, CRMMA received Pending Lists from the record labels in the form of paper printouts of information. The information contained on these lists varied from record label to record label, [... i]n fact, within a few days after my arrival at CMRRA, I recall my predecessor, Paul Berry, directing my attention to a large stack of paper, about two feet high. and informing me that it was PolyGram's most recent Pending List. Prior to that introduction I had never heard of Pending Lists. Cquote2.svg

SODRAC

Alain Lauzon, General Manager of Canada's Society for Reproduction Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (SODRAC) submitted his followup affidavit January 28, 2009 to be attached to the case and identify the society as a plaintiff. As such, he up-front states "I have knowledge of the matters set out herein." Lauzon, a qualified Chartered Accountant with an IT specialisation, joined SODRAC in 2002 with "over 20 years of business experience." He is responsible for "negotiation and administration of industry-wide agreements for the licensing of music reproduction and distribution"; licensing of radio and online music services use is within his remit.

Lauzon makes it clear that Baker's estate, other rightsholders enjoined to the case, SODRAC, and CMRRA, have reached an agreed settlement; they wish to move forward with a class proceeding against the four main members of the CRIA. He requests that the court recognise this in relation to the initially accepted case from August 2008.

Cquote1.svg The responsibility to obtain mechanical licenses for recordings manufactured and/or released in Canada falls with the Canadian labels by law, by industry custom, and by contractual agreement. Cquote2.svg

—David Basskin, CMRRA

The preamble of the affidavit continues to express strong agreement with that of David Basskin from CMRRA. Lauzon concurs regarding growing use of "pending lists" and that "[...] record labels have generally been unwilling to take the steps that would help to resolve the Pending List problem."

With his background as an authority, Lauzon states with confidence that SODRAC represents "approximately 10 to 15% of all musical works that are reproduced on sound recordings sold in Canada." For Quebec the figure is more than 50%.

Lauzon agrees that the four named record company defendants are the "major" labels in Canada, and that smaller independent labels will usually work with them or an independent distribution company; and Basskin's statement that "[t]he responsibility to obtain mechanical licenses for recordings manufactured and/or released in Canada falls with the Canadian labels by law, by industry custom, and by contractual agreement."

The industry's side: lobbyists?

Wikinews attempted to contact people at the four named defendant CRIA-member record labels. The recipient of an email that Wikinews sent to Warner Brothers Canada forwarded our initial correspondence to Hogarth PR; the other three majors failed to respond in a timely fashion. Don Hogarth responded to Wikinewsie Brian McNeil, and, without addressing any of the submitted questions, recommended a blog entry by Barry Sookman as, what he claimed is, a more accurate representation of the facts of the case.

Cquote1.svg I am aware of another viewpoint that provides a reasonably deep explanation of the facts, at www.barrysookman.com. If you check the bio on his site, you’ll see that he is very qualified to speak on these issues. This may answer some of your questions. I hope that helps. Cquote2.svg

Sookman is a lobbyist at the Canadian Parliament who works in the employ of the the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA). Hogarth gave no indication or disclosure of this; his direction to the blog is to a posting with numerous factual inaccuracies, misdirecting statements, or possibly even lies; if not lies, Sookman is undoubtedly not careful or "very qualified" in the way he speaks on the issue.

The third dated stamp; October 6, 2008. A stamp belonging to the Superior Court with the registrar's signature and mark of acceptance.

Sookman's blog post opens with a blast at Professor Geist: "his attacks use exaggeration, misleading information and half truths to achieve his obvious ends". Sookman attempts to dismiss any newsworthiness in Geist's article;

Cquote1.svg [... A]s if something new has happened with the case. In fact, the case was started in August 2008 (not October 2008 as asserted by Prof. Geist). It also hasn’t only been going on “for the past year”, as he claims. Chet Baker isn’t “about to add a new claim to fame”. Despite having started over a year and a half ago, the class action case hasn’t even been certified yet. So why the fervour to publicise the case now? Cquote2.svg
HAVE YOUR SAY
Wikinews commentary.svg
Should the court use admitted unpaid amounts, or maximum statutory damages – as the record industry normally seeks against filesharers?

As the extracted [see right] stamp, date, and signature, shows, the court accepted amendments to the case and its submission, as Professor Geist asserts, on October 6. The previously mentioned submissions by the heads of CMRRA and SODRAC were indeed actions within the past year; that of SODRAC's Alain Louzon being January 28 this year.

Sookman continues his attack on Professor Geist, omitting that the reverse appears the case; analysis of his blog's sitemap reveals he wrote a 44-page attack on Professor Geist in February 2008, accusing him of manipulating the media and using influence on Facebook to oppose copyright reform favourable to the CRIA. In the more current post he states:

Cquote1.svg Prof. Geist tries to taint the recording industry as blatant copyright infringers, without ever delving into the industry wide accepted custom for clearing mechanical rights. The pending list system, which has been around for decades, represents an agreed upon industry wide consensus that songwriters, music publishers (who represent songwriters) and the recording industry use and rely on to ensure that music gets released and to the market efficiently and the proper copyright owners get compensated. Cquote2.svg

This characterisation of the pending list only matches court records in that it "has been around for decades". CMRRA's Basskin, a lawyer and industry insider, goes into great detail on the major labels resisting twenty years of collective societies fighting, and failing, to negotiate a situation where the labels take adequate measures to mechanically license works and pay due fees, royalties, and accrued interest.

Comparison of increasing pending list value quarter on quarter

What Sookman clearly overlooks is that, without factoring in any interest amounts, the dollar value of the pending list is increasing, as shown with the following two tables for mid-2008.

Second quarter 2008 pending lists data
Image: Basskin's affidavit on behalf of CMRRA.
Third quarter 2008 pending lists data
Image: Basskin's affidavit on behalf of CMRRA.


As is clear, there is an increase of C$1,101,987.83 in a three-month period. Should this rate of increase in the value of the pending list continue and Sony's unvalued pending list be factored in, the CRIA's four major labels will have an outstanding debt of at least C$73 million by end-2012 when the association's Mechanical Licensing Agreement runs out.

Sources

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