The Music Modernization Act Promises Welcome Changes to Copyright Laws

In mid-September, the U.S. Senate, in a rare bipartisan effort, unanimously passed the Music Modernization Act (the “MMA”), implementing a number of important changes to the copyright laws covering music. The House of Representatives, which had already passed its similar-but-slightly-different version of the MMA earlier this year, agreed to the changes in the Senate bill and this final version will likely be signed into law by the President in the coming days.

There are two key components to the new law. First, the MMA, true to its name, creates a modern, streamlined system for licensing the “mechanical rights” to a musical work, i.e., the songwriter/composer’s copyright in the composition. (Musical works actually consist of two copyrights ­− one covering the composition and one covering the recording of the performed music.  A clearinghouse already exists for the performance copyright but not − yet − the composition copyright.) The new system created by the MMA will include a centralized database that will identify musical works and their owners and collect and distribute royalties owed to these owners. This database and streamlined process should greatly improve the licensing and royalty process for one of the largest and fastest growing ways that consumers listen to music − streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify, or Tidal.

The second key component of the MMA may be less groundbreaking than the mechanical rights database, but it seeks to resolve a longstanding problem plaguing owners of older musical recordings. Prior to the MMA, copyright protection for musical recordings made prior to 1972 has been granted by a confusing patchwork of state laws.  The MMA now places these older recordings squarely under federal law along with more recent musical works. The prior House version of the bill had proposed longer, more industry-friendly lengths of protection for pre-1972 recordings, but the more consumer-friendly Senate version ultimately carried the day.