The United States modernizes its music licensing system

Author:Karyn A. Temple
Position:Acting Register of Copyrights and Director, United States Copyright Office

Twenty eighteen has been an historic year for copyright law in the United States. In addition to enacting the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act in October, the United States has passed sweeping legislation to transform its licensing system for musical works and to provide, for the very first time, federal remedies for unauthorized uses of pre-1972 sound recordings. The updates enacted through... (see full summary)


Many would acknowledge that these important improvements to the music landscape in the United States were desperately needed. The need to reform music licensing had been widely acknowledged for years. Music licensing has been notoriously complicated. Songwriters and recording artists, publishers and labels have been frustrated by the various rate-setting processes of a music licensing system that was becoming ever more complicated as additional layers were added in response to progressive technological developments; digital music services, libraries and individual listeners were bothered by the lack of clarity regarding protections of pre-1972 sound recordings. Improving the music licensing system for all stakeholders became more important with each technological development that made the existing system seem more esoteric and anachronistic.

The US Copyright Office: a vocal advocate for change

The US Copyright Office has recognized for some time that our music licensing system was “complex and daunting even for those familiar with the terrain,” and failed to adequately reflect the current way music is distributed online. In its 2015 music report, the Copyright Office stated that the legal system was stuck in the past with outdated legal structures that were “trying to deliver bits and bytes through a Victrola.”

The Copyright Office has been a vocal advocate for crucial updates to the music licensing system in the United States. In 2004, Marybeth Peters, the Register of Copyrights at the time, testified before Congress that “the means to create and provide music to the public has changed radically in the last decade, necessitating changes in the law to protect the rights of copyright owners while at the same time balancing the needs of the users in a digital world.”

In 2005, Ms. Peters testified about the need for a “21st Century Music Reform Act,” and the Copyright Office continued to urge music law reform in subsequent years. In her call in 2013 for the “next great copyright act,” Maria Pallante, Register of Copyrights at the time, identified music licensing reform as “particularly important.” Two years later, the Copyright Office issued a comprehensive study of music licensing and the ever-evolving needs of music creators and investors, entitled Copyright and the Music Marketplace. In that study, the Copyright Office acknowledged the barriers caused by the outdated system and proposed broad reforms, including regulating licensing of...

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