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5 Real Ways YouTube Can Fix Its Problems With the Music Industry (Guest Column)

On August 17, YouTube Global Head of Music Lyor Cohen posted an article on the company’s blog in which he wrote about “the current state of YouTube’s relationship with the [music] industry.” The platform has received no shortage of criticism for paying what many feel are insufficient royalties to creators, labels and publishers, and several people in the industry criticized Cohen’s blog post. David Israelite, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association, joins the fray below.

Lyor Cohen recently wrote a piece defending YouTube and what it has done to benefit songwriters and artists, which included “five factors that explain the current situation.” The industry has responded forcefully — rightly so — and pointed out the many deficiencies in Mr. Cohen’s arguments and in YouTube’s actions. In an effort to help Mr. Cohen and his friends at YouTube and its parent company Google, we suggest five ways YouTube can actually be successful in working with the music creators it claims to help promote. If YouTube is serious about treating and paying creators fairly, these are actual steps they can take beyond a blog post.

First, YouTube must commit to “take down, stay down” — or keeping infringing videos down after a proper DMCA takedown notice. We know this can be done. In fact, YouTube should be commended for quickly, effectively and permanently blocking hate and pornographic videos. It is clear to songwriters and artists that keeping videos that contain infringing material down isn’t something they can’t do, it’s something they won’t do. It is time for YouTube to step out from behind the protections of the DMCA and work with the music industry to ensure that where copyright owners identify infringing content, that material is taken down permanently.  Show songwriters and artists that their rights — and the time taken to protect those rights — are a priority to YouTube.

Second, YouTube must provide greater transparency into and scrutiny of their “partners,” including multi-channel networks (MCNs) that operate unchecked on the YouTube platform. YouTube is aware that many of these partners do not have licenses to use the massive amounts of music contained within their videos, but it has chosen to remain willfully blind. And it continues to collect substantial revenue from these MCNs while artists and songwriters are paid nothing for the use of their music. Again, YouTube must demonstrate that it values songwriters and artist as business partners equal to the MCNs. Making public the list of MCNs and partners operating on the YouTube platform, and working with copyright owners to address those partners who use music unlicensed, is an important and doable first step.

Third, Lyor puts a large emphasis on transparency in the industry. Sadly, however, YouTube is anything but transparent when it comes to royalty payments it has made to songwriters and artists. Mr. Cohen himself provides an incredibly vague explanation as to why YouTube’s royalties seem too low, blaming it on international payments. Specifically — or, rather, unspecifically — he says, “YouTube is global and the numbers get diluted by lower contributions in developing markets.” Why not simply make public YouTube’s royalty payments in each country? This would go a long way toward the industry transparency he claims is so important. Instead, he implores us to trust that they are “working the ads hustle like crazy.” Mr. Cohen’s comments provide little consolation to the working songwriters who are hustling every day, and who need more than ambiguous promises.

Speaking of payments, our fourth suggestion is that YouTube look to its competitors and pay at least as much as they do to songwriters. Mr. Cohen compares his platform to Spotify, which arguably provides a reduced service since its music isn’t accompanied with video. But Spotify and other subscription services such as Apple Music pay a statutory minimum rate for interactive streaming, and YouTube does not. Paying this minimum rate — dictated by Section 115 of the Copyright Act and determined by the courts — would provide a floor for working writers who need a minimum wage from the world’s largest music service. Though music played on YouTube is not a traditional mechanical reproduction covered under Section 115, this would guarantee songwriters something reliable they could take to the bank — and is still woefully inadequate, considering the contribution songwriters make to YouTube’s services.

Finally, our fifth suggestion is stylistic: YouTube should change its tone when it comes to takedowns. For years, YouTube displayed a red sad face where a proper takedown of pirated material occurred. This gave millions, if not billions, of consumers the idea that when the law is enforced, it’s something to be upset about. This taught users — particularly millennials — to expect free content on the Internet. However, imagine the reality for songwriters and music creators — who poured their hearts and finances into creating something — to see a digital company that is using their work express disappointment when their rights are enforced. No one wants music to be taken down, but we do need a legitimate Internet marketplace, as opposed to the Wild West where writers are the casualties. Their work deserves to be valued, and it’s disappointing when it’s stolen, not the other way around.

As an association, we at NMPA have worked with YouTube to fix problems in the past. We know they can do better, and we appreciate Mr. Cohen’s love of music. But if he really wants to promote the creators of it, he should pay them what they deserve.

David Israelite is the President and CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA). Founded in 1917, NMPA is the trade association representing all American music publishers and their songwriting partners.

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