Time Travel, Teleportation And Music Publishing Metadata

1 (1)This article looks at the value of metadata, as well as the challenge of keeping it accurate and up-to-date over time, as ownership and rights can easily change from year to year, as well the difficulties of dealing with geographical shifts.

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Guest Post by Annie Lin

If you work in music publishing, you've probably heard a lot about metadata this year

When people discuss music publishing metadata, the debate typically focuses on the availability and quality of ownership information, or the absence thereof. It is generally understood that quality metadata can (or should be) used by licensees to secure licenses and pay rights holders.  Some believe that metadata should be made widely available, while others believe that access should be restricted. Either way, metadata is typically portrayed as a linear roadmap that can help a prospective licensee get from songwriter and publisher to a license for a sound recording.

However, the reality is that the information captured by metadata is multi-dimensional, not linear. Good metadata is not a static one-to-one map of who owns what, but rather a log that records actionable copyright business information over time. In its most complete form, song metadata captures all of the information needed to ensure that participants in a chain of rights are compensated appropriately. Metadata not only documents all of the music rights that make up a song copyright, but also the people and business entities that interact with the copyright, as well as the business implications of those interactions over time.

Music Rights and Chronology

Those who work in music publishing often refer to the life of a copyright which, like the life of a person, is the sum of an infinite number of moments over time. During the life of a copyright, the rights which make up a song copyright can infinitely be unbundled, subdivided, licensed, and transferred to various parties, during various periods, and throughout various territories. Even for a single song, a complete metadata picture accounts for ownership information not merely for today, but also for yesterday and all of the days, months, and years which make up that song's copyright term. 

Because of this, information that does not capture chronological information often raises more questions than it answers.  Due to catalog acquisitions, deaths, bankruptcies, and many other factors, the answer to the question "who owns that song" may not always be the same as you travel back in time. The history of any given song may be simple or, in the case of commercial music that is recorded, released, re-released, and/or used in a variety other media, incredibly complex. For example: if you attempt to pay royalties under a 2009 license with a rights holder that no longer owns the song, you might ask: when was the song sold to someone else? Who owns the song now, and more importantly, who should I pay? 

Music Rights and Geography

1Geography is another dimension that is relevant to song metadata, since a rights holder may reserve the right to administer a song in certain territories or transfer those rights to a sub publisher, whether permanently or for a period of time. This is the reason why a particular right may be associated with one of any number of territorial restrictions (some examples: "the United States and its territories and possessions", "worldwide ex-US", or event "BRT -- British Reversionary Territories only"). 

This dimension of song metadata means that a music user must consider not only who owns a song, but also whether the parties own the song in the territory where the song may be used. You would not, for example, seek a license for song usage in the US from a German sub publisher; you would seek the rights holder that has the ability to license in the United States. Each music publisher has its own set of business rules drawn from what sub publishers it has appointed to handle collections or certain types of licenses in other territories, and these rules also need to be reflected in any robust metadata system that supports worldwide licensing. 

The Long Game: Investing In Music Rights Infrastructure 

At its best, music metadata presents a comprehensive summary of the transactions that can take place during the life of a music copyright. Since publishing revenue is generated by micro-transactions (streams) and then allocated based on metadata, even seemingly arcane pieces of information can have a significant downstream impact.

As such, the ability to ingest, understand, and effectively parse music metadata is almost as important, or arguably as important, as the information itself, regardless of the prevailing opinion in the metadata debate. If licensees must first contend with label deals, then publishing deals and the infrastructure needed to support those deals must follow. Metadata-friendly infrastructure is a long-term investment that will become increasingly important as licensees seek to extract and code business logic based on catalog data.

ABOUT ANNIE LIN: Annie Lin is general counsel at Loudr. She's also a former touring musician who has worked in music rights for more than a decade. When she's not overseeing business and legal affairs at Loudr, she can usually be found at various rock shows and record stores in San Francisco.