Economy

The Music Modernization Act May Limit Big Name Recording Artists’ Leverage in Negotiations with Music Streaming Companies

By: Julia Lisi, MJLST Staffer

Encircled by several supportive recording artists, President Trump signed the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) into law on October 11, 2018. Supporters laud the MMA as a long overdue update for U.S. copyright law. Federal law governs roughly 75% of recording artists’ compensation, according to some estimates. The federal regulatory scheme for music license fees dates back to 1909, before the advent of music streaming. Though the scheme has been tweaked since 1909, the MMA marks a major regulatory shift to accommodate the large market for music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

Prior to the MMA, streaming services virtually had two options for acquiring music catalogs: (1) either acquire licenses for each individual song or, (2) provide music without licenses and prepare for infringement suits. Apple Music adopted the first strategy and as a result initially suffered from a much leaner music catalog. Spotify went with the second strategy, setting aside funds to weather litigation.

The MMA offers a preexisting mechanism, the mechanical license, on a broader scale. Once the MMA takes full effect, streaming services can receive blanket licenses to entire catalogs of music, all in one transaction. The MMA establishes the Mechanical Licensing Collective (the “Collective”), a board of industry participants, which will set license prices. The MMA is, in part, meant to ensure that more participants in the music industry will be paid for their work. For example, music producers and engineers can expect to receive more compensation under the MMA.

While the MMA may broaden the pool of industry participants who get compensation from streaming, the MMA could weaken big name artists’ bargaining positions with streaming services. Recording artists like Taylor Swift and Adele have struggled to keep their albums off streaming services like Spotify. Swift resisted music streaming based on her conviction that streaming services did not fairly compensate artists, writers, and producers. While Swift may have come to an agreement with Spotify and allowed her albums to be streamed, there are still holdouts. More than two years after its release, Beyoncé’s Lemonade still is not on Spotify.

With the Collective controlling royalty rates, big name artists might not have the holdout power that they wield now. If Swift’s music had been lumped into a collective mechanical license, she may not have had the authority to withdraw or withhold her albums from streaming services. The MMA’s mechanical licenses are compulsory, indicating the lower level of control copyright owners may have. Despite this potential loss of leverage, the MMA is widely supported by artists and industry executives alike. Only time will tell whether the Collective’s set prices will make compensation within the music industry fairer, as proponents suggest.


And Then AI Came For The Lawyers…?

Matt McCord, MJLST Staffer

 

Artificial intelligence’s possibility to make many roles redundant has generated no small amount of policy and legal discussion and analysis. Any number of commentators have speculated on AI’s capacity to transform the economy far more substantially than the automation boom of the last half-century; one discussion on ABC’s Q&A described the difference in today’s technology development trends as being “alinear” as opposed to predictable, like the car, a carriage with an engine, supplanting a carriage drawn by a horse.

Technological development has largely helped to streamline law practice and drive new sources of business and avenues for marketing. Yet, AI may be coming for lawyers’ jobs next. A New Zealand firm is working to develop AI augmentation for legal services. The firm, MinterEllisonRuddWatts, looks to be in the early stages of developing this system, having entered into a joint venture agreement to work on development pathways.

The firm claims that the AI would work to reduce the more mundane analytic tasks from lawyers’ workloads, such as contract analysis and document review, but would only result in the labor force having to “reduce,” not be “eliminated.” Yet, the development of law-competent AI may result in massive levels of workforce reduction and transformation: Mills & Reeve’s Paul Knight believes that the adoption will shutter many firms and vastly shrink the need for, in particular, junior lawyers.

Knight couches this prediction in sweetening language, stating that the tasks remaining for lawyers would be “more interesting,” leading to a more efficient, more fulfilled profession engaging in new specialties and roles. Adopting AI on the firm level has clear benefits for firms looking to maximize profit per employee: current-form AI, according to one study, AI is more accurate than many human attorneys in spotting contract issues, and vastly more efficient, completing a 90-minute task in 30 seconds.

Knight, like many AI promoters, claims that the profession, and society at large, should embrace AI’s role in transforming professions by transfiguring labor force requirements, believing AI’s benefits of increasing efficiency and work fulfillment by reducing human interaction with more mundane tasks. These words will likely do little to assuage the nerves of younger, prospective market entrants and attorney specializing in these “more mundane” areas, who may be wondering if AI’s development may eliminate their role from the labor force.

While AI’s mass deployment in the law is currently limited, due in part to high costs, experimental technology, and limited current applications, machine learning, especially recursive learning and adaptation, may bring this development firmly into the forefront of the field unpredictably, quickly, and possibly in the very near future.


Airbnb Regulations Spark Controversy, but Have Limited Effect on Super Bowl Market

MJLST Staffer, Sam Louwagie

 

As Super Bowl LII descends upon Minneapolis, many Twin Cities residents are hoping to receive a windfall by renting out their homes to visiting Eagles and Patriots fans. City regulations placed last fall on online short-term rental platforms such as AirBnB, which prompted an outcry from those platforms, do not appear to be having much of an effect on the dramatic surge in supply.

The short-term rental market in Minneapolis has been a renter’s market in the opening days since the Super Bowl matchup was set. There are 5,000 placements in the Twin Cities on AirBnB this week, as compared to 1,000 at this time last year, according to the Star Tribune. The flood of posted housing options has limited prices, as the average listing has cost $240 per night—more than usual, but much less than the thousands of dollars some would-be renters had hoped for. One homeowner told the Star Tribune that she had gotten no interest in her 4,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house just five blocks from U.S. Bank Stadium, and had “cut the price drastically.”

The surge in AirBnB listings comes despite ordinances that went into effect in December in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The cities joined a growing list of major U.S. cities that are passing regulations aimed at ensuring guest safety and making a small cut of tax revenue from the rentals. Minneapolis’ ordinance requires a short-term renter to apply for a license with the city, which costs $46 annually. St. Paul’s license costs $40 per year. As of mid-December, according to MinnPost, only 18 applications had been submitted in Minneapolis and only 32 in St. Paul. That would suggest that many of the thousands of listings during Super Bowl week are likely unlicensed. The cities both say they will notify renters they are not in compliance before taking any enforcement action, but a violation will cost $500 in Minneapolis and $300 in St. Paul.

The online rental platforms themselves had strongly objected to the passage of the ordinances, which would require Airbnb to apply for a short-term rental platform license. This would bring a $10,000 annual fee in St. Paul and a $5,000 large platform fee in Minneapolis. According to MinnPost, as of mid-December, no platforms had submitted an application and it was “unclear whether they [would] comply.” Airbnb said in a statement that it believes the regulations violate the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, and that “the ordinance violates the legal rights of Airbnb and its community.”

While the city ordinances created controversy in the legal world, they do not seem to be having a similar effect on the ground in Minneapolis, as Super Bowl guests still have a dramatic surplus of renting options.


The Electric Vehicle: A Microcosm for America’s Problem with Innovation

Zach Sibley, MJLST Staffer

 

Last year, former U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director, David Kappos, criticized a series of changes in patent legislation and case law for weakening innovation protections and driving technology investments towards China. Since then it has become apparent that America’s problem with innovation runs deeper than just the strength of U.S. patent rights. State and federal policies toward new industries also appear to be trending against domestic innovation. One illustrative example is the electric vehicle (EV).

 

EVs offer better technological upsides than their internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) counterparts. Most notably, as our US grid system moves toward “smart” infrastructure that leverages the Internet of Things, EVs can interact with the grid and assist in maximizing the efficiency of its infrastructure in ways not possible with ICEVs. Additionally, with clean air and emission targets imminent—like those in the Clean Air Act or in more stringent state legislation—EVs offer the most immediate impact in reducing mobile source air pollutants, especially in a sector that recently became the highest carbon dioxide emitter. And finally, EVs present electrical utilities that are facing a “death spiral” an opportunity to recover profits by increasing electricity demand.   

 

Recent state and federal policy changes, however, may hinder efforts of EV innovators. Eighteen state legislators have enacted EV fees—including Wisconsin’s recent adoption, and the overturned fee in Oklahoma—ranging from $50 to $300 in some states. Proponents claim the fee creates parity between traditional ICEV drivers and the new EV drivers not paying fuel taxes that fund maintenance of transportation infrastructure. Recent findings, though, suggest EV drivers in some states with the fee were previously paying more upfront in taxes than their ICEV road-mates. The fee also only creates parity when solely focused on the wear and tear all vehicles cause on shared road infrastructure. The calculus for these fees often neglects that EV and ICEV drivers also share the same air resources and yet no tax accompanies EV fees that would also charge ICEVs for their share of wear and tear on air quality.

 

At the federal level, changes in administrative policy are poised to exacerbate the problem further. The freshly proposed GOP tax bill includes a provision to repeal a $7,500 rebate that has made lower cost EVs a more affordable option for middle class drivers. This change should be contrasted with foreign efforts, such as those in the European Union to increase CO2 reduction targets and offer credits for EV purchases. The contrast can be summed up with one commentator’s observation regarding The New York Times who reported, within the span of a few days, about the U.S. EPA’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan and then about General Motors moving toward a full electric line in response to the Chinese government. The latter story harkens back to Kappos’ comments at the beginning of this post, where again a changing U.S. legal and regulatory landscaping is driving innovation elsewhere.

 

It is a basic tenant of economics that incentives matter. Even in a state with a robust EV presence like California, critics question the wisdom of assessing fees and repealing incentives this early in a nascent industry offering a promising technological future. The U.S. used to be great because it was the world’s gold standard for innovation: the first light bulb, the first car, the first airplane, the first to the moon, and the first personal computers (to name a few). Our laws need to continue to reflect our innovative identity. Hopefully, with legislation like the STRONG Patents Act of 2017 and a series of state EV incentives on the horizon, we can return to our great innovative roots.


In Doge We Trust

Richard Yo, MJLST Staffer

Despite the closure of virtually all U.S.-based Bitcoin exchanges in 2013 due to Congressional review and the uncertainty with which U.S. banks viewed its viability, the passion for cryptocurrencies has remained strong, especially among technologists and venture capitalists. This passion reached an all-time high in 2017 when one Bitcoin exchanged for 5000 USD.** Not more than five years ago, Bitcoin exchanged for 13 USD. For all its adoring supporters, however, cryptocurrencies have yet to gain traction in mainstream commerce for several reasons.

Cryptocurrencies, particularly Bitcoin, have been notoriously linked to dark web locales such as the now-defunct Silk Road. A current holder of Bitcoin, Litecoin, or Monero, would be hard pressed to find a completely legal way to spend his coins or tokens without second guessing himself. A few legitimate enterprises, such as Microsoft, will accept Bitcoin but only with very strict limitations, effectively scrubbing it of its fiat currency-like qualities.

The price of your token can take a volatile 50% downswing or 3000% upswing in a matter of days, if not hours. If you go to the store expecting to purchase twenty dollars’ worth of groceries, you want to be sure that the amount of groceries you had in mind at the beginning of your trip is approximately the amount of groceries you will be able to bring back home.

After the U.S. closures, cryptocurrency exchanges found havens in countries with strong technology bases. Hotbeds include China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, among others. However, the global stage has recently added more uncertainty to the future of cryptocurrency. In March 2017, the Bank of Japan declared Bitcoin as an official form of payment. Senators in Australia are attempting to do the same. China and Russia, meanwhile, are home to most Bitcoin miners (Bitcoin is “mined” in the sense that transactions are verified by third-party computers, the owners of which are rewarded for their mining with Bitcoins of their own) due to low energy costs in those two nations and yet are highly suspicious of cryptocurrencies. China has recently banned the use of initial coin offerings (ICOs) to generate funds and South Korea has followed suit. Governments are unsure of how best to regulate, or desist from regulating, these exchanges and the companies that provide the token and coins. There’s also a legitimate question as to whether a cryptocurrency can be regulated given the nimbleness of the technology.

On this issue, some of the most popular exchanges are sometimes referred to as “regulated.” In truth, this is usually not in the way that consumers would think a bank or other financial institution is regulated. Instead, the cryptocurrency exchange usually imposes regulations on itself to ensure stability for its client base. It requires several forms of identification and multi-factor authentication that rivals (and sometimes exceeds) the security provided by traditional banks. These were corrections that were necessary after the epic 2014 failure of the then-largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world, Mt. Gox.

Such self-adjustments, self-regulation, and stringency are revealing. In the days of the Clinton administration when internet technology’s ascent was looming, the U.S. government adopted a framework for its regulation. That framework was unassuming and could possibly be pared to a single rule: we will regulate it when it needs regulating. It asked that this technology be left in the hands of those who understand it best and allow it to flourish.

This seems to be the approach that most national governments are taking. They seem to be imposing restrictions only when deemed necessary, not banning cryptocurrencies outright.

For Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the analogous technology may be the “blockchain” that underlies their structure, not the tokens or coins themselves. The blockchain is a digital distributed ledger that provides anonymity, uniformity, and public (or private) access, using complex algorithms to verify and authenticate information. When someone excitedly speaks about the possibilities of Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency, they are often describing the features of blockchain technology, not the coin.

Blockchain technology has already proven itself in several fields of business and many others are hoping to utilize it to effectuate the efficient and reliable dissemination and integration of information. This could potentially have sweeping effects in areas such as medical record-keeping or title insurance. It’s too early to know and far too early to place restrictions. Ultimately, cryptocurrencies may be the canary that gets us to better things, not the pickaxe.

 

*Dogecoin is the cryptocurrency favored by the Shina Inu breed of dog, originally created as a practical joke, but having since retained its value and now used as a legitimate form of payment.

**The author holds, or has held, Bitcoin, Ether, Litecoin, Ripple, and Bitcoin Cash.


The “Fourth Industrial Revolution”: Queue Chaos And Disarray

Rhett Schwichtenberg, MJLST Staffer

We are all familiar with Hollywood’s drastic miscalculations when predicting the future. In Timecop, which took place in 2004, time-travel was the conventional means of transportation. In the world of Marty McFly, 2015 marked the year where hoverboards were the standard means of transportation. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the moon was colonized by 2001. The list goes on. While we [unfortunately] see none of this today, perhaps Hollywood was not too far off.

Today, robots are shaping the way we live and have contributed a world of good to society. While Google Glass might have been an utter failure, Google’s Self-Driving Car Project is making fast advances to provide the world with hand-free, piece-of-mind driving. Taxi giant, Uber, has also entered the self-driving market with the implementation of self-driving Uber vehicles in the Pittsburgh market. Self-driving technology has the ability to eliminate the extreme and unnecessary amount of traffic deaths occurring every day in addition to providing a reliable mode of transportation for individuals that cannot operate a vehicle. Apart from the transportation industry, robots are growing rapidly in nearly every industry including the agriculture, food service, manufacturing, military, and rehabilitation industries.

Earlier this year, the EU made a proposal calling for the classification of autonomous  robots as “electronic persons.” If codified, this proposal could bestow legal rights upon robots, require companies to pay a social security tax for using them, and impose a liability insurance upon companies using robots in order to protect against any harm they might cause. While ridiculed by many, is there no merit in this proposal?

The age of robotics that is currently among us is being referred to as the “fourth industrial revolution” by economists. The first industrial revolution introduced steam power, the second, electric power, and the third, electronics and information technology. While the past three industrial revolutions have advanced at a linear rate (occurring approximately one-hundred years apart) the current revolution is advancing exponentially. Previous technology has threatened blue-collar jobs, but has never caused us to question whether jobs will even exist in the near future. With the implementation of quantum computing looming, the professionals in scientific and medical fields might experience issues of job security.

Alan Manning, leading author in labor economics and professor at the London School of Economics, seems to remain calm, cool, and collected when tasked with answering the question of how autonomy will affect the labor market. He strongly opines that such technology should not be taxed. Implementing the proposed tax will slow the advancement and use of such technology. Instead, Manning expects investment in modern technology to increase productivity and, at worst, leave the labor market where it currently stands. Manning believes the expert prediction that 47% of jobs will be threatened by autonomic robots is just that, a mere prediction. He retorts that such a prediction is grounded in ignorance rather than educated measures. Manning states that the entire job market must be looked at, not just the specific occupations that will see job reduction. Looking at the job market as a whole, Manning admits that jobs will be lost in some areas, but trusts that new jobs will arise due to an increase in companies’ spending power through the use of autonomic robotics.

So given that autonomic robotics and advanced computing technology is already written in our future, what are the implications of such technology? The simple answer is: we must wait and see.


Regulating the Sharing Economy: Fostering Innovation and Safety

Steven Groschen, MJLST Managing Editor

The sharing economy is a marketplace for individuals to exchange goods and services directly with one another. In the past, sharing economy participants, whom wished to lend their property and time directly to others, had the challenge of finding a way to connect with individuals seeking to borrow property and services. The internet and other modern communication systems have provided opportunities for overcoming this barrier. Consequently, the cost of matching a particular individual’s demand with another individual’s supply (i.e. transaction costs) within the sharing economy has been greatly reduced. As a result, sharing is quickly becoming a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for ordinary consumers.

Not everyone is fond of the sharing economy movement. Long-established institutions and industries are experiencing increased competition by competitors whom are not always required to play by the same rules. For instance, the increasingly popular ride sharing system, Uber, has received scrutiny from players in the current taxi system. They argue that Uber is unfairly competing because it is not subject to the same regulations as traditional taxi drivers.

Regulators are challenged to find the optimal method of regulating the emerging sharing economy. Enacting regulations that are too strict will impede the innovation generated by sharing economy startup companies. On the other hand, regulations that are too lenient may threaten another core value: protecting the safety of consumers. Unregulated and non-centrally controlled systems of transportation run the risk of having a wide variance in outcomes. One Uber taxi driver may be perfectly safe, whereas another creates a hazard on the streets. Some are concerned there should be more government oversight and regulation addressing these risky drivers.

Professor Sofia Ranchordás suggests “establishing, broader, principle-based regulation[s]” is the answer to the legal problems created by the sharing economy. The use of principles rather than specific regulations acknowledges that technology is constantly changing. Broad regulations are designed to be more adaptable to changes in technology. As a result, this method of regulation protects two of the important goals of the sharing economy. First, bottom-up innovation is not stifled by rigid regulations that prohibit experimentation. Startup companies in the sharing economy are free to experiment so long as they stay within the boundaries of the broad principles. Second, there is more flexibility to create regulations addressing concerns for safety and general consumer protection. Regulators are not restricted to a narrow definition of what is “safe,” thus technology changes affecting safety are more easily managed.