UK Collecting Societies To Adopt Minimum Standards

The UK government has released a minimum standards document detailing codes of conduct to be implemented by all UK collecting societies. The document details collecting societies’ obligations to rights holders and licensees, and follows recommendations made in an independent report commissioned by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.

The move is welcomed by artists and creative communities across the UK, who expect it to lead to more transparency and fairness in the operations of the collecting societies.

The six-page document is intended to “form the basis of collecting societies’ individual codes of practice,” and formalizes how collecting societies should ensure transparency of their operations, report on their activities, and handle complaints. The standards are to be implemented immediately, and are flexible, so that they can be revised or expanded in future reviews, the first of which will take place in November 2013. The 2010 report that inspired the Minimum Standards document was authored by Dr. Ian Hargreaves, Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University. Entitled “Digital Opportunity: A Review of Intellectual Property and Growth,” it argued, responding to alleged abuses of monopoly powers by collecting societies, that these organizations “should be required by law to adopt codes of practice … to ensure that they operate in a way that is consistent with the further development of efficient, open markets” (98).

With the release of the Minimum Standards document, UK collecting societies such as the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA), the Motion Picture Licensing Company (MPLC), and the Performing Rights Society for Music (PRS) join the majority of similar societies in other EU countries, which already have to follow standardized best practices. The UK move can also be seen to respond to the European Commission’s recent efforts to establish EU-wide measures to “modernise collecting societies and put in place incentives to promote their transparency and efficiency.”

Based on the minimum standards to be implemented in the UK, collecting societies will be required to ensure transparency in all its interactions with members, to publish annual reports detailing all its activities, revenues, and costs, and to provide extensive information about its tariffs, policies, and repertoire. Importantly, to counteract abuse and mishandling of the collecting societies considerable powers over creators and licensees, the societies will also be required to adopt and publicize procedures for handling complaints, to implement consistent staff training procedures, to appoint and fund independent ombudspersons, and to enable monitoring through external, independent reviewers.

Artists’ organizations such as the Writers’ Guild welcome the issuing of the minimum standards, which they see as a “major step in revamping copyright law to tackle the new digital environment.” They also complain, however, that the minimum standards do not provide details regarding how (or how quickly) the money collected on behalf of members should be distributed. The common complaint that collecting societies keep millions in unclaimed licensing fees is thus not addressed in the government-issued minimum standards.

Canadian collecting societies, including the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) and Re:Sound (representing performers and record producers), are currently not subject to best practices or minimum standards recommended by the government, but frequently garner criticism for their tariffs and their methods of redistributing collected money, most recently for the introduction of a tariff that is applied to wedding parties. Criticism of the specific ways in which Canadian collecting societies operate, however, does not have a large platform. A Canada-specific set of guidelines such as the ones outlined in “Minimum Standards for UK Collecting Societies” would be sure to benefit Canadian creators whose livelihood depends on the fair conduct of collecting societies, and could furthermore provide a basis for broader discussions of issues encountered by artists and licensees alike.

Martin Zeilinger is a SSHRC Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in Law and Culture at York University’s Joint Graduate Program in Communication and Culture.