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Why 100-Year-Old Player Pianos Are Important To Music Licensing

Rarely does a century-old musical instrument drive policy in Washington, but that’s what’s happening in music licensing at this moment. Pianos and paper are the at the center of a modern update to how musicians and writers are paid for their works.


By Michael Beckerman

Almost everyone from Internet Association (IA) members to artists to record labels are supporting a new piece of legislation called the Music Modernization Act (MMA), that will help bring music licensing into the digital age. The bill unanimously passed in the U.S. House recently, and now heads to the Senate.

So what’s the driving force behind this new bill?

Answer: player pianos. Yes, I’m serious!

The Music Modernization Act replaces an outdated music licensing system; designed for the age of player pianos, and establishes one that works for everybody involved in the music-making process. The result: a more competitive, consumer-centric marketplace that allows for future innovation in music streaming.

Read: Is music streaming a sign we are near the end of ownership?

Legally, any public performance of a piece of music, whether a radio station, streaming service, Starbucks, your favorite bar, or any other public establishment that plays music, is required by law to pay royalties (music licensing fees) to a collecting agency, who then pays the musicians, writers, and  publishers a portion of the money collected.

The current “mechanical licensing” system, which grants the right to reproduce and distribute copyrighted music for streaming, is outdated. It was written into law in 1909 to mediate disputes between songwriters and manufacturers of player pianos, which were, in a sense, the streaming platforms of their day. This new kind of music licensing allowed songwriters to be compensated when their music was played by the pianos.

Although folks no longer head down to the saloon for a bottle of whiskey (or sarsaparilla) and a rousing rendition of “The Entertainer” on a player piano, that same set of archaic copyright rules applies to modern online streaming platforms. It should not come as a shock that this system doesn’t work for the modern age.


Securing the rights to stream music is an arduous process.


First, streaming services have to identify every author of a given song. Then, they must certify that each of those authors (composer and songwriter) has individually received a paper letter for every song the platform wants to stream.

While that may have made sense in 1909, a year before the first public radio broadcast, music streaming services have tens of millions of songs in their libraries and add thousands more every day. To send thousands of paper letters a day to every new song author is at best costly, challenging, and time-consuming, and at worst impossible.

Read: Do streaming services all sound the same?

It’s also worth noting that these letters don’t represent the start of negotiation or dictate the rates or payments an artist receives. Rates are set by law.

But if a music platform fails to certify a song, it’s on the hook to pay damages every time the song is played, which creates the potential for exorbitant legal costs.



Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk has had more than 1 billion times and the song has 11 credited authors, making notifying all of them by mail under the antiquated music licensing difficult.

Bruno Mars and the Uptown Funk Crew


Take Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” which has 11 different authors, and has been played at least a billion times on streaming platforms. If a platform had failed to notify all 11 authors, they would face statutory legal damages every single time the song was played.”

This leaves streaming companies with few options, each of which has the potential to chill innovation and limit consumer choice.

Read: How playlists take the soul out of music.

They can either offer a limited library of songs that they’re completely confident they have the rights for or attempt to contact every songwriter and composer necessary to compete in the marketplace, but face increased risk of legal penalties if they end up missing just one author.


This music licensing system fails everybody who listens to music.


Fans want to support artists they like. Artists and labels want to be paid for the music they create. And streaming services wish to follow the law and offer consumers as much great music as they can.

That’s why the House of Representatives was able to pass the MMA unanimously.

The bill would establish a clearinghouse, called the Mechanical Licensing Collective, which would serve as the manager of mechanical licenses between digital services and song authors.



Musicians wait for streaming services to inform them they want to play their songs and for the royalties check.

Musicians wait for streaming services to inform them they want to play their songs and for the royalties check.


Artists would no longer have to wait by the mailbox for letters from streaming platforms to get their music out there. All they would need to do under the MMA is indicate the songs for which they have a copyright to the clearinghouse.

Streaming services would agree to pay a set music licensing fee for streaming songs from the clearinghouse, and then the clearinghouse would pay artists what they’re owed for the use of their mechanical licenses.

Discover more: What is a mechanical license?

Under this system, streaming platforms get a 21st-century process for acquiring mechanical licenses that lets them spend more money on delivering great music, not letters through the postal service, and costly lawyers.

It took 109 years, but music licensing laws and regulations governing online streaming are set to come out of the age of player pianos and into the internet age.

About the author: Michael Beckerman is president and CEO of the Internet Association

The views expressed by the author represent those of the Internet Association, who lobby on behalf of the streaming services, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of rockingthenet.com or its affiliates.


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