The Wrong Flow
We’ve been doing a little informal polling among publishers who have received statements recently from Rightsflow for Google Play. While this is hardly scientific, everyone–everyone–we have spoken to so far says that substantial portions of the titles on their statements are not theirs. Which makes these publishers wonder who is getting statements for their songs.
At this point in the evolution of ridiculous excuses for exploiting music online, it might seem too facile to say that retailers could have done the same as iTunes–get a license before they use the music. But leave aside that the most successful digital music service manages to do it right. The most successful in every country they operate since April 28, 2003.
But leave that to one side.
The kinds of mistakes that the publishers we talked to are seeing suggest that there are serious and abiding flaws in the information contained in the Rightsflow database. Understand that this is not a question of whether the technology works, it’s a question of whether the information in the database is correct.
For example, when someone tells you that their systems have been certified as operating correctly they do not answer the question of whether the database correctly produces incorrect information. This is more or less what you get with a “SAS 70″ or “SSAE 16″ certification (often for Sarbenes Oxley 404 compliance purposes)–also known as GIGO or “garbage in, garbage out.” You could have a perfectly functioning database that produces incorrect answers if you don’t enter the data correctly. If I enter Lowell George as the writer of “Yesterday”, the system may correctly reproduce that incorrect information. The system doesn’t know that “Yesterday” is a Lennon-McCartney composition the way a competent royalty examiner would who was auditing on behalf of Lennon and McCartney. (Or as some may prefer, McCartney-Lennon.) This is why the real value of a database of song or sound recording information is the accuracy of the underlying data. Seems obvious, don’t it?
So if anyone tells you that you don’t have to worry about an audit because they have a SAS 70 certification, you should do two things. Check to see if you really do have a “KICK ME” sign pinned to your back, and then check to see if you have “Lie to me, I’m an idiot!” tattooed to your forehead.
(Now it is possible that we have talked to the only publishers who got incorrect statements. But having done this music industry database thing before (a couple times), I seriously doubt it. But I could be wrong, so keep that in mind. By the way, this is not the first time Google has screwed up the metadata for creative works. MTP readers will recall the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Berkeley Professor Geoffrey Nunberg, “Google Book Search: A Disaster for Scholars.”)
So what to do about this problem. We hear that some publishers are being asked to “help” Rightsflow–that is, Google, which acquired the company–correct their data. Said another way, publishers are being asked to help Google make their database more valuable and to do it for free. Or do it in the hope of getting some unknown share of the unallocated (or ”black box”) money that the system seems to create as though it were a feature set. Just another shakedown from Google.
But understand this–whatever the sum of money that publishers may claim from the black box, what they really should be doing is determining how to enforce their rights against those who make an impermissible commercial use of the publisher’s songs. Or more accurately, the songs written by the songwriters whose publishers are charged with administering their rights. Because whatever that share of black box is, it pales in comparison to the value of the time expended correcting the information in that database. Not to mention the benefit conferred by increasing the value in Google’s asset.
Burning cycles to correct this data is not the right flow, it’s the wrong flow.