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Monday, December 3, 2012

You Can't Just Fingerprint Money: Why A Carefully Considered Public Performance Tracking Strategy Is In Our Best Interest

There's nothing like a well-implemented technological innovation. Whether solving a problem or enhancing a process, when the creation is thought out in full and applied to the right situation the results can be astounding. Efficiency. Opportunity. Productivity. Equity. Transparency. Advancement. The benefits go on and on. And that, of course, is what drives society's continued investment in new technology.

But while the fruits of technology-done-right can be far reaching and plentiful, the shortcomings of half-baked creations can be equally detrimental (I'm looking at you, DRM from the immediate post-Napster era). When new technologies create new problems the benefits carry less weight, and at a certain point if it doesn't work well, it doesn't work at all.

This is the exact dilemma that sits at the heart of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC's strategy for using fingerprinting technology to track TV performances. The systems they currently employ to license the rights, identify usages, and distribute monies associated with the public performances of the works they represent are well established and proven. To put things in context, the three PROs together process hundreds of BILLIONS of performances and distribute close to $2 BILLION to songwriters, composers and publishers every year. The system clearly works. But that said, the PROs also acknowledge that there is still room for improvement and are carefully considering new technologies to aid in more accurate and transparent accounting.

Last month TuneSat, one of a handful of audio fingerprinting and usage detection companies servicing the television market, issued a press release that took aim at ASCAP and BMI's methods. Both ASCAP and BMI have so far refused to accept performance tracking data as collected by TuneSat, and TuneSat is spinning this to paint the PROs as entrenched, archaic institutions.

TuneSat states that "up to 80 percent of music on TV goes unreported or misreported" and that manual reporting is prone to error and manipulation. They believe that tracking through digital fingerprinting is the way of the future. Manual reporting, ultimately left in the hands of licensees, is prone to error. After all, we are only human. Likewise, it is prone to manipulation, as reported by the recent allegations against music supervisors and producers at CBS. But it's important to note that these are far and away the exceptions and not the rule. Before jumping to conclusions about ASCAP and BMI's refusal to accept TuneSat's data, it's important to look at both sides of the issue. Audio fingerprinting will be an important part of the PROs' strategies moving forward (a prospect we're very supportive of too), but only when the benefits are clear and inarguable. Unfortunately, the technology has yet to prove itself in this regard.

There are several considerations that must not be overlooked when considering how PROs employ audio fingerprinting technology. Many composers today rely on industry standard instrument and sound samples to create their compositions. With that in mind, it's not uncommon for a digital tracking service to mis-identify a composition based on a commonly used sample. In order to make the proper royalty distribution, these "false positive" IDs must be rectified, which can be a very costly and time-consuming process. In some cases, this reconciliation costs more than the value of the performance itself, which ultimately harms content owners instead of helping them.

But there's a larger issue here. A non-starter, if you will. As it stands now, digital tracking technology cannot identify the TYPE of performance (i.e. featured, background, underscore, commercial, promo, theme etc.). Since this usage type information is paramount in determining the value of the usage, additional work would again be needed to properly reconcile the IDs - making these systems unusable.

Like so many things, there are always several sides to an issue.  Ultimately, the PROs exist to serve their members, and every decision they make must be in their members' best interests. There are many potential benefits to a well implemented digital tracking service. The ability to analyze dirty audio, to instantly detect and report usages, and to quickly capture and post audio samples of every usage are all features with great potential. And make no mistake - we all want it to work. But the decisions that the PROs make regarding digital tracking services for television are not merely matters of adopting new technology. They have proven their willingness to do so in several other areas, including radio, promos and commercials. The decisions are matters of how well the technology works in serving their needs and their membership.