Uncovering a Musician's Missing Dollars


Frank Zappa in 1977. Photo by J. Lacpo.

Whatever safe harbors that intellectual property law may have allotted file sharing and music-streaming services in the past as protection from angry artists and record labels are soon going to be raided by a third party intruder. TuneSat, an audio monitoring service that tracks unauthorized use of music for rightsholders, will soon extend beyond television channels to the Internet.

The company, who this week announced a partnership with the Frank Zappa Family Trust, paroles the silver screen by “fingerprinting” pieces of music submitted by clients and tracking when and how those works are used on television programs and commercials. The list of channels is extensive (everyone from Animal Planet to CNN to all three major television network) and worldwide, currently stretching across Europe and the UK. According to research data collected by the company, TuneSat has already saved independent musicians millions of dollars in lost or unaccounted revenue simply by creating a sophisticated reporting system.

“80 percent of music on television goes unreported, and on average, about 60-80 percent of an individual client’s catalog,” comments Chris Wood, Chief Operating Officer of the company, and an accomplished composer, musician, producer and engineer. “Depending on the client, it can constitute a substantial amount of earnings. If you think about someone who’s earning $100,000 a year from licensing, and there’s 60-80 percent unaccounted for, you can do the math.”

Indeed, there could easily be another $100K out there waiting for that musician.

With the extension of TuneSat to online platforms, the much-griped over debate about detecting illegal use of a song can swiftly be addressed, if not eliminated completely, by the service. The issue as it stands is that under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a service provider is not liable for copyright infringement on its site, however, it must remove illegal works when properly notified. A record label or artist has to send a take down notice to that provider listing each url of every infringed work. It’s not enough to list the name of the song, a link must be provided for each violation. Assuredly, the task of identifying every url can be nearly impossible in a network like Grooveshark or MP3Tunes, where million of songs run free. TuneSat, nonetheless, has a plan.

“There are a variety of techniques we use, and while we can’t censor the entire web, we take a large sampling of multimedia platforms – from streaming services to mp3 lockers and downloads, to businesses – and we can search for artist names or key words to pin point where music is being used,” explains Wood. “We can also look up specific urls like on YouTube, for example.”

TuneSat aims to achieve a more efficient accounting method for royalty payments to artists. Particularly with independent musicians, business and legal affairs can accrue high transactional costs, sidelining any focus on creative interests. Artists who sign up for the service pay a low monthly fee dependent on the extent of their needs, and upload each piece of music they want monitored. TuneSat then reports exploitation of these works within an hour of their discovery, providing channel, timing, and description details to clients along with an audio copy of use. Additionally, the company can handle administrative tasks, such as advising clients on steps to be taken if pursuing legal action or to obtain payment.

“The way these shows often work is you have interns and production assistants sitting there watching tapes, logging all the music used and sending a report to performing rights societies,” notes Wood. “It’s an archaic system.”

Of course, that’s if such usage even gets reports. Many will recall the lawsuit Ellen DeGeneres faced not too long ago when it came out that none of the music she used was properly licensed. Evidently, it’s easy to slip through the cracks, and for musicians without the time or resources to scrutinize manipulation of their work, TuneSat can be a vital instrument.

Frank Zappa’s widow stated in a press release last week, “Frank was independent as an artist, producer and record label owner long before most artists understood they could exercise their creative rights without, as he put it, ‘having to wear brown lipstick’…TuneSat provides the means necessary for me to do my day job. I have the same objective as the LAPD: to protect and serve. Protect the integrity of the work and Serve the intent of the composer.”

While many continue fighting an already lost battle to shut down programs that pirate music, or push for costly legal action against networks, TuneSat takes the alternate approach to hold these entities responsible by owning up to their overdue fees. Such efforts not only support rightsholders and protect their work, but also foster innovation and creativity by not limiting the scope for how television and digital media can use music. Like the police, as Mrs. Zappa relates, it doesn’t hinder individual liberties, it protects them.