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The MLC Sues Pandora to Recover Unpaid Royalties, Late Fees

The Mechanical Licensing Collective (The MLC) has sued Pandora for allegedly failing to adequately pay and report its monthly royalties, including in its accounting for its ad-supported tier “Pandora Free” (also known as “radio” or “free Pandora”).

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In a lawsuit filed Monday (Feb. 12) in Nashville federal court, The MLC seeks to recover the royalties that Pandora allegedly owes them and all associated late fees. The MLC is particularly concerned with “unusually low royalties per stream” reported and paid out by Pandora, starting in 2021 which they say is due to the exclusion of substantial “Service Provider Revenue and TCC for Pandora Free.” (Total Content Cost or “TCC” refers to the amount paid by streaming services to record labels for the right to stream sound recordings. The TCC and Service Provider Revenue are essential to calculating the royalties due for this blanket license).

The MLC — which is tasked with administering the blanket mechanical license for musical works, created by the Music Modernization Act — also takes issue with Pandora’s lack of retroactive royalty accounting for 2021 and 2022.

In August 2023, the royalty rate for the license administered by The MLC for the years 2018-2022 was finally determined after a five year battle in which some streaming services fought to pay lower rates for music than the Copyright Royalty Board judges initially decided on. While awaiting the final rate determination, streamers, including Pandora, paid out the previous, lower royalty rate to the music business. Once the final determination was made, it set the rates higher than what the streaming services were paying previously. As a consequence, streamers were tasked to go back and retroactively pay the proper 2018-2022 rate for music.

The MLC says it “repeatedly” reminded Pandora to report its retroactive adjustments due for 2021 and 2022, and it set a deadline for Feb. 9, 2024, which it says Pandora did not reach. (The MLC did not open its doors until 2021, and thus the retroactive adjustments for 2018-2020 are not within its purview).

Pandora has made “repeated and significant underpayments of the royalties due,” says the MLC in its lawsuit.

The news comes just weeks after the MLC and its counterpart the Digital Licensee Coordinator (DLC) entered their first-ever re-designation process, a routine five year check-up to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of the two organizations. The MLC has also made headlines recently for issuing its first-ever audit of streaming services. The organization is also being audited itself by Bridgeport Music, which represents George Clinton and Funkadelic.

Lately, the music business has been fighting back against what it feels are unfair or unpaid licensing rates. Universal Music Group recently pulled its catalog from TikTok, citing the app’s inability to pay “fair value” for music. Last summer, SoundExchange, which collects and distributes performance royalties for the digital transmission of sound recordings, sued SiriusXM, which owns Pandora, for an alleged $150 million in unpaid royalties, and the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) sued Twitter for $250 million for “refusing to pay songwriters and music publishers.”

Representatives for Pandora and The MLC did not respond to Billboard’s request for comment at press time.

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