That's essentially the problem Patrick Sullivan set out to solve with a company called RightsFlow, which developed a platform to connect the rights-holders with the customers who'd want to license their music. That platform was used to power a one-time offer that let musicians collect royalties if their music showed up in user-generated videos uploaded to YouTube; last December, the company was snapped up by Google. Sullivan will be on Bavitz's panel; but so will Jim Griffin, a music-industry vet who's attempting to create an international rights registry, which he's described as "the idea that you can search or look up the rights status of any sound recording or composition in the world and determine its status in any country from any other country."

If you want to know how hard it is to track down that kind of information, just ask the lawyers at streaming services like Spotify and Rhapsody, who've had to aggregate the rights to huge catalogues of music — spanning not only major labels, indie labels, and unsigned artists, but also the copyright regimes of dozens of countries. Those services are proof that such a registry is a possibility — but they're also symbolic of how, in an industry where contacts and contracts have long been built on handshakes and personal relationships, even the information about who-has-the-rights-to-what has come to be thought of as proprietary.

And here's the worrisome news: the problem's about to get a lot worse. Next year, the music industry faces fresh uncertainty. The 1976 Copyright Act, which took effect in 1978, said that artists would be able to reclaim any copyrights they signed away after a period of 35 years — which comes due in 2013. Through a process called "termination of transfer," artists from the Eagles to Gloria Gaynor will be litigating to take back their copyrights from their labels. In theory: great for artists. In practice: experts expect years of litigation, as courts untangle questions of authorship, ownership, and the 1976 Copyright Act's biggest loophole — labels can hold on to copyrights if they can prove songs were created as "works for hire," a distinction whose definition is itself in dispute. What seems clear is that the music industry is about to get even more chaotic and granular. And that's what makes rights-registry databases the kind of knotty problem — in-the-weeds legal and technical complexity mixed with the handshakes-and-relationships realities of the music biz — that the Rethink conference was built to tackle. There's no easy solution on the table — just a bunch of smart people trying to figure out the next step.

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