“There has to be a better way” seems to be the start of almost every entrepreneurial journey and for Jessica Sobhraj, founder and CEO of Cosynd, a New York-based legal service that automates copyright contracts and registrations for artists, it was that very cliché that set her on her path where today she sits in business with CD Baby, the largest online distributor of independent music in the world and is championing the cause of the CASE Act (Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2019).
“I was representing millions of songs for placement in TV, film, advertising, and gaming and so a common thing that I would come across [was] just so many artists who would say to us, ‘Hey, we actually have a hard time documenting who owns our copyrights,” said Sobhraj. “After digging a little bit further, they would say, ‘look we just have just never taken the time to do this paperwork because we think it just costs too much money.’ Having been in this industry for over 10 years but seeing this happen over and over and over again, which by the way, ripples throughout the entire media industry, I kind of took it upon myself to have that entrepreneur’s moment.”
Sobhraj has a long work history steeped in music. She’s worked for Rumblefish Inc., a music licensing company with a focus on YouTube content, SESAC (who happens to own Rumblefish), a performance-rights organization and was even the former president of the non-profit organization, Women In Music, the largest organization of its kind working towards gender equality music worldwide. She brings with her years of experience inside the corporate offices behind the artists that create the music and jingles many have come to love. Her position allows her to see the legal side of the music business that is rarely visible to the general public.
“The perception is that legal is expensive. It’s that the time to create these documents is expensive. It’s the perception that some of these are really awkward conversations to have with people you’re creating something of value with,” said Sobhraj. “The unfortunate truth is when you don’t have those awkward conversations upfront, you end up having very expensive conversations down the road.”
With Cosynd, Sobhraj and her team work to remove the awkward and make it simple, all the while saving artists from future headaches and battles. Agreements can be put together in minutes, with collaborators and lawyers able to come in and look it over as well.
“We look at every single artist as their own business,” said Sobhraj. “And that’s kind of the way that we ask them to think about themselves, too, because at the end of the day you’re creating art and that art is an asset and that asset needs to be protected.”
And while artists may not at first consider their art a business, the fact of the matter is that their property, whether made for public enjoyment, is legally, just that. As Sobhraj has historically seen, an artist choosing to focus solely on the art leaves a lot of money out. Having heard her share of stories (think political campaigns using songs without permission or another artist sampling music without permission), Sobhraj is adamant that if artists would insist on taking a few minutes to breakdown ownership and rights, so many of these stories could be avoided altogether or at the very least easier to fight.
“The copyright registration portion of what we do has been really, really exciting to some of the bigger companies because they have so many people sitting there trying to figure out how to register their copyrights on the copyright office’s website and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to navigate,” Sobhraj said. “And to their credit, the copyright office is receiving thousands and thousands of applications per minute, there’s a lot of information they have to get through and what we do is sort of add a more friendlier UI (User Interface) and a more friendlier experience to just kind of get the bare bones information we need to register copyrights for you.”
The CASE Act
Enter the CASE Act. Originally introduced to the House of Representatives in 2017, the act has recently regained some steam with Congress trying to push it through. With this in place, the Supreme Court would mandate that you would have to register your copyright if you ever wanted to enforce your rights of ownership. Previously the thought was that just having an application was enough. Those days would be no longer and registering a copyright through the office itself could take anywhere from five to 10 months, and that’s supposing all paperwork is filed properly. With services like Cosynd, however, that process is able to be expedited with the confidence that it will go through correctly the first time.
“If you’re going to pursue an infringement case [it] can be really, really expensive. So for most creators they have to weigh the cost and benefit of it — ‘Do I have enough money to litigate my case and do I have a strong enough case? And, if I do, when will I be able to cover attorney’s fees and what’s going to be left over if I take the time to litigate this case?” Sobhraj said. “The CASE Act basically makes it more affordable and more accessible for copyright holders to litigate their cases. You don’t need to have an attorney, everything is digital, and it’s a far easier process.”
Even still, the CASE Act does come with a catch. Rewarded fees are capped, limiting how much you can win which amounts to no more than $30,000 in each case.
“We’re never really talking about a whole new level of transparency,” Sobhraj said. “ The problem that the music industry has faced for so, so long is we have really bad data. It’s almost embarrassing how bad our data around ownership is and there have been a number of efforts to try and combine all of the databases that exist in the world to try to create solutions that bring all these sources in. The problem is that at the root of it we have multiple places with different data sets.”
“I think there are certain interests in not having that happen,” said Sobhraj. “I think a lot of other companies make their bread and butter off of the obscurity of ownership and so we would never going to be one of those companies. Our main goal was to help the creator at the moment of creation.”
With the art and entertainment industry always changing and the copyright laws working to catch up, the seemingly best way for artists to protect themselves and their property is to “engage in the community” and find the resources available to them said Sobhraj.
“Legal is scary,” reiterated Sobhraj. “From the simplest agreement to the most complex, when things aren’t written in conversational English, it’s super scary, especially when you are faced with a situation when you are potentially signing away the rights to something you put all your hard work into, that you put all your love into, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Everything that’s on Cosynd, it’s very easy to walk through and there’s lots of different explanations and help sections and notes and ways to reach us,” said Sobhraj. “And that was our goal, was to really build something that could be used by anybody and was in super plain English and no fine print.”
Just a few short years ago, on a night she described as “dark and stormy”, Sobhraj had a meeting with a mentor of hers. In this meeting she revealed the idea for Cosynd in its infancy. Her mentor, while encouraging her to go for it, said to “have a plan for every disadvantage” and Sobhraj named what could be perceived as her “disadvantages”: female, minority, Canadian, and short. And height withstanding, saw every one of her visions come true.
Invested in by Morgan Stanley, partnered with the largest distributor in the U.S., a Monarq accelerator choice (1 out of 400, where only 15 are picked) and hearing from different law firms on the daily to help automate different types of legal contracts, Sobhraj feels she’s most certainly found the better way. Now she’s trying to help others do the same.