Want a flippant answer to the question of how to solve copyright problems? Stop having panel debates about copyright problems. Very little ever got solved through people with microphones arguing about collecting societies on a stage.
This sarcasm is unworthy of the London School of Economics’ ‘The Theft of Creative Content: Copyright in Crisis’ event last night though. Co-organised with PRS for Music, its panelists offered more than just the usual grandstanding.
The evening saw prepared speeches from PRS for Music boss Robert Ashcroft; Pirate Party MEP Amelia Andersdotter and LSE fellow in copyright law Dr Luke McDonagh, followed by an interview with songwriter and musician Eg White, and finally questions from the audience.
IP as the key to success
Ashcroft’s pitch was clear: collecting societies aren’t the dinosaurs they’re often portrayed as (well, his collecting society anyway); copyright is vital to ensure creators get paid for their work and can thus continue creating it; and new digital music business models are fending off any copyright crisis.
“Intellectual property is the key to our success in the modern world, whether it’s personal data for Facebook, a patent for Dyson, a film, a football match or a song. It is intangible, but essential,” he said.
“Copyright is essential to our members. It enables them to earn a living, and it is their only means for doing so,” he added, referring to songwriters who don’t also perform their works.
And the dinosaurs thing? “We do everything we can to license use of our members’ music. We are not an obstacle to people enjoying music. We are the reverse,” said Ashcroft, saying PRS was the first collecting society to license iTunes, YouTube and iTunes in the Cloud, among other services.
“We have always been at the forefront of licensing on the internet, and we will remain so. There is a healthy and rational ecosystem for copyright licensing across all forms of music usage, and copyright is in anything but a crisis,” said Ashcroft.
“That’s why I find it puzzling when I hear the rhetoric that collecting societies are a barrier to innovative services. We love music. We’ve never been anti-consumer…”
The problem with this line of argument, hinted at in Ashcroft’s pride in PRS being early with iTunes and YouTube agreements, is that one forward-thinking collecting society is far from the whole picture when it comes to licensing
It’s part of a patchwork of societies, publisher and label rightsholders offering varying levels of headache for new digital services, whose need for global scale to make their business models work requires them to strike many and varied licensing deals.
One society moving faster than its peers doesn’t solve wider copyright problems, in short.
Ashcroft did speak out in praise of streaming services like Spotify, as well as YouTube, which have been criticised by some songwriters and artists for the size of their payouts compared to CD and download sales.
“It’s just a different business model,” he said. “By the time you’ve listened to each song [on an album] 50 or 60 times, you’re likely to have paid the songwriters as much money as if you’d downloaded those songs.”
Ashcroft got specific, reciting the amount of times he’d bought Elton John’s ‘Madman Across the Water’ album on various formats, yet noting that “Bernie Taupin would have made far more money from me if Spotify had existed when I was a teenager.”
The message: new models may take longer to pay off, but they will pay off for creators – and that ties back into copyright.
“One of the great criticisms of copyright is the length of term, and yet in these new business models where it’s going to pay out for success over the long term – not just for the choice of a song, but the amount you listen to it – it can take time for the value to be captured.”
Ashcroft was followed at the podium by Andersdotter, who was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 as a Pirate Party candidate in Sweden, although administrative issues meant she didn’t take her seat until 2011.
She set out her Party’s attitude towards the negative effects of current copyright legislation, starting by taking issue with the notion of “theft of creative content” in the event’s title. “Theft is something we typically associate with physical goods,” she said.
“If I remove something from somebody and they no longer have that, it’s theft. If I copy it… It will still be there.”
This is a thorny debate in itself. Of course you’re not stealing somebody’s music if you download the files they’ve made available on a filesharing network.
But rightsholders have argued instead that such filesharing is stealing income from artists and songwriters (and filmmakers, and games developers, and authors etc), sometimes trying to put sums on this loss of revenues. Yet proving how many filesharers would have paid for the content is famously impossible.
This is me saying this: if there’s a criticism of Andersdotter’s speech, it’s that it jumped quickly between copyright-related legal muddles and aggressive and/or abusive enforcement of copyright legislation without really digging into the details of how to reform, beyond saying “we should ensure that copyright law always permits noncommercial usage”.
That’s likely more due to the short time she had to speak at this event, but the risk is still that it looks more like cherry-picking the worst examples of rightsholders or other parties overreaching their rights.
From infamous British legal firm ACS:Law to GEMA’s battle with German DJs, via Swedes copyrighting the industrial design for flashlights and a South Korean man committing suicide rather than face the shame of a filesharing prosecution…
The speech made a strong case for the fact that copyright laws can be abused, at the expense of outlining how it should be reformed in a bit more detail.
Andersdotter did make a case for filesharing as a positive cultural act, both between individuals and between different countries within Europe – “having common cultural frames” as she put it.
“Copyright is currently getting in the way of people doing that,” said Andersdotter, before finishing her speech with: “Socially we become poorer if we are not able to make culture a basis of common interaction.”
A strong idea, although again something worth chewing over in more detail: especially the question of whether licensed services like Spotify and YouTube can foster that kind of cultural exchange as well as or better than what we traditionally think of as filesharing.
This may sound like I’m picking apart Andersdotter’s speech, which isn’t the intention (or at least, no more so than Ashcroft’s speech). Many rightsholders too easily write the Pirate Party off as a ‘FUCK The Man, er, copyright is bad, yeah?’ rabble. The speech showed there’s more depth to the Party’s criticism of current copyright laws.
Music industry transformation
Up next was LSE’s McDonagh to give a legal perspective on the copyright debate. His central point: far from being in crisis, the music industry is more in transition.
“The music industry has always been an industry that has transformed itself – and in fact it’s in a constant state of trnsformation,” he said, pointing to historical examples of initial criticism of new technologies or trends (radio, home taping etc) that proved to be unfounded.
He suggested this is a phenomenon of “rhetoric of an industry under attack that doesn’t actually reflect the reality of what’s actually happening” in terms of new business models and licensing dealmaking.
“The music industry has accelerated into a new transformation,” he said. “People are listening to a much wider range of music than they used to. People have access to an enormous variety of music that they never had access to before.”
He didn’t duck the issue that a lot of this listening and access has come from downloading music without paying for it – “copyright has been ignored by a lot of people over the last decade” – while mirroring Andersdotter’s criticism of “aggressive lawsuits” against fans and anti-piracy “surveillance techniques more associated with anti-terrorism”.
McDonagh was keen to stress positive changes though: even when people aren’t paying for music (or don’t feel like they are), musicians and songwriters are more-often getting paid: from free streaming services and YouTube through to societies like PRS increasing their collections from live events.
“At present, the levels of compensation for new streaming services, for live music and for other types of performing rights have not reached the levels of compensation for musicians that they would like, and that I think they’re entitled to,” he said.
“I think we’re in a position of transformation, and the issue that needs to be solved is getting the income of musicians up to a more reasonable level… even though the levels are increasing, they’re not doing so fast enough to compensate for the losses in other areas.”
Next up was songwriter Eg White, who was interviewed on-stage by Financial Times pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney. White’s credits include Will Young’s ‘Leave Right Now’ and Adele’s ‘Chasing Pavements’ (i.e. he’s doing pretty well for royalties, ta).
He provided light relief – but also some thoughtful analysis – by happily admitting that while there are legal provisions to protect songwriters if their tunes and strings of lyrics are used by another songwriter, “the building blocks of songs are the chords, and as far as I know, there’s no copyright protection there.
A problem? No. “It’s astonishing that it’s not legally protected. I’m delighted it’s not. Absolutely everything I do has a precedent or 58!”
But White said he thinks there is room for more relaxation of copyright restrictions on songwriters. “I have these enormous protections for certain aspects of what I do, and I think they’re a little over-the-top,” he said.
“I would be delighted if someone would take chunks of a song. And one of the advantages of owning my copyrights is I have the power NOT to sue.” He gave one example: “I thought I might have heard a little motif in a Bruno Mars song, but I was just delighted!”
He was asked what proportion of his revenues come from older songs. “I’m amazed to discover how long the tail is,” he said. “Including for songs rather strangely that I haven’t heard on the radio for bloody years!”
And even some songs that never came out, just demos that never left the studio. “I really want to know why that song is making money in Korea…”
White also chimed in to the debate around artists’ and writers’ right to get paid, suggesting that there should perhaps be more discussion of that question from a completely different angle: “the distorting effect that making money has on artists”.
“People argue that composers must get paid. It might be argued that it’s crucial they don’t get paid too much,” he said.
“When people made money 30 or 40 years ago, they were made! A single song on a Michael Jackson album got you three nice-sized houses in central London. Thankfully those days are gone and you have to continue to work.”
The last section of the event featured questions from the audience (and Twitter) for the panellists. Starting with Music Ally mischievously asking to what extent Google and other large technology companies are friends of copyright, foes of it, or both.
McDonagh pointed to the challenges the entertainment industries are facing due to the rise of Google and big tech in general, shown most clearly in the battle over the US’ planned SOPA legislation in 2012.
He suggested that in the 1990s, the music and movie industries “could lobby very easily for tighter copyright laws”, but that with SOPA they came up against a counter-lobby from Google and its peers. “Effectively the legislation collapsed because the two lobby groups cancelled each other out.:
He also pointed to governments’ tendency to plump for inaction when caught “between the two stools” of lobbyists from the entertainment and tech worlds, as well as due to their desire not to annoy voters with stricter copyright legislation.
Andersdotter made a different point, suggesting that in Europe, Google is relatively unconcerned about reforming the copyright licensing market “because they are so large… they can get licensing, so only [smaller] competitors will suffer from not having a change in the copyright legislation”.
She continued: “Very strict legislation is now creating huge problems, not primarily for established companies, but for any new and innovative services and distribution mechanisms that could come up. Think instead of the kind of services that aren’t developing, because Google now are more or less in the safe spot.”
‘A complex company and a young company’
Ashcroft chimed in to remind the audience that Google is still only 15 years old. “It’s a complex company and a young company,” he said, noting the various teams making money from ad sales, running Android, YouTube and now launching music services.
“Google is generally moving to make more money from content,” he added, citing YouTube’s announcement yesterday of its first subscription-based channels.
“There is a drift in general to say that as growth in their [other] revenues begins to slow down, there is more opportunity that they see in making money directly from content. That is in the interest of rightsholders.”
However, he questioned Google’s approach in other areas, such as the ease with which people can find tools to rip YouTube videos into audio and video files through Google’s search engine. “If another party is acting in a way that is depressing the price of music, it increases your bargaining power,” he noted.
Ashcroft also agreed with Andersdotter again on the licensing front, regarding Google’s size.
“I do share Amelia’s concern on the effect on smaller players. I would like to see concerted action across the industry to create a framework that enables small companies to come to market in experimental fashion, and have access to licences when they don’t have the resources of a Google.”
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