Monday, April 28, 2008


ASCAP is gathering signatures for a "Bill of Rights for Songwriters & Composers". While I'm generally sympathetic to the stated intent of the effort, it's east to recognize that this is largely a symbolic gesture, as the legal framework governing creative properties has increasingly been dictated by the largest corporate benefactors with their ample lobbying resources rather than individual artists, and that there are persistent and large questions about how an artist will be compensated in new media and new modes of transmission. Interestingly, as the "P" in "ASCAP" stands for publishers, the word publisher does not appear once in this petition, and the relationship between creative artists and publishers is not without tension at this time, especially when new technologies allow artists to bypass mediating forces -- both publishers and rights organizations, like ASCAP -- and interact, on a commercial basis, directly with audiences.

As a resident of Germany, I belong to GEMA, the local rights organization. GEMA has a de facto monopoly on collecting licenses here, and has done it extraordinarily well for a long time, but it is far from clear that GEMA has been able to adapt to new media in an appropriate way, nor is it clear that the traditional parity between "serious" and "entertainment" composers in terms of compensation will be sustained (in terms of representation, the parity has been dropped altogether). So my attention was aroused when I read article 7 of this proposed "Bill of Rights", which asserts that:
We have the right to choose the organizations we want to represent us and to join our voices together to protect our rights and negotiate for the value of our music.
The present environment for the protection of musical copyrights is a confusing one. On the one hand, periods of protection have been extended by legislation into preposterously long durations, and copyright protection has been asserted for all known and potential media. On the other hand, this over-extension of protection does have real negative affects on keeping work in the public ear, and effective mechanisms for generating license fees from new media have not yet been designed, let alone implemented with anything other than caprice. I have had concerts and broadcasts cancelled by presenters reluctant to pay licenses, I must report each performance of my own work to GEMA in order to receive my licence, and if I wish to place recordings of my own work online, GEMA insists that I myself pay a license fee in advance. In other words, it's not yet a satisfactory state of affairs.

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