ASCAP and the Copyright Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers...
One of the reasons why the digital copyright debate rages on is its often-overlooked complexity and the fact that there are no clear solutions. Both the copyright and copyleft have valid arguments, and to dismiss that haphazardly is to fuel fire to the extremists on both sides, ultimately hindering any efforts at badly needed legal reform.
Several days ago I had a long and thoughtful discussion with an employee of ASCAP - the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Their primary task is to defend strong copyright protection and collect royalties for artists.
ASCAP created a Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers a while ago. Taking the point-of-view of the artist, it lays out, what any serious observer would have to admit are, in most cases, very reasonable principles...
- We have the right to be compensated for the use of our creative works, and share in the revenues that they generate.
- We have the right to license our works and control the ways in which they are used.
- We have the right to withhold permission for uses of our works on artistic, economic or philosophical grounds.
- We have the right to protect our creative works to the fullest extent of the law from all forms of piracy, theft and unauthorized use, which deprive us of our right to earn a living based on our creativity.
- We have the right to choose when and where our creative works may be used for free.
- We have the right to develop, document and distribute our works through new media channels - while retaining the right to a share in all associated profits.
- 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.
- We have the right to earn compensation from all types of "performances," including direct, live renditions as well as indirect recordings, broadcasts, digital streams and more.
- We have the right to decline participation in business models that require us to relinquish all or part of our creative rights - or which do not respect our right to be compensated for our work.
- We have the right to advocate for strong laws protecting our creative works, and demand that our government vigorously uphold and protect our rights.
Artists definitely deserve their just compensation. The problem is that hardly anyone disagrees with that point. Even the most staunchest advocates of the copyleft movement, including Lawrence Lessig himself, believe that the interests of artists need to be served - they simply seek to preserve the balance between those interests and the public domain.
In other words, where ASCAP goes wrong is not in the principles they lay out in their Bill of Rights; it's in their extreme and sometimes overly harsh attempts to protect copyrights at all costs.
For example, in the past, ASCAP has come under heavy scrutiny for threatening to sue the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America for not paying licensing fees when they sang copyrighted songs in summer camps. Also, ASCAP has pursued a strategy of cracking down by demanding royalty fees from any club that holds an open mic night (even if most of the songs performed are originals), and has even sued a Manhattan pub for playing Bruce Springsteen songs over its jukebox.
Thus, the same reasonable observer who can see the validity in the Artists' Bill of Rights can also see the perversity of ASCAP's tactics in sometimes trying to implement it.
All of which reinforces the urgent need for copyright REFORM. As I've said before in this space, to frame the issue in black-and-white as being between artists versus pirates is a gross oversimplification. Sure, there are extremists on both sides, and suing the Girl Scouts for singing "Happy Birthday" is just as ridiculous as those on the copyleft who try to justify straight-up piracy. But where this debate is actually occurring in serious circles is how to reform copyright laws in order to preserve artists' rights while simultaneously maintaining a healthy public domain.
Any ultimate solution will have to follow that path.