By Dwight Brown
The music industry is moving along and songwriters and artists are making it happen.
Finally the “Happy Birthday” song controversy is over. A top songwriter, unhappy with a royalty streaming check, gets active. Spotify fights back against a class-action lawsuit. A who’s who of songwriter activists gather at the California Copyright Conference to get the word out.
‘Happy Birthday’ boldly takes steps into Public Domain Land
Indie filmmaker Jennifer Nelson has beaten Goliath. She filed a class action suit against Warner/Chappell for charging her a $1,500 license fee for using “Happy Birthday” in a documentary she was making about the song. According to Hollywood Reporter, “music publisher Warner will pay $14 million to end a lawsuit challenging its hold on the English language’s most popular song.” U.S. District Judge George H. King determined Warner and its predecessor didn’t hold any valid copyright to the song and never acquired the rights to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics.
Warner avoids fines for collecting licensing money for many decades. Around $4.62m of the $14m goes to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. The rest goes to those who licensed “Happy Birthday” and meet the definition of the proposed class. King stopped short of declaring the song was in the public domain. However, Warner will not stand in the way of a judge doing so. “How old are you now? How old are you now?”
Indie songwriter shocked into action over tiny royalty check
Indie-rock singer-songwriter Michelle Lewis was elated when her song “Wings” had nearly three million streams on Spotify. Not so happy when she got her royalty check. Lewis: “It was for seventeen dollars and seventy-two cents.”
Lewis and writing partner Kay Hanely sought advice from L.A. music lawyer Dina LaPolt, who specializes in songwriter issues. Their voyage of discovery and songwriter rights are chronicled in a very detailed New Yorker article, “Will Streaming Music Kill Songwriting?”
The article points out historical milestones:
- The Copyright Act of 1909
- The 1920s/’30s when broadcast radio’ s performance royalties were significant.
- 1941 when the Justice Department’s Consent Decree allowed Performing-Rights Organizations (collecting societies) to process the licensing fees for songwriters,
- The now outdated Copyright Act of 1976.
LaPolt makes some key points:
- Unless music-licensing system is overhauled, the songwriting profession will die.
- Members of the profession need a bargaining leverage (e.g. a union).
- Songwriters have to become activists.
LaPolt, Lewis, and hundreds of songwriters joined Songwriters of North America (SONA).
Spotify dukes it out with a class-action lawsuit
Spotify responded to a lawsuit filed in December by Camper Van Beethoven and Camper front man David Lowery, who seeks $150 million in damages from the streaming service over alleged willful copyright infringement. Lowery’s suit arrived on Spotify’s doorstep just days after the company announced plans for a new publishing database designed to alleviate royalty payment issues.
In the Billboard article, Spotify raises questions and states the difficulties they face:
Q: What do you do when multiple songs have the same name?
S: Just having the title “Hello” is not enough to determine if it is by Adele, Lionel Richie, Evanescence or Ice Cube.
Q: How do you define the members of the proposed class?
S: Not administratively feasible for a catalog of 30 million-plus songs.
While Spotify spars with the lawsuit, Billboard sources say another class action suit is in the planning stages. Stay tuned.
Grassroots Advocacy Panel speaks out at California Copyright Conference
According to Chris Castle at Music Tech Policy, the activists at the #irespectmusic Grassroots Advocacy Panel at the California Copyright Conference had one thing in common: “All of their stories are inspiring examples of individual action. Blake Morgan took on Pandora and Big Radio and founded the #irespectmusic campaign. Karoline Kramer Gould joined Blake in supporting the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act and became an inspiration to all of us. Adam Dorn started SONA out of spontaneous meetings with songwriters who were confounded by the state of the industry. And David Lowery [involved in Spotify class action suit] started writing the Trichordist blog as a cathartic blog that has inspired thousands and is widely read.”
The activists came together to tell their personal stories. Inspiration turned to advocacy as they actively recruited. Follow them on Twitter through the #irespectmusic and @theblakemorgan, @radioclevekkg @davidclowery @moceanworker and @musictechpolicy. Each is involved in a campaign for the fair treatment of all creators.
Artists and songwriters prove you can’t stop progress. A filmmaker topples a corporate giant’s royalty reign. Advocates fight for fair pay. All are making a difference in 2016. It’s a good time to have TuneCore Music Publishing Administration in your corner.
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