By Jeff Price
Over the course of history, it was decided that people who made their ideas tangible –like songwriters– should make money. So they made up a bunch of really esoteric, hard to understand rules (aka laws) on how it should all work. The foundation for these laws can actually be found in the United States Constitution. The rules built on this concept get updated from time to time, but ultimately the foundation of the six legal rights that a person gets when he or she creates a copyrighted work, by making a song tangible (meaning it’s recorded or written down) are the basis for all the rules, laws and money made in the music industry.
Which, if you think about it, is a bit weird, because, what is it that is actually being sold when someone buys “music?” A buyer walks out of the store with some sort of device (like a vinyl record, CD or digital download) and plops it onto a machine. That machine “plays” the device, causing a speaker to vibrate in such a way that sound waves move through the air to our ears. Our ears detect these sound waves, and transmit them to our brains as electrical impulses. Our brains interpret these impulses and we “hear” the music.
In other words, unlike food or clothes, there is nothing tangible to a song beyond the intangible memory of what you just heard. The sound of music always lives in the past.
And yet, the governments of the world (acting on behalf of their constituents; in theory at least) decided that these transmissions of sound waves, and the people who wrote the songs, are so valuable and important, that they created a complex set of laws and regulations. These laws require that licenses be granted and payments be made to the people/entities controlling the rights to the recordings of the songs (usually called a “record label”) and the lyrics and melody of the song (usually called the “songwriter” or “music publisher”).
These rules and regulations tie together, regulate, and give basis for a global consortium of tens of millions of record labels, artists, songwriters, music publishers, performing rights organizations, and mechanical royalty collection agencies, to generate and collect and administer over $23 billion dollars.
And the governments of the world take this stuff very, very seriously. So much so, that there is an entire shadow economy built around an infrastructure of copyright boards, judges, copyright police, congressional committees, and teams of lawyers that are supposed to be the experts in knowing all the rules, and, in some cases, set royalty rates as to what these innovative creators should be paid.
However, in a move that could be construed as paradoxical (or, at the very least a “head scratcher”) these very same governments that created a way to assure that artists, songwriters and record labels can make money also decided that a songwriter/lable only gets these rights for 70 years after the death of the last surviving person who wrote the song (or ninety-five years from the date of publication in the case of a work for hire), after which point, all of the author’s rights get taken away, and the song becomes a “public domain” work, This means it’s available for anyone to use in any way they like without having to pay or negotiate anything with anyone.
Or put another way, 69 years and 364 days after the death of the last surviving writer, the people who control the rights to the song (like someone’s child or grandchildren) get to make money from the use of that song. The next day they don’t; one hell of a Monday to a Tuesday.
Which brings up the question as to why. Why give all of these rights and all of these rules for a set period of time? What is the reason that on that last magical day the very same hand that gave these rights decides it’s enough and takes them all away?
After all, when a song’s rights are stripped away from the person who wrote it, and the copyrights expire, many other people can make money off the recording and song. For example, at some point in time, the Beatles’ recordings and songs will enter the public domain, and when they do, anyone can release a Beatles album or cover Paul/John’s song without paying them. If someone buys that song or album physically from Amazon, a slew of people make money off the Beatles: Amazon makes money, the person who sold it makes money, the entity that made the cardboard box that the CD ships in makes money, the U.S. postal service makes money. The Beatles’ label, their estate, and John and Paul’s estates don’t make money from the sale.
Hardly seems fair.
On the other hand, what happens if Dr. Evil comes to life, only this time he has a trillion dollars at his disposal (don’t laugh too hard, there was a moment not too long ago when Bill Gates was worth a trillion dollars), and he decides he is going to buy the copyrights to all the recordings and songs in the world. Without a reversion of copyright, the world would be denied access to these creations. Corporations could hoard them forever, and perpetually deny or grant access at their whim. Put another way, corporations would have a complete and total stranglehold on culture (one could argue they already do, but that’s a different topic).
And thus the tension between the public good vs. copyright holders and creators comes to play with the government standing in between them, trying to come up with a solution that does not tip the scales too far on way or another.
The question I have relates to technology opening the flood gates to more creators: should there be a re-evaluation of this tension? I honestly don’t have the answer, and I truly can argue both sides of this equation. If it were me, and I wrote and recorded the song “Paperback Writer,” why the hell should I not be entitled to make money off the thing I created? Who the hell is the government to interfere with my rights and decide it’s been long enough for me, or my children, or their children’s children to make money off my creation. If I build a house, the government doesn’t get to take it away from me after a period of time and say it is “public domain.” Why is my song, my creation, thought less of than a house?
On the other hand, somehow it would just not feel right to me if Mozart’s great-great-great-great-great (not sure how many greats should go here) grandchildren got paid each and every time his Flute Concerto No. 2 In D Major – K. 314 was played and sold.
In other words, what is the place of public domain and the reversion of copyright in the new emerging digital music industry?
My concern is not over what the answer is, but instead who gets to shape the discussion. To this point in time, the creators themselves are the minority voice. The multi-national corporations that have gobbled up and/or “own” all of these songs and copyrights are the ones pulling the strings, lobbying for changes to the law. This would be fine if the creators of culture–aka artists–and corporations were in step with one another, but this is hardly the case.
Today’s world has allowed musicians and artists to break free of a system requiring them to relinquish their copyrights to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Together they are louder than any other music entity. The trick is allowing their voice to be heard. TuneCore is simply a megaphone, you are the voice.