ASCAP: John Phillip Sousa Incarnate


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jun 30, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Sometimes you run across something so discouraging you want to just hang your head. That happened today as I received a letter from the folks at Creative Commons stating that The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), one of the groups that supposedly represents artists by licensing their music and paying the artists royalties, had sent out letters to their 380,000 members asking for donations to fight against the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Public Knowledge and Creative Commons (CC). These groups were portrayed as being “against the interests of music creators”.

This letter, signed by their President and Chairman of the Board, Paul Williams, asked their members for donations of $5 or more to a “Legislative Fund for the Arts”. If you were an artist you would contribute to a “Fund for the Arts”, wouldn't you? However this fund needed to have Federal Government forms filled out if the amount donated was over two hundred it sounds more like a “Lobbying Fund for the Arts” to me.

I believe that an artist should be able to determine what happens with their works of art, just as I believe that a programmer should be able to determine what happens with their software. And that includes receiving money for it through a licensing agreement, or allowing people to use their art or their software given other types of compensation, either physical or metaphysical. And I think that each one of the organizations mentioned in ASCAP's letter would agree with those beliefs, particularly Creative Commons, which I have written about and supported for a long time.

As I continue to have to deal with groups like ASCAP, the Business Software Alliance, the patent royalty collection organizations and other such groups that “enforce” these issues the pain I feel rises. Most people either spend time and money to make sure they meet the letter of the law on these licensing issues, or they blithely go along unaware that these issues exist (do not sing “Happy Birthday” to anyone in a public setting), or they give up in frustration because they can not survive the gauntlet that these groups formulate, or they ignore the licensing altogether. I belong to the first group.

So in researching this latest issue I (once again) went to ASCAP's site to see how much it would currently cost to license music from them. However this was not easy, since there were no sample prices that were listed. Instead, about the most information I could get without actually contacting them was a list of various types of situations that might generate a need for the licensing of music which included cheerleader groups, putting music into Open Office presentations, music-on-hold, ring-tones etc. It also did not help that while ASCAP represents 380,000 artists, there are two other organizations (BMI and SESAC) who represent hundreds of thousands more, with apparently no cross-licensing possible unless you happen to be playing a Jukebox, and then you can deal with one “Jukebox license", which is only good for jukeboxes (or things which meet the criteria of a jukebox).

I did manage to “trick” the ASCAP site into giving me a rough estimate of what I would have to pay to play songs in an “interactive” mode over the Internet, and it looked as if that fee would be the larger of $340. or 3% of my site revenue. Now if I were an Internet radio station and I was making all of my money from playing songs and generating advertising from that which payed my salary, that sum would not be outrageous. However, if I was having an Internet site and using the music more or less for 'background', that sum might be a bit high. To be fair, there were other methods of calculating the amount and those other methods might have given a lower payment, but for a “general purpose Internet radio site” I also would have to calculate how much it would cost to additionally license the music from the other two groups.

All three groups do not make it easy. And complicating all of this is the fact that there is also “synchronization licensing”, which is apparently what I needed for my Open Office presentation, and that licensing and recording rights licensing was not done by ASCAP. Those are done by the Harry Fox Agency in New York City, and the record labels which are represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in Washington, D.C. It was all as clear as mud.

Other elements to the puzzle arise when people ask how the money is dispensed. ASCAP says that all of the money after operating expenses (currently 11.3%) goes to the artists, but several artists that are ASCAP members complained in various blogs that they have not gotten any money from ASCAP, and that the money goes to the bigger artists.

And so it goes. All of the music I have on my music playback devices are legitimate CDs that I bought and ripped myself. I keep the CDs in a rack, both as “proof of purchase” and a backup in case something goes wrong with the player. I do not plug my player into any amplifier, only using earphones, in case it might be misconstrued as a “pubic performance”. All of the music I use in my Open Office or YouTube productions is either short enough to be covered under “fair use” or produced by myself from music written so long ago that the copyright is out of date, or the music is marked with an appropriate Creative Commons license that allows me to adapt the music to my needs. The latter is now my preferred method.

The act of ASCAP in sending out this letter reminds me of the quote by John Phillip Sousa when Edison invented the phonograph. Mr. Sousa (then an influential band leader) told the Congress of the United States that recordings of music were going to discourage people from singing, that vocal cords would atrophy and “we would not have a vocal cord left”. Mr. Sousa also disliked the radio, fearing a loss of connection with the audience. Sousa was trying to maintain the status quo of live marching bands, when times and business practices had changed allowing more music to be brought to everyone.

I am afraid that the ASCAP letter did not have the desired effect with me. I did not contribute the $5. to ASCAP's fund. Instead I went to the Creative Commons site and donated to that institution (and substantially more than five dollars).

And I do not sign "Happy Birthday" anywhere, even in the shower.

Carpe Diem!

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