Sunday, March 05, 2006

copy rites

More on the copyright laws of music. A further insult/injury interface comes in the way royalties are paid for radio play. Big stations write down everything they play, and the performers, writers and publishers all get a little money every time something of theirs is played.

But the very small stations don't keep lists, they just pay a flat fee to the Performing Rights Society in much the same way as a restaurant or shop does. This dosh is then split among performers, writers and publishers by the PRS according to how much they're getting from the big stations.

Thing is, the small stations are more experimental and specialist than the mainstream ones, they don't play the same as the big stations. When I did Radio Savage Houndy Beasty shows on Leeds Student Radio playing Meredith Monk, The Church, John Zorn, Stina Nordenstam and Lieutenant Pigeon, the royalties were going to the likes of Robbie Williams, Noel Gallagher and Phil Fuckin Collins. The whole point of our shows - and indeed the station - was to oppose bland and predictable music, yet our stance actually gave financial reward to precisely that shit.

The haziness of crediting composition throws up many weird tales. When Norman Cook did Dub Be Good To Me, he agreed with the writers and publishers of Just Be Good To Me that his version was so different to the original that it didn't qualify as a full cover version. It really only used the lyric and some of the vocal melody, so he only paid 80% of the writer royalty.

The reason it was so different was cos he'd plonked the lyric over the distinctive bassline groove of Guns of Brixton by The Clash. The writers and publishers of that song agreed he'd nicked the tune but not the lyric, so they'd take a 50% royalty. Which meant Cook paid out 130% writer's royalty on the record. With every radio play and every copy sold, it cost him more money!

When Carter USM did After The Watershed, the Rolling Stones' publishers ABKCO sued them for using the words 'goodbye Ruby Tuesday'. Even though it was only three words and none of the music, Carter ended up giving the entire writers' royalty to Jagger/Richards. It should be noted none of this had anything to do with the Stones themselves; it was the doing of Allen Klein, briefly their manager in the late 60s and still the owner of the purblishing to some of their finest work.

The writer's credit for Can I Kick It is simply 'Lou Reed', as if the lyrics and beats and breaks were written by him too. Ironically, the bassline that gets Reed the royalty wasn't his but was done by Walk On The Wild Side's bassist Herbie Flowers.

In August 1991, Negativland released a single called U2 that featured a U2 spy plane, the lettering "U2", and Negativland's name in small print on its cover. The record featured 35 seconds of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For mixed with an out-take tape of American Top 40 icon Casey Kasem slagging off U2 and swearing, some CB radio conversation, and inane commentary from one of Negativland.

They were swiftly sued by U2's label Island. After pressure from not only Island but also Negativland's own label SST, the single was withdrawn and all copies and master tapes handed over to Island. U2 themselves weren't even aware of any of it until Island had it sorted.

Negativland did a magazine documenting the saga. They were sued for that too. Having subsequently been given free legal advice ('pro Bono', so to speak), they believe their position is stronger than they first thought, and they've boldly done an expanded book-and-CD version of the magazine, FAIR USE: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2.

Their record was never going to be a replacement for a U2 record, nor could it be mistaken as one. Whilst it used a snatch of a U2 track, it couldn't conceivably impact on U2's income. It was not a song, it was an audio collage.

Negativland's Chris Grigg explained, "It's extremely effective to actually apply our hands to this media barrage, cut it up, and turn it into something else that comments on it. That's one of the best ways to make art that we can see right now. But that's the central problem: the laws don't realize the legitimacy of this... Cultural properties are a special kind of property: a car is not the same as a song. The idea behind copyright is that people who create should receive adequate compensation for what they've done, not every possible compensation. Once you go that far, you start putting manacles on culture; it marks the end of public thinking."

Negativland's record was not a rip-off any more than other records that use samples are rip-offs. In the 80s Robert Plant was asked how he felt about so many hip-hop tracks sampling Led Zeppelin drums and guitars. He said that it was new music, it challenged the listener in new ways totally unlike anything Led Zeppelin ever did so it was fine by him and he wasn't interested in suing for it. The people he felt he should be able to sue, but was unable to, were the metal bands who aped Led Zeppelin's sound and look, giving the listener nothing except a diluted version of something they already had.

With Radio Savage Houndy Beasty we do tracks ranging from totally self-authored to what could probably best be called remixes, with a massive spectrum of collage, sample, treatment and rearrangment in the middle. Much of it is surely in breach of copyright, but we just hope that we're too small to be worth suing.

Given that the royalties for broadcasting the stuff that we do unarguably create as original works are swiped by the biggest mainstream artists, it'd be a bit rich for a record label to complain. But as they have the money and we don't, I wouldn't fancy our chances in court.

It helps that much of our source material is really obscure. By far the most popular MP3 on our downloads page is Lollipop Man, a song we've comedically mislabelled as being a duet by Mariah Carey and Tom Waits. It's actually from a 1970s album of road safety material that nobody will recognise. Maybe Carey's people could sue, but it'd be tough to call.

In these days of download any publicity would only increase the distribution of the offending material, which would defeat much of the purpose of litigation. And, as decent recording/remixing software is now widespread, the amount of reworked stuff is so vast that the record companies simply cannot keep up with those of us doing it.

However, as I blogged a while back, that's exactly what Beatallica were mistakenly banking on. The band hybridise Beatles and Metallica songs, giving the resulting tracks away as free downloads. No money is made and it's not as if anyone is going to listen to Beatallica instead of buying a Beatles album.

Nonetheless, legal action was initiated by Sony, The Beatles' publishers. Fortunately, and slightly bizarrely, Metallica themselves stepped in and got their lawyers to defend Beatallica, and Sony backed down.

It's interesting to note how it's the record companies and publishers who've done the legal action, and that by and large the artists have defended it or at least stayed neutral.

Yet even when it's a case of not just sampling but actually copying whole albums, a record company doesn't always act. In the mid 90s Tom Robinson saw an album of his - Winter of 89 - bootlegged and distributed across Europe. Even though they had a good idea who was behind it, EMI's lawyers refused to investigate and sue as it was 'only a few thousand copies'.

This gave him an idea - if they wouldn't sue proper bootlegger they probably wouldn't sue a self-bootlegging artist either, so he bootlegged two of his own albums that had long been deleted. He sold them in places where no record company employee ever looks for records - Tom Robinson gigs and record shops.

Since the rise of the internet, Tom's been putting up free downloads on his site, and has repeatedly pointed out that the labels are greedy scumpigs. They always talk of free downloads as 'stealing from the artist', because they know that the more accurate 'possibly diminishing the profits of record companies' doesn't have the same guilt trip impact.

When you pay for a download from iTunes, your credit card company gets more than the writer or performer! The performer gets 7%, the writer 8%, credit card company 9%, Apple 15%, and - no prizes for guessing who gets the biggest share - the record company a whopping 61%.

As the runaway success of myspace has shown, there's a wealth of music being made out there. Rich artists don't need the extra money, the small artists are making music for the love of it and are glad of the exposure.

Myspace stars Arctic Monkeys showed that free downloads and record sales are not in competition; despite the majority of tracks from their debut album having been freely available in some form, it sold 360,000 copies in its first week alone - more than the rest of the top 20 combined, the fastest selling debut in history.

When you hand out stuff for free and people copy it, you break the stranglehold of the record companies' vision of ownership of music, you help to blur the lines that define ownership of creativity and ideas, and thus stimulate the creative landscape into bloom.

As Claire Fauset says,


In all these millenia of human existence
there can only be a few new ideas to be thought through.
So do we treat them like rare commodities?
Plunder arctic reserves for new ideas buried deep beneath the permafrost,
suffocate them with patent protection
and junk the rest?
Or do we re-use and recycle them?
Pile our public spaces high with shared ideas beyond anyone's imagining...

intellectual property is theft
and piracy is our only defence against the thought police.

The revolution
will be plagiarised!

1 comment:

Kirsty said...

Great post, I didn't know all that stuff about radio fees to the record companies. I've long been concerned about the way that record companies treat both their customers and their artists. They're little better than pirates, which is why it's so annoying when they come after the rest of us. Pots and kettles spring readily to mind.

I've been thinking for a while that it would be great if musicians had a little paypal donate button on their websites, so that if you wanted to borrow music from the library or download from online you could then bypass the bloody record companies and the artist would probably end up getting more money than they would if you bought their record. I know I'd happily give one-off payments to people whose music I love but I bloody resent having to rebuy music I already own because it's on record or tape and I can't transfer it to my computer, which is where I listen to most of my music these days.

The time is more than ripe for a revolution in the way music is recorded and distributed. I'm a fan of things like the Podsafe Music Network and the smaller online music companies who are distributed music online.