This post originally appeared on Techdirt.
Despite claiming to represent the interests of songwriters and composers, ASCAP has consistently provided bad advice on how they should respond to digital technology and the internet. For ASCAP and many other collection societies, anything that doesn’t involve royalties seems automatically bad (despite all the success from artists who’ve been freeing up their content), and other questionable practices raise serious doubts over how royalty money is handled once collected. Now, ASCAP wants to increase the toll on video games and is encouraging video game music composers to reserve performance rights (via Michael Scott). Typically, game developers purchase rights (including performance rights) from music composers, but ASCAP’s Director of Legal Affairs, Christine Pepe, argues that the practice no longer makes sense. She suggests adopting the model that was developed for film and television, where composers and songwriters often negotiate contractual provisions for performance royalties.
Not surprisingly, there are some major problems with the article.
First of all, Pepe cites Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution and Stubbs the Zombie to highlight the prominence of music in video games nowadays. These are all cases of popular songs being used in games, rather than music being written for games… yet she’s presumably addressing people who write music for video games. Early versions of Guitar Hero used covers to make licensing easier, so composers weren’t even part of the negotiation. This licensing is about synchronization or mechanical rights — not performance rights. Labels have complained that these games aren’t paying enough for the music, but it’s the games that increase the value (and sales) of the music, not the other way around. These games could simply choose other good music and still be popular. ASCAP clearly doesn’t understand that, while music can add value to games, games add value to music. Pepe says that older video game music is “probably difficult to imagine… in a context other than the games themselves.” She isn’t trying very hard to use her imagination, as there are plenty of examples of older video game music having a life outside of the games. Would anyone care about the Mario theme if it weren’t part of the game? The lesson from old video game music isn’t that performance royalties used to be negligible. It’s that success for a video game music composer isn’t just about writing good music, but about having that music associated with successful games.
Second, Pepe’s argument that there’s a public performance of music in video games seems like a real stretch:
Now, because video games are being delivered by entities other than developers and on transmission-based platforms such as the Internet, there is no reason that composers of music for video games should sign away their rights. Take for instance, X-Box — it is now fully integrated with the Internet and allows users to stream games (instead of just purchase the physical product in the store). Internet-based services that now offer streaming of video games are causing the music contained in such games to be publicly performed. The providers of these video game services typically have or should have a license from ASCAP (and possibly other public performance right organizations). [emphasis mine]
What does “streaming” a video game even mean? A video game is interactive; it’s not a one-way broadcast, but communication over a network. Is Pepe suggesting that there’s a public performance simply because software communicates over the internet? Email happens on the internet. Is that a public performance? There’s such a thing as private communication over a network. Games like Gears of War, for example, allow you to play in co-op mode with another player in the same room or online. I find it hard to believe that the location of player two would determine whether or not the music is being publicly performed. What about a multiplayer game on a local area network? Why would that be any different, in terms of a public performance of music, from a multi-player game with everyone in the same room? Simply playing a game over a network doesn’t make it a performance, nor does that make it public.
But maybe Pepe isn’t referring to having players in remote locations, but having games in remote locations. She uses the Xbox as an example, which seems odd because, as I understand it, the Xbox Live Arcade lets you download games, but that’s quite different from streaming. It’s the video game equivalent of the iTunes Music Store, not an internet radio station. Digital distribution doesn’t mean public performance — the game is still played locally, just off a hard drive instead of a plastic disk.
Okay, so maybe Pepe was trying to talk about a platform that actually hosts and runs games on a remote computer. Still, it’s pretty hard to believe that just because software is run remotely it’s a public performance of the music, when the act of hearing the music would be indistinguishable if the software were run locally. Is it a “public” if I check my email using the Gmail web interface instead of Thunderbird? I have a music server running at home which lets me login and listen to my library from anywhere — is using that a public performance? Do I need a license to listen to my own library because it’s on a different hard drive? How does playing music in a video game become a public performance simply because of the hard drive the game resides on or the CPU that runs the process?
Furthermore, let’s pretend there’s actually public performance taking place. Is it even in a composer’s best interest to demand these royalties? (This is not about a composers “right to get paid;” composers are getting paid — upfront.) Making it harder for people to hear your music is rarely a good idea. Like with theme music for WKRP in Cincinnati or House in the UK, game developers may just seek other music if the licensing requirements are too burdensome. Focusing on getting every penny for every use of the music ignores the value of being included in a game, film or television show. The lesson from video game music of the past and present is that having your music included in a great game is extremely valuable. Not only are you getting paid to be promoted, but the game developers are even doing the hard work of getting fans to connect with the music! Rather than demanding compensation for every use, composers and songwriters should look at other ways to take advantage of the opportunity to make more money from the increased fan base. If ASCAP were really representing their interests, it would be helping them do this instead of pretending that the internet and video games are like television and insisting on performance royalties which will only get in the way of new business models. Of course, don’t expect ASCAP to promote anything that isn’t about increasing royalties. If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail… [or rather, as Hulser puts it: “if the only tool you sell is a hammer, you need everyone to keep buying nails.”]
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