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ASCAP Thinks That Video Game Providers Should Pay Music Performance Royalties

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.”]

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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ASCAP’s Bill of Wrongs

(Update: This has been reposted on Techdirt.)

ASCAP has published a Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers, which, unfortunately, seems to be more like a bill of “wrongs”.

Just as citizens of a nation must be educated about their rights to ensure that they are protected and upheld, so too must those who compose words and music know the rights that support their own acts of creation. Without these rights, which directly emanate from the U.S. Constitution, many who dream of focusing their talents and energies on music creation would be economically unable to do so – an outcome that would diminish artistic expression today and for future generations.

Which U.S. Constitution is ASCAP reading? The U.S. Constitution provision says, “the Congress shall have Power… To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution to suggest that copyright law has anything to do with protecting artists natural rights, copyright hardly exists for a limited amount of time anymore, and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were quite skeptical of the concept.

And the claim that such laws are required to make a living as an artist is very debatable, and I’d beg to differ. There was art before copyright law existed, and many artists are making their living today despite copyright law (rather than because of it).

At this time, when so many forces are seeking to diminish copyright protections and devalue artistic expression, this Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers looks to clarify the entitlements that every music creator enjoys.

Who is seeking to devalue artistic expression? Price and value are not the same thing. Just because the economics of digital goods have pushed the price of music towards zero (the marginal cost) does not mean that music no longer has value. This sort of statement needs to be substantiated.

1. We have the right to be compensated for the use of our creative works, and share in the revenues that they generate.

Why? In what other industries do creators maintain control over their creations after they reach consumers? Lenovo has no right to be compensated for the use of my laptop or to share in the revenue I generate through developing software. This is not a given.

2. We have the right to license our works and control the ways in which they are used.

Again – why? How many other industries control the way their works are used? This is not a given.

3. We have the right to withhold permission for uses of our works on artistic, economic or philosophical grounds.

This is not the purpose of copyright law at all, especially since it’s supposed to be for a limited time. This, in fact, is a restriction on artistic expression. Though it may be troubling to have a work associated with something that you don’t agree with, I believe that freedom of speech is more important for artistic expression than total control.

There are defamation and libel laws for serious abuses.

4. We have the right to protect our creative works to the fullest extent of the law from all forms of piracy, theft and unauthorized use, which deprive us of our right to earn a living based on our creativity.

Theft and copyright infringement are not the same thing. And the sharing and spreading of music through digital channels is natural and, more importantly, does not deprive artists of their right ability to earn a living.

Bad, out-dated, obsolete business models based on artificial scarcity deprive artists of their right ability to earn a living.

(I’m not sure if this is a “right” because they seem to be confusing royalties and salaries.)

5. We have the right to choose when and where our creative works may be used for free.

Why? Coca-cola doesn’t have the right to determine whether its products can be given away for free as part of a promotion after a pizza store purchases them. This is not a given.

6. We have the right to develop, document and distribute our works through new media channels – while retaining the right to a share in all associated profits.

Wow, that started off great, but the ending sounds like Billy Bragg’s whining in the New York Times. The phrase “all associated profits” seems quite overarching. This sounds like musicians claiming that MySpace and Bebo owe them money for their success, while denying that the reverse could ever be true, that a new media company would be entitled to share in “all associated profits” of an artist it enables to succeed.

Double standard much?

7. We have the right to choose the organizations we want to represent us and to join our voices together to protect our rights and negotiate for the value of our music.

Excellent! I actually agree with this whole-heartedly. I do not want ASCAP to represent me!

8. We have the right to earn compensation from all types of “performances,” including direct, live renditions as well as indirect recordings, broadcasts, digital streams and more.

This sounds like Viacom’s misunderstanding of the difference between content and communication. ASCAP is treating the Internet like other forms of broadcast, but the Internet isn’t a broadcast medium. It’s a communications medium. When it comes to communication, the idea of using copyright to restrict content gets weird in a hurry. Royalties are not the answer for the digital age.

9. We have the right to decline participation in business models that require us to relinquish all or part of our creative rights – or which do not respect our right to be compensated for our work.

Sure you do, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make any money. Economics aren’t about what you want to happen, or what you think should happen. Economics are about what is happening. Business models that don’t make sense given the economics won’t succeed. Of course you have the right to choose whatever business model you like, but that doesn’t mean it will be successful or that it should be protected by copyright law.

The end of that statement sounds like another case of confusing royalties and salaries.

10. We have the right to advocate for strong laws protecting our creative works, and demand that our government vigorously uphold and protect our rights.

Of course you do, but again, I don’t think it’s a great idea if you subscribe to this “bill of rights”. Moreover, consumers also have the right to advocate for better laws that protect their interests and vigorously uphold and protect their rights, which our current laws fail to do.

Artists can advocate whatever they want, but it’s a bad idea to advocate the opposite of what your fans want.

Conclusion

This supposed bill of rights is really just an assertion of the status quo by those who depend on copyright law to protect their obsolete business models. If people in the music business could only realize that they’re in the business of providing an enjoyable experience surrounding music, rather than trying to control and monetize every possible use of art, they might open up to new business models that make sense rather than whine about the fact that their current business models don’t work anymore.

This isn’t a bill of rights. It’s a stage and symptom of the grieving process.

Signing this and, worse yet, living by it, would be an economic and ethical mistake for any songwriter or composer.

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