Monday, August 9, 2010

The Music-Copyright Enforcers; New York Times, 8/8/10

John Bowe, New York Times; The Music-Copyright Enforcers:

"Baker, 30, is a licensing executive with Broadcast Music Incorporated, otherwise known as BMI. The firm is a P.R.O., or performing rights organization; P.R.O.’s license the music of the songwriters and music publishers they represent, collecting royalties whenever that music is played in a public setting. Which means that if you buy a CD by, say, Ryan Adams, or download one of his songs from iTunes, and play it at your family reunion, even if 500 people come, you owe nothing. But if you play it at a restaurant you own, then you must pay for the right to harness Adams’s creativity to earn money for yourself. Which leaves you with three choices: you can track down Ryan Adams, make a deal with him and pay him directly; you can pay a licensing fee to the P.R.O. that represents him — in this case, BMI; or you can ignore the issue altogether and hope not to get caught.

P.R.O.’s like BMI spend much of their energy negotiating licenses with the biggest users of music — radio stations, TV and cable networks, film studios, streaming Internet music sites and so on. But a significant portion of BMI’s business is to “educate” and charge — by phone and in person — the hundreds of thousands of businesses across America that don’t know or don’t care to know that they have to pay for the music they use. Besides the more obvious locales like bars and nightclubs, the list of such venues includes: funeral parlors, grocery stores, sports arenas, fitness centers, retirement homes — tens of thousands of businesses, playing a collective many billions of songs per year.

Most Americans have no problem with BMI charging for its music — except when they do. As Richard Conlon, a vice president at BMI in charge of new media, put it: “A few years back, we had Penn, Schoen and Berland, Hillary’s pollster guys, do a study. The idea was, go and find out what Americans really think about copyright. Do songwriters deserve to be paid? Absolutely! The numbers were enormously favorable — like, 85 percent. The poll asked, ‘If there was a party that wasn’t compensating songwriters, do you think that would be wrong?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes!’ So then, everything’s fine, right? Wrong. Because when it came time to ask people to part with their shekels, it was like: ‘Eww. You want me to pay?’ ”

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