A composer colleague of mine asked me to say a few words on copyright, on which I think I have a few reasonably intelligent things to say.
Copyright, in my opinion, is a much-maligned, almost-always-misunderstood, wonderful necessity to creative endeavors. That said, it’s very easy to misunderstand the concepts behind copyright, and there’s much in modern society to make things even more confusing.
First, what is copyright? Copyright is a group of rights automatically granted to the creator of an intellectual property (for our purposes, a musical work). At its most basic, copyright is the right to create and distribute copies of the original work. (And let me just point out that it’s copyright, not copywrite – a work is not copywritten, it is copyrighted.) However, there are subsidiary rights that come with the “right to copy”, such as:
• the right to create derivative works
• the right to perform or display the work publicly
• the right to transmit or display the work by radio or video
• the right to sell or assign all or a portion of these rights to others
These are some awfully important rights, and they’re often overlooked.
What makes copyright so important is that it allows composers to control when and how their works are used, and in the process hopefully make a living from it. Let me offer a few examples.
A composer can assign (all or a portion of) her rights to a particular work to a publisher in exchange for distribution and a royalty on sales. The publisher now owns the right to create and distribute copies of the work and generate a profit from those copies. The composer, in exchange for this assignation of rights, is entitled to a royalty on each sale. We’ll not go into the details of royalties, and my opinions on assigning rights to a publisher, in this essay – I could go on for ages, but that’s not what we’re here for. This is the most common way for a composer to leverage her copyright to earn money.
Slightly more complicated is the assignation of rights to a record label. Copyright for audio recordings (or phonorecords, as they’re outdatedly referred to in copyright law) is in some ways counterintuitive, and I’m still learning the ins and outs of some of the finer points. Suffice it to say that the copyright to the piece of music remains with the publisher or composer, but the copyright for the recorded performance belongs to the record label. The composer and publisher are entitled to royalties in this case, as well, although they’re much, much smaller.
The first recording of a work is the only recording that the original copyright holder has any substantial control over. If a piece has never been recorded and commercially released (archival recordings, meaning recordings that have never been released for sale on any level, don’t count as a commercial release, and don’t count toward/against this requirement), its composer or publisher may refuse permission to any performer or label that wants to record it, and the composer or publisher may negotiate mechanical licensing fees, royalty rates, and other fees associated with the use of the work for the recording. However, once that first commercial recording has been made, any other performer or record label may record it without permission, and are only required to offer a “compulsory mechanical license fee”, which is a whopping $0.091 for works under 5 minutes, and $0.0175 per minute for works over 5 minutes. It’s not a lot. At all.
You can see why leveraging control of copyright can be important here. Let’s imagine that I allow a pianist to record one of my works and make it commercially available on a disc. The performance isn’t very good, and the recording quality is sub-par at best. It sells maybe five copies a year. I negotiated a fair royalty rate with the pianist, but with such pitiful sales, it doesn’t matter since it’s not selling anyway, and the recording is bad enough that I don’t want it representing me, so I don’t actually want it to sell. Along comes Deutsche Gramophon (since we’re playing out a litle fantasy here), and they decide they want to put it on a compilation disc. Since the piece has already been commercially recorded and released, I can’t negotiate a decent royalty, so when the recording turns out fantastic and sells like hot cakes (ahh, fantasy), I’m paid literally pennies per copy. (This scenario could then be turned to my advantage, but that’s not a copyright issue; instead it’s a marketing one – another discussion for another day.)
I should point out here, albeit briefly, that there is a substantial difference between performance royalties, print royalties, and mechanical royalties. Performance royalties are paid by a Performing Rights Organization such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, and are paid for live performances of your works. Print royalties are paid directly by your publisher (if you have one), and are for sales of scores and printed music only. Mechanical & digital royalties are paid through a mechanical licensing agency like the Harry Fox Agency (there are several others) or directly from the record label/recording artist if you aren’t registered through an agency, and are for CD and MP3 sales only. Some finer points: mechanical/digital royalties get paid only for sales because CDs and MP3s are assumed to be for private use only (listening in your home, your car, on your iPod). However, when a bar plays a track from a CD, or a piece is broadcast on the radio or on TV, it suddenly becomes a public performance, and is paid as a performance royalty through your PRO. “Live performance” isn’t limited to human beings on stage in front of other human beings; it is any public display (remember that in the bulleted list above?) or presentation of the work, and is consequently paid as a performance royalty.
Because I’m the owner of the copyright, I’m able to make derivative works based on the original piece. I can take my piano piece and arrange it for orchestra or Pierrot ensemble or string quartet. I can also create an orchestral suite on themes from my latest opera. Since I created the original work, I have the right to do with it as I please.
However, when I assign those rights to a publisher, they have the right to create derivative works – or, more likely, hire an arranger to create derivative works. I’m now in the position of having to ask my publisher for permission to arrange a piece that I wrote in the first place.
Let’s move outside the scope of music for a moment, and think about novels to explain a bit further. If I were to write a short story or novel centered around a young wizard named Harry Potter, I’d be in a world of hurt because that character – that intellectual property – is owned by either J.K. Rowling or her publishers (it depends on the wording of her contract, which I’m obviously not privy to). Any fiction that anyone might write starring the Boy Who Lived would be considered a derivative work, which is the purview of copyright.
Similarly, any piece of music I may write that makes use of a theme or themes by Benjamin Britten would be considered a derivative work. If I were to orchestrate one of his piano pieces, I would be creating a derivative work, and consequently violating his publisher’s copyright.
Conversely, if I were to authorize the creation of a derivative work such as a choral arrangement of an art song, I would still be entitled to a royalty since I’m the creator of the original work. I can authorize arrangers to create multiple versions of a handful of my pieces with varying instrumentations, and offer them for sale under my own publishing company. I’d owe the arranger a portion of the royalty (depending on my contract with him), but I would in turn have a larger catalog to leverage. Or, you know, I could do it all myself and not owe anyone else royalties.
Performance and Transmission
One of the cornerstones of a composer’s income, aside from commissioning fees, is performance and broadcast royalties. Every time a piece of mine is performed publicly, I’m entitled to some sort of royalty. If this provision weren’t a part of copyright law, my works could be performed anywhere and by anyone without benefiting me in the slightest.
Now, some composers may not have a problem with this because they’re just happy to have their works out there. However, the problem isn’t just that I’m not making money off of a particular performance: it’s that the performers/presenters/performance venues are profiting from my works while I’m not. Allowing non-creators to profit from the creator’s work creates a huge inequity. In fact, it creates a huge disincentive for the creators to stop creating. If everyone but me makes money off of my work, why should I continue to do it?
And there, folks, is the crux of copyright in the modern age. By not enforcing copyright, creators are put at a huge disadvantage. I, for one, would appreciate being able to make a living at the career that I’ve put over half of my life into. Just because I love writing music doesn’t mean I should do it without compensation. This starts to segue into another conversation about commonly held views and misconceptions about creators. And it’s a conversation that needs to be had – loudly and in many venues.
Where do the waters get muddied?
A few things start to muddy the waters here, and it can be difficult to discuss them rationally, or to separate the exact problem from what seems to be the problem.
One problem that people have with copyright is that it seems to benefit large corporations more than it does the individual. Now, in many cases this is true. But not true enough to abolish copyright, as some would like to do. One of the difficulties here is that corporations have the resources to lobby congress to revise copyright law to benefit them more and more. It’s happened more than once. The Disney corporation and the Gershwin estate have had an active hand in pressuring members of congress to extend copyright further and further so that they can maintain a hold on their previously-copyrighted properties. These extensions do next to nothing for individuals. I, for one, will never benefit from the extensions, because I’ll be at least 70 years dead by the time my copyrights expire. My estate might benefit from them, but not to the degree that Disney will benefit from owning Mickey Mouse or the Gershwin estate from owning Rhapsody in Blue. This seems to be the public face of copyright to most. I’ve seen lots of comments threads in lots of blog posts and news outlets decrying copyright as a purely corporate tactic to make even more money at the consumer’s expense. Because they don’t understand the true nature of copyright, many people can’t see how it benefits the individual and encourages creation.
Even creators themselves often have issues with copyright because they don’t really understand it. Many young composers and artists see copyright as an impediment to their being able to get their works seen and heard. It is only if you make it. One of the ways that people are trying to loosen copyright is through things like the Creative Commons license. I know more than one composer who mistakenly thinks that Creative Commons is a substitute for copyright. Clearly they don’t understand what they’re talking about. Even Creative Commons makes a big point of saying that it’s not a substitute for copyright. It’s an appendage to copyright.
Creative Commons is a licensing tool. Notice that it’s called a Creative Commons license. Take a look at the different types of CC licenses and then take a look at the rights granted by copyright law. Look familiar? If not, look again. CC allows a creator to grant particular rights to non-creators – various distribution rights (with attribution, without attribution, for/not for commercial use) and rights to create derivative works.
I, for one, would never use a CC license with regards to my work. I prefer to take things on a case-by-case basis, and grant permissions where I deem it appropriate. But that’s my own choice, and isn’t right for everyone. I’ve had pop remixes done of some of my art songs, I’ve had my scores used as the basis for an entire body of work by a visual artist, and I’ve had one of my choral works recorded professionally. In all three cases, I’ve assigned rights as needed, and had absolutely no problem with legal issues. People who want to use my works in some way come to me, ask my permission, and I grant it. It’s that easy. I don’t need a one-size-fits-all license from a faceless entity, thanks.
Obviously this isn’t all there is to know about copyright. There’s lots I don’t know, and that I’m still learning. But I do know that copyright is the thing that will allow me to generate income from my works and actually have a career as a composer.
Disclaimer: I’m obviously not a lawyer, and my writings here shouldn’t be construed as legal advice.