Music Business

Years Of Copyright Maximalism Is Killing Pop Music

When the “Blurred Lines” decision was handed down – stating that creating a song that had too similar of feel to a preexisting track was infringement, many warned that the precedent would cause problems for the music business, a prediction which Mike Masnick says has been proven correct.

Op-ed by Mike Masnick of Techdirt

Almost five years ago, we warned that years of copyright maximalists brainwashing the public about ever expansive copyright and the need for everything to be “owned” had resulted in the crazy Blurred Lines decision that said that merely being inspired by another artist to make a song that has a similar feel, even if it doesn’t copy any actual part of the music, was infringing. We warned that this would lead to bad things — and it has.

Over the last few years, we’ve been detailing story after story of similar cases being filed. It’s become so common that we don’t even bother to write about most of the cases. As we’ve said, though, this really is the industry reaping what they’ve sowed. It’s gotten so crazy that even the RIAA (yes, that RIAA) has felt the need to tell courts that maybe their interpretation of copyright has gone too far in the direction of over-protecting copyright holders.

It’s now become such a fact of life that the NY Times has a giant article on how copyright is basically eating pop music these days. It describes a bunch of these cases, and notes that merely “being influenced” makes you liable for copyright infringement, and how that’s causing problems for the very concept of pop music:

That is, to put it plainly, bad news for pop stars, and the producers and songwriters who help them craft hits. They are now marks for frivolous litigation premised upon nebulous assertions as well as a complete and willful ignorance of how pop music is actually made. Occasionally, pop innovates in a hard stylistic jolt, or an outlier comes to rapid prominence (see: Lil Nas X), but more often, it moves as a kind of unconscious collective. An evolutionary step is rarely the product of one person working in isolation; it is one brick added atop hundreds of others.Originality is a con: Pop music history is the history of near overlap. Ideas rarely emerge in complete isolation. In studios around the world, performers, producers and songwriters are all trying to innovate just one step beyond where music currently is, working from the same component parts. It shouldn’t be a surprise when some of what they come up with sounds similar — and also like what came before.

The whole article is great, including this fantastic line:

It fails to make a distinction between theft and echo, or worse, presumes that all echo is theft. It ignores that the long continuum of pop revisits sonic approaches, melodies, beats and chord progressions time and again. It demands that each song be wholly distinct from everything that preceded it, an absurd and ultimately unenforceable dictate.

All echo is theft. That’s definitely the argument that many copyright system supporters have made for years. And now it’s coming back to bite them.

But here’s the most frustrating part of all of this: even with that one RIAA filing admitting that sometimes copyright could go too far in over-protecting rightsholders, it’s not stopping them or other copyright maximalist organizations from still pushing for more expansive, more draconian, more protective copyright reform. Get ready for it, because it’s coming. There are efforts to import the EU’s dreadful copyright directive, as well as a very strongly backed effort to get rid of the DMCA’s safe harbors. And this is coming at a time when actual revenues for artists have continued to shoot skyward.

However, as with so much about copyright, this is all about third parties — not the artists and creators themselves — looking for their own monopoly rents. They’re looking to figure out how to get a piece of the pie for literally doing absolutely nothing. But if something becomes successful, suddenly they all want a cut, and copyright maximalism has handed them the tools to get exactly that. And, as a result, pop music is under ongoing litigation assault. The labels are making money. The lawyers are making money… and, according to a new Rolling Stone article, the insurance companies are making money:

While some record labels may have the budget to hire on-call musicologists who vet new releases for potential copyright claims, smaller players who can’t afford that luxury are turning toward a tried-and-true form of protection: insurance. Lucas Keller — the founder of music management company Milk and Honey, which represents writers and producers who’ve worked with everyone from Alessia Cara and Carrie Underwood to 5 Seconds of Summer and Muse — recently began encouraging all his songwriter clients to purchase errors-and-omissions insurance, which protects creative professionals from legal challenges to their intellectual property. “We all feel like the system has failed us,” Keller says. “There are a lot of aggressive lawyers filing lawsuits and going ham on people.” (He’s particularly critical of publishers whose rosters are heavier on older catalogs than new acts: “Heritage publishers who aren’t making a lot of money are coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘We’re going to take a piece of your contemporary hit.’ ”) Under E&O policies, insurance companies can cover several million dollars of an artist’s costs if they lose a copyright lawsuit. Joe Charles, senior vice president at insurance provider Alliant Insurance Services, says that as many as half of his personal A-list music clients — a roster of stars who already pay for tour insurance and other standard entertainment-industry policies — have recently shown interest in E&O coverage. “When a major claim is all over the press, we’ll get 10 to 20 calls from musicians asking how they can protect themselves and what it will cost,” Charles says.

Notice that all this is money that is not going to the actual artists. The entire premise of the Rolling Stone article is basically that having a hit song is simply too expensive these days, because of bullshit copyright lawsuits that actually have a chance because copyright law has gone insane. Something is clearly broken here, and supporters of the copyright system need to admit that maybe they’ve gone too far.

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