Event report: One thing that would improve the rights of musicians

Last week I was invited to participate at the event ‘Back to Basics: Deconstructing Intellectual property Protection for Music’ organised by the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society and Haus de Kulturen de Welt in Berlin. Amongst the 25 participants, I enjoyed seeing old friends and colleagues and meeting new ones. I was impressed by the wide-ranging backgrounds and professions of fellow contributors. As well as the organisers and an interdisciplinary group of academics in music, media, law, philosophy and history, there were a number of composers, publishers, forensic musicologists and musicians’ representatives and lawyers. The mix provided for a friendly collaborative environment with many complementary views.

The topics were varied, from the discussion of key concepts of copyright to more practical examples from the recent past and future. The presentation that perhaps gave the most to talk about was Eleonora Rosati’s on the challenges of protecting works made using artificial intelligence. Interesting questions raised and discussed in detail included who would be the owner of an AI-produced work or whether non-human authorship could be protected - bringing up the selfie-monkey. Other fundamental concepts of copyright raised many questions, amongst them originality and the idea of copying itself.

Encouraged by the musicians in the room, the now old but still controversial Blurred Lines case kept coming up over and over again. Musicians pointed to the dangers of finding against musicians’ works on the grounds of substantial similarity, even when, like in this case, there was no note-to-note concurrence throughout the entire song. This brought up all of the well-known complexities of the case: the fact that Blurred Lines was created as a sound alike; the participation of a jury in US civil cases; the existing precedents for substantial similarity, and last but not least, the significant influence of Harvard Professor Ingrid Monson’s expert witness report and the baggage she brought to the case as a scholar of African American music.

Copyrights vs the commons was another area that gave rise to heated discussion. Artist Cornelia Sollfrank claimed that she had moved on from copyright on finding that as an artist there was little money to be made from copyright. After working on digital art designed to disrupt copyright she now focusses on art and the commons. Her intervention at the event brought up discussion about the unequal music industry and exploration of the reasons why so many musicians failed to make a decent living from copyright while publishers and record companies continued to grow year on year.

To close the event, the chairs asked participants to state one thing that in their opinions would improve the rights for musicians. The answers were varied and less focussed on the copyright system itself than on the processes of copyright reform and the management of rights. While the ‘value gap’ came up - that is, the fact that large tech companies protected by safe harbour laws are entitled to avoid paying for music licenses - the central concern was how to get past the likes of Google to change the law. Enforcing more transparency by collective management organisations was also a recurrent wish. Musicians know very little about how royalties are calculated and indeed where they come from and wondered what could be done to improve this situation.

My choice would be to ensure that musicians learn more about their rights. It is only by learning about their legal rights that musicians can take responsibility for the direction of these rights, campaigning and enforcing these by leveraging their large audiences. Ensuring that musicians learn about their rights should not be the sole responsibility of musicians themselves and their teachers, but also of musicians’ unions and their representative bodies. Further, just like the Copyright Office and government-funded bodies fund initiatives for the teaching of piracy to the wider population, including school children, funds should be allocated to teach copyright positively to creators and how to enforce their rights.

Finally, a note on gender balance: amongst the participants were about a quarter of women. In discussion with the organisers about this, I found out, as in other events I’ve attended recently, that the bias was not for lack of trying. This suggests that there are many structural differences that make it harder for women to participate in events away from their main workplace. Making lists that privilege women at events to ensure equality at the events themselves could therefore act as a corrective.