The Mutant Spawn of Music-Addled Aliens and Giant Media Interests

That’s how a new comic novel describes American Copyright law:

Reid does believe in the sanctity of intellectual property. But he thinks the penalties for copyright infringement in the U.S. are so extreme that they wind up being counterproductive.

“When the law gets stretched to such a cartoon extreme — $150,000 penalty for pirating a single 99 cent song — we cease to look like victims of property theft who deserve to be protected,” he says, “and we start looking more like a coddled interest group.”

I don’t have any experience with copyright infringement cases, beyond believing that there’s a big moral difference (and there should be a much clearer legal distinction) between me making a copy of my favorite Rambos’ CD to share with my mother or giving a copy of an .mp3 to a friend, on the one hand, and, on the other, full-blown black market operations. But this sense of galactically-proportioned entitlement of the media industrial complex that Reid pinpoints has certainly pervaded my limited experience with the big corporate music publishers.

When I’ve tried to secure copyright licenses to reprint lyrics in my scholarship, it really has often seemed to me that most corporate publishers rely on gold-plated aliens to set the fee schedule for licenses to reprint lyrics (in a non-profit educationally-focused academic books and journal articles no less!*). But it’s not only the money. I always tried to be proactive and cooperative and patient in my dealings with publishers, and I did my best to be thorough and responsible in complying with the often internecine layers of application processing required for a license request to even receive consideration. Yet it often seemed that no matter my effort to reach a reasonable deal that satisfied everyone’s needs and interests, the corporate attitude toward our interactions - and this isn’t just unique to one or two publishers - was (more times than not) impatience bordering on truculence, and not-very-latent hostility, as if I were trying to legally rob them (certainly felt like the other way ’round to me).

One notable exception was Brentwood Benson, whose personnel were unfailingly helpful and cooperative, and professionally respectful. Mind you, they still charged a license fee that strikes me as entirely out of proportion to the market value of the song and the academic use being requested,*  but after dealing with so much high-handedness from so many other places, I was almost happy to overpay Brentwood Benson just for their being nice when they held me up sold me the licenses.

And I had it easy comparatively. A colleague who just published a physiology textbook wanted to start each chapter with a thematically appropriate song lyric that might catch the attention of your average college student. Her publisher tallied up the price to secure all the lyrics she had proposed to use (no single lyric more than a line or two from the song): $1.3 million. Royght.

This kind of the nonsense is in the spirit of what Reid, the author quoted above, is lampooning in his much-viewed TED talk on the $8 billion iPod:

I should be clear here that I’m not condoning or supporting the kind of flagrant and actively malevolent piracy that leads to dozens of bootlegs of American blockbusters and chart-topping albums being peddled like knock-off Rolexes on the street. That’s wrong. Don’t do it. Etc.

But just as there are (according to an economist quoted lower down in the story) not only direct but indirect costs to piracy that we should be aware of and take seriously, there are also oft-overlooked costs to the overamped hyper-fixative fervor of the anti-piracy mindset in the music industry, among whose secondary (and I would hope unintended) consequences has been to make it more difficult for people who love or are otherwise interested in your music to write about it commercially* and in the process expose that music to people who might then … you know, go buy more music and stuff.

*Footnote: Before you start flying to your keyboards to point out that somebody’s getting rich off the subscriptions to academic journals of the sort I’ve published in or on a book like mine whose hardback edition is upwards of $80.00, I’d refer you to articles here and here about the cost model for peer-reviewed academic scholarly publications - short answer: nobody’s getting rich off academic monographs, which are very different from textbooks.

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  1. Highway Robbery | MusicScribe on 09 Oct 2012 at 12:48 am

    […] in August, Doug Harrison published an article that mentioned the staggering cost of printing song lyrics in his book. I was reminded of his article when I ran […]


  1. Ode wrote:

    of all the ways I leech info from my sound engineer friend, “Sound on Sound” magazine she gets from UK might be one of the most edumacational, real fun to read even for a nonpro, and it doesn’t insult one’s intelligence like US-mags do, subtly suggesting the average reader’s age to be 12.

    Old ,yet perpetually true viewpoint on piracy effects:

  2. Mike S wrote:

    Found the links to cost of prininting scholary mongraphs enlightening– and as a budding theologian/author, a little depressing. I deal in the area of theological journals and though there are some differences, I would suspect many of the same economic challenges apply. I had a very well known theologian over to the house the other night and this man has written many books and commentaries– most of which are requested by the publishers and he said in today’s market it makes little difference even if he personally recommends a work to a publisher–the market is that tough.

    I can’t help but wonder if some of the same economic realities apply to southern gospel. Small market with limited income with the costs of traveling, performing groups.

    Question: what about the ‘glory days’ of the 70’s and 80’s when groups such as the Hinsons, Cathedrals, Kingsmen, Happy Goodmans etc all carried live bands and stayed together for many years? Was there less expectations financially? Do groups have larger overheads now? Are there more or less albums or CD’s sold now? How has the internet changed the financial landscape?

    Some of you knowledgable SG fans and performers who have been around for awhile jump right in!

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