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Future Of Musical Copyright In A Digital World — An Update

Exploration By Big George
Published April 1999

Future Of Musical Copyright In A Digital World — An Update

A recent court ruling could be the biggest threat to music composers since the great cull of 1673. Big George breaks the bad news...

Following last month's report on the dangers to musicians' income posed by changes in the way music is recorded and distributed, there is now more alarming news. A judgement which took place in the High Court last month may not have attracted much attention, but threatens to have devastating effects for recording musicians.

The upshot of the so‑called 'Atashi case' is that royalty payments generated by all music performances recorded or broadcast via any digital medium may now legitimately be paid out on a 'per bit' basis rather than as per minute of music. This means that payments for any material destined for release on any data‑compressed medium, such as Minidisc, or for radio transmission via any form of compression system, will be reduced to reflect the amount of the original data actually reaching the listener. Some data‑compression systems compact the data to around one‑fifth of its original size by discarding information that the listener is unlikely to hear due to the masking effects of stronger sounds. In practice, this means royalty payments on compressed music could amount to as little as 20 percent of that on uncompressed material.

Because the royalty payments are calculated on the number of bits actually received by the listener, those producing ballads are likely to fare less well than dance music composers, simply because of the higher average sound level of dance music. Louder music uses more of the available bits and therefore attracts higher royalties.

This unbelievable U‑turn in musicians' fortunes has come about due to record companies, production facilities and broadcasters going secretly to the High Court, where they convinced a judge that the existing copyright agreements were biased against them and could no longer be applied in the digital age. The judge apparently took just 10 minutes to rule in favour of this appalling legislation. The ramifications to all musicians, composers and producers are obvious; however, there are ways in which you can hit back.

Revolution Tactics

Future Of Musical Copyright In A Digital World — An Update

Extensive discussion with legal representatives advising the affected musicians have pinpointed a number of ways to claw back at least some of this encroachment on our earnings, and in some cases, actually turn it to our advantage.

• MEDIA COMPOSERS: When delivering tracks to TV companies, 80 percent of the duration of the piece should comprise musically meaningful silences. This 'silence' should actually comprise a maxed‑out 19kHz tone, which nobody can hear, but which will use up all the bits and thus fool automatic logging systems into issuing royalty payments. This way, the royalties due on the silences should compensate for the royalties lost on the music.

  • RECORDING ARTISTS: I was going to suggest that artistes apply just 20 percent of their talent to compose, perform and produce their music, though it can be argued that many have been doing this all along! A more practical solution is to have your legal guys amend your contract so that only uncompressed versions of your material can be broadcast or recorded. If you don't already do so, master your material via a multi‑band compressor so that the signal level is within 1dB of clipping at all times in every frequency band.

If you can swing it, try for a DVD release mastered at 24‑bit, 96kHz, as this will triple the number of bits used in your recording and consequently allow you to claim three times the royalty payments. For future work, consider having all your songs mastered for full 5.1 surround as you are entitled to a royalty payment for each channel of sound transmitted. There is currently a legal argument going on over the royalties due on the subwoofer channel — some argue that the payment should be geared to the proportion of the audio bandwidth reproduced by the subwoofer, while others say that it should be free of all royalty payments as the information it carries has, in effect, been removed from the other five channels.

  • LYRICISTS: There should be no immediate effect on lyricists, though those delivering copy via email need to remain vigilant as any files compacted using ZipIt, Stuffit or similar programs may be deemed to be data‑reduced and the payments scaled down accordingly.

We need to act fast before this legislation makes fools of us all. Contact me via SOS to lend your support.

What They Say...

Sebastian M. Pegg, Composer: "It's absolutely appalling. If this goes through I shall compose using only three notes in every octave of my piano. It's the craziest thing I've heard since Brussels tried to decimalise music by replacing the octave by the dectave."

Chuck Murphy, President EBS Records: "Music is a sales business, pure and simple. The people who create it are at the bottom of the food chain, and I'm at the top."

Yukio Enoguku, R&D guru: "We are currently developing a chip that will not only compose any style of music, but produce, market, distribute and purchase itself, all within the digital domain. We hope to remove the human element from the entire musical experience by the end of 2001, though there will be a printout telling you how much you would have enjoyed the music had you been there to hear it!"