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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 4

Why Do Copyrights Matter?

by Jimmy St-Germain / December 1, 1999

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A good many people have problems understanding the concept of copyright. This difficulty is shared equally between creators and users of musical works. The creators of musical works are composers, writers and songwriters. The "users of musical works" are record companies, radio and TV networks and concert producers.

Copyright can be subdivided into three distinct categories covering the uses of musical works. They are known as performance rights, mechanical rights and graphic rights.

* Performance right allows music creators to claim royalties when their works are played. When you hear music (on the radio, TV, stage or in public), the composer usually receives royalties for this use.

* Mechanical right allows creators to claim royalties when their works are recorded. We use the word "mechanical" to indicate the use of a mechanical device to play the music. Here are some examples of such devices : CD, vinyl LP, cassette, videocassette, DVD, perforated paper (which was once used in old player pianos).

* Graphic right allows creators to claim royalties when their works are printed on paper documents like sheet music and lyric sheet.

Mechanical reproduction right

Mechanical reproduction rights are a hot topic these days. This is mainly due to the rising popularity of internet, which allows one to access colossal amounts of information. The recent transmission speed improvements and the breakthrough of the MPEG3 (usually known as MP3) compression algorithm has made the distribution of music over the internet not only possible, but easy. The sound quality of compressed MP3 files is similar to that of a CD playing in your home system (there is, however, a difference and purists will notice it). Furthermore, who can resist the attraction of apparently free music for which you would have to pay if you were to get it either on CD or cassette? For all these reasons, this compression algorithm has rapidly become a de facto standard.

Record companies and composers are not standing idle, however, and are becoming rather alarmed by this phenomenon. Should we believe them when they say that they are being robbed if somebody downloads a song via internet? After all, a song is not a tangible object like a book or a CD. How can someone claim ownership of a song or a musical work?

Basically, because it is the result of work, and as such it deserves payment, even if the outcome of this labour is intangible. To use the fruit of this work, a person must get authorization, given through a mechanical reproduction licence, from the owner of the right.

A record label responsible for recording a CD must obtain a licence from the songwriter. More to the point, the record label buys a licence for the quantity of CDs that will be manufactured.

In turn, the company pays the creator a small amount of money for each piece involved. This money (current rate is 0,075$), called a royalty, is multiplied by the amount of CDs manufactured. If the CD sells a million copies, 75000$ for each song will find its way into the pockets of the songwriter. Of course, this example is a bit extreme because only a handful of writers can count on millions of sales.

When people buy a novel, they usually think about the physical object itself: the book. This is also true of music. We hear people say : "I bought a CD, I bought a cassette." But this is missing the point. When you buy a CD, you buy first and foremost the licence which allows you to own one (and only one!) copy of the recordings on the CD. The object itself, the CD or the cassette, is worth less than a dollar.

So if record companies make us pay for the licence when we buy a CD, then why should they be worried about the proliferation of MP3s? The fact is, the production of a CD requires an enormous investment of time and resources by the manufacturer. Huge amounts of money are poured into the recording process: musicians and sound engineers must be hired, expensive instruments and studios may be rented. After contributing so much towards the CD's success, it is only natural for the record company to feel cheated of their share when unauthorized copies are made.

Because of the difficulty in tracking all uses of musical works, a society, SODRAC, has been created to do precisely that. Its main goal is to collect mechanical royalties from record labels on behalf of its members.

Our next article will deal with public performance rights.

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