Dear Musicians: The RIAA Is About To Totally Screw You Over (Again!)
from the watch for it... dept
It’s been two years since we first warned of the pending fight concerning musicians asserting their copyright termination rights. As you hopefully know by now, copyright law includes a “termination right,” which cannot be contractually given up, which allows the original content creator to “reclaim” the copyright on their works 35 years after it was created. The only real exception is in cases where the work qualifies as “work for hire.” I’m actually not a huge fan of termination rights in the first place for a variety of reasons, but the fact is that they’re there… and they scare the entertainment industry silly.
The big legal fights so far have mostly been about the comic book industry, with the heirs of Superman’s creators having won back some rights to Superman — while Jack Kirby’s heirs failed to win back the rights to The Incredible Hulk and X-Men. Kirby’s family just appealed and there are still additional disputes around the Superman stuff.
However, the real showdown is about the music industry. The NY Times has an article about the impending battle, which has a variety of interesting tidbits, but none more ridiculous than the RIAA officially making it clear that it intends to totally screw over musicians. As we made clear two years ago when we wrote about this, the RIAA was going to come out fighting to try to block what the law clearly allows, and will do everything it can to screw over artists and keep them from regaining their own copyrights.
?We believe the termination right doesn?t apply to most sound recordings,? said Steven Marks, general counsel for the Recording Industry Association of America, a lobbying group in Washington that represents the interests of record labels. As the record companies see it, the master recordings belong to them in perpetuity, rather than to the artists who wrote and recorded the songs, because, the labels argue, the records are ?works for hire,? compilations created not by independent performers but by musicians who are, in essence, their employees.
First, this may be the first time the mainstream media has accurately pointed out that the RIAA represents the “interests of the record labels” rather than the interests of the music industry or musicians. As is clear in this case, the RIAA’s interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of artists, and the fact that Marks has the gall to flat out say that termination rights don’t apply to most sound recordings is so intellectually dishonest.
The RIAA knows full well that termination rights absolutely do apply to most sound recordings. To be fair, this is mostly an accident of history. As was detailed in an excellent IP Colloquium episode last summer all about termination rights, what got covered and what didn’t basically depended on who was in the room and who was more aggressive in their lobbying. Nine “work-for-hire” exceptions were put into the law. It doesn’t make much sense which ones made it and which didn’t, but that’s lobbying for you.
However, the reason we know that the RIAA is fully aware of the fact that copyright termination does apply to most sound recordings is because a dozen years ago, recognizing that this was going to become an issue, the RIAA famously had a small time Congressional staffer by the name of Mitch Glazier sneak four innocuous looking words in the middle of a totally unrelated bill to quietly and retroactively have sound recordings declared “works for hire.” This literally happened overnight with no elected officials who were voting on the bill being made aware of it.
Once that became public, artists (quite reasonably) freaked out and went very, very public about how the RIAA was totally screwing them over. It’s one of the few times in history when Congress actually went against the RIAA, removing the language soon after it was approved. Of course, the guy who slipped the language in, Mitch Glazier, came out of this fine. Just three months after putting in that language, he was hired by the RIAA at a $500,000 per year salary, and he’s just been promoted to the number two spot at the RIAA.
If you ever needed any more evidence that the RIAA is entirely anti-artist, this is it. It’s put the guy who tried to take away their right to regain copyrights in the number 2 spot just weeks before out and out declaring that the organization simply doesn’t believe sound recordings qualify for termination rights.
So, since they know damn well that sound recordings do qualify for termination rights, how are they going to claim otherwise? They may (as the NY Times article suggests) try to rely on last year’s ruling concerning Bob Marley’s recordings, in which they were declared “work for hire” and his family was unable to reclaim the copyright. But that’s a different story, as those recordings happened prior to the rules of the 1976 Copyright Act, so the ruling really doesn’t apply.
Instead, my bet is they’re going to lean heavily on a Second Circuit Appeals Court ruling from last year, which claimed that an album is a single compilation for the purposes of copyright law. That matters, because while “sound recordings” are not covered as a “work for hire,” “compilations” are. Of course, the obvious intent of including “compilations” was based on the realization that if multiple people contribute pieces to a larger whole compilation, separating out those rights later under termination laws would be freakishly impossible. Thus it was just easier to label the entire compilation as held by the producer. But a single album by a single artist clearly is not a compilation in that sense, despite the RIAA’s claim above.
Other than that, the only way the RIAA can make a work for hire claim stick is to say that musicians were employees who created the music “within the scope of his or her employment.” That, obviously, is completely laughable, since the labels don’t hire musicians, nor do they pay them salaries. In fact, while they give them “advances,” those are merely a form of loan that the artists have to pay back out of their own earnings. So the labels aren’t even paying for the music creation.
Either way, it’s pretty stunning that the RIAA has so blatantly declared war on artists. I’m somewhat surprised that more musicians aren’t speaking out about this, but it’s going to happen. No wonder the RIAA is so desperate to get things like PROTECT IP passed now, before this next battle comes to fruition. Once you have a bunch of big name musicians going very public about how the RIAA is screwing them over, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the RIAA to keep up the facade about how it’s representing the interests of musicians while it’s actively and vocally trying to totally screw them over.