A Blanket License for Music Soon To Arrive?

by on January 26, 2009 · 14 comments

Isle of Man Coat of ArmsThe Isle of Man may soon implement a “blanket license” whereby Manx broadband users could download as much music as they like in exchange for paying a “fee” (also known as a “tax,” since this would be non-optional) to their ISP that would supposedly be as low as $1.38/month.  The Manx proposal sounds a lot like how SoundExchange administers a blanket license in the U.S. for web-casting of copyrighted music:

the money collected by the Internet providers would be sent to a special agency that would distribute the proceeds to the copyright owners, including the record labels and music publishers. They would receive payments based on how often their music was downloaded or streamed over the Internet, as they now do in many countries when it is performed live or on the radio.

As Adam Thierer has noted,  Larry Lessig has endorsed at least a voluntary version of this idea, but Adam has raised a number of tough questions:

How do we determine who should get paid what under a blanket licensing system for the Net? What formula shall we use to determine why one artists gets more than another? After all, counting downloads won’t be simple, and it can be gamed. Lessig says that “there are plenty of ways that we might tag and trace particular uses of copyrighted material.” (p. 272)  Really? If that was the case today, then we would have a fully functioning copyright clearance and compensation system in place already. But “tagging and tracing” is easier said than done. The fact is, the same complexities we face trying to enforce such tagging and tracing systems under the present copyright system would be present in any compulsory licensing system….

There are many thorny questions about the fairness of imposing a blanket fee on all online users even if they don’t listen to any music, or those who would be offended at the prospect of being forced to pay for certain types of music (think of grandmas paying for gangsta rap). On the opposite end of the equation, there’s the question of fairness to artists who may not want to surrender the rights to their musical creations at government-set terms and rates. Finally, what about other types of media creators and distributors? If we’re going to have a blanket fee for online music, why not movies, television content, video games, and everything else?

For further reading, check out “What’s Wrong with ISP Music Licensing” by copyright gurus Chris Castle and Amy Mitchell and this 2004 Cato study by Robert Merges.  Not being a copyright expert, I don’t really have anything more to add on this issue.  But I look forward to hearing what our readers—and my co-bloggers—think.

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