Interview with Songwriters Guild of America President Rick Carnes on Choruss, the Songwriters Association of Canada and Global Licensing

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Rick Carnes, President of the Songwriter’s Guild of America. The full length interview runs in Music Tech Policy Monthly.

MTP: In the news this week, Jim Griffin is quoted as acknowledging he underestimated the complexity of his Choruss plan which he largely blames on there being an inconveniently large number of songwriters. To me, this is analogous to saying that you would like Charley Tuna if it were just more like Bevo [the famous Texas longhorn]. Do you understand why Griffin would blame songwriters for his problems?

Carnes: It is a sign of progress that Jim now understands that his solution was too simplistic. Just waving the magic wand of a monthly fee over illegal file sharing is never going to solve the problem. Jim and I have discussed Chrouss in private and in public forums and though I have always supported any idea that will fairly compensate songwriters for the use of their works Jim could never explain, at least to my satisfaction, how Choruss would be able to deliver on that promise. When pressed to answer some of the hard questions about accounting and distributing the money his answer seemed to be ‘let’s try it first and see if we can solve the problems later’.

That’s not going to work with a Copyright related business where all the participants have to agree upfront. The solution does not reside in reducing the number of songwriters nor in striping songwriters of the right to say no. The music pirates have already done that! The answer is to show songwriters a business model that is so compelling that they will all say yes (Like the Performing Rights Societies have done). Hopefully, Jim will find that business model instead of pursuing an attack on Songwriter’s rights. I understand his frustrations and why he might be tempted to blame songwriters for the enormity of the problems he is facing, but we didn’t create the problem, we just created the songs. It is the job of entrepreneurs to find a creative way to solve the problems and get buy-in from all the players. Choruss just isn’t there yet.

MTP: You and we have both been critical of Griffin’s plan, which is remarkably similar to plans advanced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Songwriters Association of Canada, global licensing in France and both Terry Fisher and Lawrence Lessig. These all seem to end with a statutory license to impose these ideas on songwriters whether they like it or not. I thought we already had a statutory license in the US and all these p2p, Bit Torrent and cyberlocker services routinely ignore that license as it is. Do you understand this yearning for government imposed controls and do you think a Griffin license would fair any better with thieves than the current compulsory mechanical?

I can’t support any theory or plan for a blanket license for unlimited P2P downloading until I know how Songwriter’s earnings and rights will be affected. I’ve never met anyone who would leave a paying job for a job where the new pay scale was not stated. It is unreasonable to expect songwriters to behave any differently. Of course, we have been told by Jim and others that the alternative is the theft of our work and we should take whatever we can get instead of losing it all. At the Songwriters Guild we have heard this very same argument from every user of Copyright for the last 80 years. Our standard remains fair compensation for the use of our work.

With Choruss I never found out how much I would be compensated for my work. Under the current US statutory license (yes, there is one!) I get 9.1 cents per download (if I own 100% of the song and the publishing rights). Under Choruss I was only given assurances from Jim that there would be a lump sum of money collected and that I would get my fair share of it. That wasn’t enough detail for me to sign on to the plan. Since Choruss would be competing against other services like iTunes , which operate under the current statutory license, it didn’t make business sense to jump to a competitor that couldn’t give me a comparable price or proof of more transparency in payments.

The EFF doesn’t have a plan, they barely have a theory. I have seen EFF support Grokster and I have seen Fred Von Lohman, their former director, get called out by the judge in the Limewire case for instructing Limewire in the intricacies of hiding, or rather, not collecting evidence of infringing files on their service. So I don’t think they have any place in a legitimate discussion of how we develop a workable system of digital music delivery.

The SAC is a serious group of songwriters who are actually trying to solve the problem. I travelled to Toronto to meet with them a couple of years back to discuss their plan to monetize illegal P2P file sharing. Their plan left a lot of questions to be answered but we trusted that the Canadian songwriters would do their best to get it right. The one condition for our support of their plan was that there must be an opt-out included for songwriters who don’t want to participate. The SAC agreed.

The SGA will continue to support the initiative as long as there is an opt-out included. Without the opt-out we cannot support them without more discussion about the details of the system. One of the things we tell songwriters is never sign a contract without understanding all the details. We adopt that same attitude in supporting legislation.

France seems to be trying to address the problem from the top down. I don’t know if subsidizing digital downloads in conjunction with a global licensing scheme and a three strikes regime will work like the proverbial carrot and stick, but the French songwriters we will soon find out. I hope it is a positive result but I don’t know if it is something we would want to import. American Copyright law and the American market are different from France.

Lessig and others have conflated the ideas of Media reform, free speech, and privacy concerns with an anti-Copyright crusade. Like all crusaders they are so focused on their ‘noble cause’ that reason has escaped them. When songwriters lose their jobs due to piracy they consider us collateral damage in their quest to undermine the giant corporations that ‘control’ the media. ‘Holy warriors’ like Lessig see the world as a binary place. It is an ‘us or them’ world they inhabit. Crusaders are seldom the people who produce a lasting solution to any problem. I have never seen a coherent plan for the future of digital content distribution advanced by Lessig and I don’t expect to.

I certainly understand the yearning for a Government solution to the problems of digital music delivery on the internet. But Government solutions to extremely complex problems can create their own set of problems. The 1909 US Copyright law stuck songwriters with a 2 cent statutory rate with no way to change it. That turned out to be a disaster.

Currently, the FCC’s proposed Net Neutrality rules sound like a great idea on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper you realize that, if implemented, the ‘level playing field’ for all internet services these rules aim to create will keep legal content distributors from ever being able to distinguish themselves from sites like Pirate Bay. Government certainly has a place in the solution to our problems, but at the moment it might be better directed toward the enforcement of current Copyright law on the internet rather than new licensing schemes.

As you point out, there are many services that routinely ignore the current laws. There is little reason to believe they would follow new laws, either.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Songwriters Guild of America President Rick Carnes on Choruss, the Songwriters Association of Canada and Global Licensing

  1. Terrific interview, and some very thoughtful comments from Mr. Carves. As you know, he and I differ on the definitions and relevance of open Internet provisions, as the serves that will (and do) best compete with illegal sites are, in fact, a direct result of open platforms and that level technological playing field. That having been said, I personally agree that a crusader mentality in the current intellectual property debates is not particularly useful, no matter which flag said crusader is flying.I was pleased to read that Mr. Carves has been in discussions with his Canadian counterparts, and remains open to potential solutions in the digital space. Looking forward to reading the rest of the interview.


  2. Before you get too excited, realize that when Rick says "opt out" he doesn't mean opt out of getting paid, he means opt out of getting bartered at all. (Which of course is the problem with any national law that affects international repertoire.) I would call this the ontological opt out, but then I'm an Old Testament kind of guy.


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