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An Interview by Rick Carnes

December 30, 2013

[Editor Charlie sez:  Here’s an excerpt from an interesting interview from 2009 that Chris Castle did with Songwriters Guild of America President Rick Carnes, a great friend of MTP and a tireless fighter for songwriters.  Read the full interview on the SGA blog.]

Rick:  You constantly take pro-copyright positions that are unpopular with many in the tech community. Since you are a lawyer and all the big money these days seems to be in tech, have your pro-copyright views been bad for business?

Chris:  Well, it is a bit schizophrenic. There are some music lawyers who have essentially abandoned their roots in a rush for the gold, but I’m not one of them. I have been trying to explain the goals of the technology community to the creative community and those of the creative community to the technology community for over a decade. You’re almost certain to make someone mad at you.

I like to think that I try hard to understand where the other side is coming from. When you think about how software is created it’s much easier to understand the collectivist thinking in the anti-copyright groups and the open source mindset in particular.

Code is often created by large groups of people who don’t really benefit very much from the commercialization of their work product and get virtually no individual recognition for it. Because engineers know going in that they will likely never own the rights to the code they create, ownership is almost not a factor. That makes it easier for them to embrace the open source concept. They do get some stock in their companies, but not much and the number of big payouts are relatively small compared to the number of washouts in the boom-and-bust cycle.

Songwriters and artists can and often do own or control every aspect of their work. And this is, I think, the origins of the individualist thinking that makes our creative community different from technology. They have little hope of controlling their labor value and maybe don’t care as much about it because they don’t ever expect to have anything to say about how the Google algorithm is used, for example.

I think it’s a shame that part of the extraordinary value that engineers confer on Google is compensated in free food. Can you imagine saying to a songwriter, we own all your songs, but invite your friends over for mac and cheese? It’s kind of sad. It’s easy to see why they don’t want any union organizers in there.

Engineers are often completely mystified by how many songwriters can control one song and there are many complaints about the complexities of music licensing. They just don’t understand how someone who owns 1/16th of a song can be as important as the writer who owns 50%. That scenario doesn’t seem to happen in the tech world. That’s not a value judgment that one is “better” than another.

I think that many people confound pro-copyright with pro-corporate and that is not true. I don’t think that a pro-copyright position is inconsistent with many tech companies since they rely on copyright as part of their IP treasure chest. It’s incorrect to bunch all tech companies under the same tent.

On the other hand, it is absurd—absurd—that we are into the digital reality 10 years by anyone’s measurement and there are at most three or four companies that have managed to stick out the ridiculously complex licensing requirements for music online. It is virtually impossible to launch a global music brand now without tiptoeing through a minefield of licensing agreements that even experts have trouble navigating.

We have to find a way to lower transaction costs on these licensing problems while maintaining a robust system of economic freedoms and protecting labor value. Every day that goes by without a solution just increases the likelihood that entrepreneurs will prefer to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

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