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Copyright Societies: Friend or foe and what to know

Have you ever heard of abbreviations like IPRS, PPL, ASCAP or BMI and wondered why they’re meant to be important to artists? These abbreviations expand into the names of various organizations that are known as Copyright societies, which are basically intermediaries that take up the monumental task of tracking the use of your artistic work, and subsequently collecting and then distributing the royalties due from such use.

What is a Copyright society and why do we have them in the first place?
Copyright societies are basically collection societies – organizations dedicated to collecting and distributing payments. The reason they were introduced, was to actually help out with the extremely tedious and sometimes overwhelming task of tracking the usage of artistic works by persons other than the creators of the work. Tracking usage is important because this will then determine how much money the other users owe the creators for having used their copyrighted artistic work. This might seem easy if you had a small geographical area to monitor, and then a limited number of uses and users of your artistic work, but imagine how complicated tracking can get, if you’re faced with users who span the globe, and uses that are forever new and increasing.

Here’s an example – let’s say you write a song (both the lyrics and the musical composition) and you decide to independently record it. In this example, you own the all rights to your song meaning you own the rights to the lyrics, the tune and the sound recording as well. Your song gets played on the local radio and it becomes a huge hit. Your neighbourhood grocer loves the song and wants to use it in a commercial she’s shooting for her store. You agree to her arrangement and the both of you work out a licensing arrangement where she says she’ll pay you for every time the commercial plays. So now you’re making money from the radio and the grocer’s commercials – already things are getting a little confusing with all the numbers. A few months later, you find out that a video game company in Norway wants to use your song in a game they’re working on. Two weeks after that, you receive an email from the head of a travel start-up based in Brazil who wants to use your song in a welcome dance that they will regularly perform for every batch of new tourists. One thing leads to the other, and suddenly you realize that there are tons of people and companies across the globe interested in using your song for a whole bunch of things – and what’s more, you should be getting paid for all of this! Suddenly, sorting out all the numbers on your own seems like a bit much.

This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photostream of Nico Kaiser

This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photostream of Nico Kaiser

So how do Copyright societies work?
Copyright societies work because of their members – sign up to a copyright society, and technically you put them in charge of licensing your artistic work, and then subsequently they collect the fees or royalty payments payable to you, after deducting some kind of commission or charge for their services. Copyright societies work in huge networks, so you can have Indian Copyright societies networking with American or Malaysian Copyright societies in an effort to monitor, track and then determine the commercial use of an Indian musical work. Usually, a different Copyright society is formed and registered, for every separate category of artistic work – meaning, that there are separate societies dealing exclusively with performance art, sound recordings, films and so on. A Copyright society thus has to deal with a very specific set of artistic works.

Can you have more than one Copyright society for a category of artistic works?
It depends on the country you’re in, but in India, the rule seems fairly clear that as long as there exists a society already registered under the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012 for being dedicated to a particular kind of artistic work, and if such society is doing a pretty good job at handling the interests of its members, then any application for registration of another Copyright society for the same kind of artistic work, may get rejected.

Wait, but then doesn’t this create some kind of monopoly over who gets to handle licensing and royalty stuff for artists?
Yes, it does. Actually, a lot of Copyright societies are criticised for the way they function owing to the fact that they seem largely monopolistic in character, and do not really offer artists much of a choice when it comes to membership. With a major Copyright society ruling over the landscape of royalty distribution and licensing, an independent non-member artist doesn’t stand much of a chance when it comes to figuring out their own rates and licensing arrangements. Also, basic economics tells us that a lack of competition ie. a monopoly can lead to a serious fall in quality – this has been true in the case of some Copyright societies in different parts of the world, what with some of them facing allegations of corruption, misappropriation of funds and just not playing fair.

Wait, what do IPRS and PPL stand for exactly? Are they Indian Copyright societies?
IPRS and PPL are both Indian Copyright societies; IPRS stands for the Indian Performance Rights Society Limited and is the Copyright society representing composers, lyricists and publishers of music. PPL stands for Phonographic Performance Limited and represents music labels. Both societies are in the business of issuing licenses for the use of music. There are different kinds of licenses that both societies issue (which will be the subject matter of a separate post dealing with music licensing) but here’s the thing to remember – these societies provide some kind of blanket licenses to event organizers and venues in an effort to cover the licensing issues that arise with playing live or recorded music.

You’ll be surprised how often you encounter licensing issues with music – every time you hear music playing in elevators in fancy hotels, or when you attend gigs by bands who do covers – all this falls under the subject of music licensing. Since it’s hard even for Copyright societies to constantly track music that is played at venues or events, they provide blanket licenses which authorize the venues and event organizers to play certain musical recordings or allow performances of certain musical works from a collection of catalogues. The justification behind this issuing of a blanket license is to ensure that no use of an artist’s musical work goes unchecked, thereby ensuring that proper royalties go where they are due (atleast, that’s the principle).

But how effective are the IPRS and the PPL?
While some artists and labels have benefitted from the activities of the IPRS and the PPL, the lack of transparency and communication between the Copyright societies and the artistic community has led to huge misunderstandings. Several artists and venue owners complain of IPRS and PPL folk (mostly PPL folk) barging into establishments, disrupting gigs and demanding money – now while there is not enough evidence to suggest that everyone at the IPRS and the PPL are doing a bad job, there has been enough public backlash and litigation to raise some doubt of the functioning of IPRS and the PPL.

Do the 2012 Copyright amendments help?
The recent amendments to the Indian Copyright Act have attempted to comprehensively address the functioning of Copyright societies by stipulating the need for greater transparency, clarity and organization in the conduct of their business. In addition, they’ve also expanded their membership to copyright owners and authors of works –a big step towards acknowledging the industry dynamic between composers and producers. Considering the fact that the amendments have only been recently made, it might do us some good to wait and see what changes they will bring to Copyright societies.

So as an artist, what do I need to know about Copyright societies?
If you’re going to be playing covers or if you’re going to be using recorded music at an event (theatrical or choreographic in nature), then ensure that you have the necessary licenses issued by the Copyright societies in question. Needless to say, this is especially obvious in the case of music although this is true of any material that involves licenses issued by Copyright societies. Make sure you do your research, confusing as it might seem, so you’re not in the wrong.

Copyright societies can be looked upon favourably a lot of the times, and then again they have the tendency of being the subject of some serious arguments, but whatever your perspective, it’s important you have one on Copyright societies – do you have something to say or better yet, a story to share about your experiences with IPRS or PPL (in India) or ASCAP and BMI (from the USA) – go ahead and leave a comment or do get in touch.

A special feature by Artistik License

Manojna Yeluri

Manojna Yeluri

Manojna Yeluri is an independent legal consultant advising artists and startups on issues related to IPR and entertainment law. She also founded and runs Artistik License – a legal education initiative for artists working in India that’s meant to empower artists through simplified legal knowledge. When she's not talking to artists, you can find her drinking tea and trying her hand at all kinds of DIY craft projects. You can read more about her work with Artistik License at artistiklicense.wordpress.com

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