Musicians petition Copyright Office over DMCA

copyright symbol canvasThe music industry is taking a stand against the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with more than 100 artists and managers petitioning the U.S. Copyright Office to change the current safe harbor laws. The industry has submitted three letters to the office – one from music managers, one from creators, and one from artists and songwriters – explaining their concerns with the existing interpretation of the regulation and calling for change.

“This outdated law forces us to stand by helplessly as billions of dollars in advertising is sold around illegal copies of our work,” one letter reads. The rhetoric is equally portentous across the petitions. “The existing laws — and their interpretation by judges — threaten the continued viability of songwriters and recording artists to survive from the creation of music,” the musician-focused letter says. “The next generation of creators may be silenced if the economics don’t justify a career in the music industry.”

The Copyright Office is examining the effects of those safe harbors, which protect online services from liability if their users upload copyrighted content without permission. The division does not actually have the power to make changes to the DMCA, but it can recommend alterations to a subcommittee that reviews copyright law.

YouTube and SoundCloud have been the two main targets in most of the DMCA criticism, although SoundCloud’s recent licensing deals with the major labels could go a long way toward taking it out of the conversation. But YouTube and any other online service that collects user-generated content run the chance of hosting material that infringes upon copyright. From the services’ perspective, systems such as YouTube’s Content ID can help rights holders to police when their material appears. But this new industry push argues that the current laws place too much burden on rights holders to police their work.

The DMCA dates back to 1998. The law often has a hard time keeping up with the breakneck pace of technological developments, and 18 years is a sizable chasm to catch up on. As an increasingly large percentage of the music industry’s revenue comes from digital sources, and streaming in particular, the calls for better protection will only grow louder and more frequent.

The RIAA results for 2015 saw streaming as the top revenue source for the first time, with paid subscriptions generating $1.2 billion while ad-supported on-demand listening contributed just $384 million. Subscriber rates have been growing for many platforms (Spotify and Tidal recently posted respectable numbers), but the vast majority of streaming still happens in that ad-supported space. The revenue disparity has put many artists on the defensive.

Anna Washenko