Sunday, September 7, 2008

The theft of music

Last night, after a gap of several months, I spoke via telephone with a close friend from the music business, the founder of a major world music label (whose name I am not using for purposes of his privacy and that of his company).  Back in the eighties, beginning with modest releases of music on cassettes, he established his fledgling business, which eventually grew to have a catalog of some one hundred CDs featuring traditional music from all the major continents of the world.

My friend was lamenting the lack of ethics in the American communication industry at large. He mentioned three instances in which, merely during the last three months, he had recognized musical excerpts from CDs his company had released which had been used without permission--and hence without payment. The first was in the background music for a highly popular, prime time major network crime drama; the second was in the soundtrack for a feature film which was set in a third world country; and the third instance of piracy was in a song included on a thematic compilation CD released by a major American periodical, and which most certainly had enjoyed widespread sales.

These infractions were troubling in themselves because they resulted in the failure of appropriate licensing fees to be paid to the company.  But in the case of this particular music label, it has always been company policy to pass a portion of the income from royalties and licensing on to the musicians themselves--or in cases where the musicians were deceased, to the heirs.  In some cases where there is widespread distribution of the material, these fees can amount to thousands of dollars--a very significant amount to the needy families of poor musicians on other countries.  

My friend said that these were only the most recent examples of the theft of his company's copyrighted material, and that it was frustrating and time-consuming to have to continue to seek payment from the violators of the law. But unfortunately such actions are all too common, even in the U.S., where intellectual property laws are observed much more closely than in many parts of the world.

Which leads us to remember that musicians must usually make their living from music, and that unauthorized copying of their material deprives them of a source of livelihood which they richly deserve, given their years of dedication to the development of their art.

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