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EDITORIAL: Unflattered by imitation

The music industry strikes back at online video

- - Monday, September 2, 2013

Suing customers is not a smart business decision, but like a broken record, the music industry is willing to do it over and over again. A coalition of major music publishers is so desperate to stop the growing trend of consumers turning to YouTube to watch amateur music videos that it's turning to the federal courts once again.

The industry is suing Fullscreen, a network founded by a former YouTube executive that promises to build an audience for upstart video-content providers in return for a share of ad revenue. The company claims to have 200 million subscribers across 15,000 YouTube channels with more than 2.5 billion monthly views, which represents tremendous potential exposure for new artists. Stodgy music industry big shots don't see it that way. Clinging for the days when vinyl was king, they would rather kill the golden goose than adapt.

The National Music Publishers Association insists Fullscreen must pay royalties whenever a YouTube artist sings a cover song, or as the lawsuit puts it, produces videos that "reproduce popular phonorecords." Such payments are often beyond the means of an aspiring singer and would have the effect of thwarting competition for established artists.

Much has changed in the 30 years since MTV aired its first music video, "Video Killed the Radio Star," referring to the television music videos that did eventually supplant disc jockeys and radio station managers as the drivers of successful album sales. The shift reshaped the music industry for the better, driving greater profits for the industry.

Now, YouTube has killed the televised music video, as many of today's top hits have their roots in cheaply made online videos that inspired a community of imitators with cover-song tributes. These amateur works are forwarded between friends, prodding many to look back and compare them to the original.

For example, YouTube parodies of Psy's "Gangnam Style" created such a buzz around the South Korean musician's work that the original song reached 1.8 billion views on the video website. The industry is making millions off this song, rendering the claim of harm from cover songs implausible. Similarly, Justin Bieber was discovered after a schoolmate posted an amateur video of the teenage singer at a school recital on YouTube, kicking off Bieber-mania. (Now we know who to blame.)

Just as they fought the creation of Apple's iTunes music store, the recording industry continues to show its unwillingness to allow the free market to work its magic. It would make more sense to encourage new avenues of musical expression to develop before seeking to impose a reasonable licensing royalty. Instead, the major labels would rather use the power of government to crush amateurs' dreams of becoming the next Internet pop star.

Government officials must remember that the Constitution set up a copyright system to promote the flourishing of the arts, not to become the enforcer of a content cartel. When Congress returns from its summer vacation, it should take up the music-licensing system and break the cycle of lawsuits — for the music industry's own good.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the companies involved. The music publishers filed the lawsuit.