When the hacker group Anonymous attacked the Church of Scientology, it seemed ridiculous. When it attacked law enforcement sites, it wasn’t so funny anymore. What can you say about a group that treasures freed speech so much it tries to silence anyone who disagrees with it? It’s a philosophy only a libertarian acid casualty could love.
This week Anonymous once again attacked the German collecting society GEMA (the equivalent of the U.S. organizations ASCAP and BMI.) On Monday, the group hacked GEMA’s Web site to display a message that it blocked the “right to freedom.” In an age of 140-character political slogans, I suppose this passes for a manifesto.
GEMA’s offense against freedom? The organization has not made deal with YouTube to let the video site use songs by its writers. (Like ASCAP and BMI, GEMA represents composers, who control the rights to sync their music with video.) Since GEMA, like most European collecting societies, essentially has a legal monopoly to represent all writers within Germany, this means YouTube can’t show most music videos there. As a sometime resident of Berlin, I can attest that this is extremely annoying, although I wouldn’t exactly call it oppression. But in the online world, as a famous German thinker might have put it, specious claims about freedom of speech are the continuation of negotiation by other means
Like so many other battles in what self-important activists call the “copyfight,” this is just a negotiation gone wrong. GEMA hasn’t refused to make a deal with YouTube – it’s just waiting for a deal that makes sense. It wants to make as much as possible for the writers it represents, while YouTube wants to pay them as little as possible, so it can make more money itself. There’s a word for this: Capitalism.
Essentially, the dispute between GEMA and YouTube is no different from millions of negotiations all over the world – except that Google likes to make its own rules. According to its interpretation of the DMCA – basically upheld in the court’s summary judgment in the Viacom case – YouTube can show any video uploaded by a user until the copyright owner files a formal takedown notice. (Organizations allied with Google want copyright owners to do an expensive legal review first.) I don’t think YouTube should have to review every single minute of video uploaded to its site, but I do think it should be required to do some filtering – which it does now, anyway. Otherwise YouTube can essentially tell copyright holders that it’s going to show their content whether they like it or not – so they might as well take a lowball offer.
In some cases, this is just fine with major labels – which have urged GEMA to make a deal. But the interests of labels don’t always coincide with those of artists, let alone songwriters. In the U.S., three of the four majors made a deal with YouTube to create Vevo, which seems to be thriving selling ads against their content. But is that good for artists or songwriters? No one knows since the deal between the labels and YouTube is so opaque. And although YouTube generates valuable exposure for artists, that doesn’t do much to help non-performing songwriters. The late Jerry Leiber didn’t sell many T-shirts.
Is GEMA stupid not to make a deal? Maybe – YouTube has become an important outlet for music. On the other hand, offering YouTube a lower price for music than it gives other video outlets would enable YouTube to undercut its competitors, which would in turn give it more market power to demand even lower rates. According to an article in Billboard, YouTube wants to pay a flat fee, while GEMA wants more information about which songs get played. But it’s hard to know anything for certain, since Google – the great champion of transparency – has insisted that negotiations remain confidential.
It’s hard to know who’s right. But artists would do well to remember that GEMA is run by and for songwriters. YouTube ultimately answers to Google CEO Larry Page, who, asked in a Viacom case deposition whether he favored the acquiring the video site, responded that, “I don’t remember being upset about it, so my guess is I was more positive than negative.” But who can be expected to remember the details of every little $1.65 billion transaction?