October 31, 2005

The copyright dilemma: isn’t the main point to have original music played?

by Andrew Berthoff

After the story about the coalition of well known pipe-music composers pressuring a Web site to sort of close down (it can still be accessed if you poke around the net) there’s been a lot of follow-on discussion – as often is the case – on forums and newsgroups about the issue of copyright.

Essentially, there appear to be three significant camps: 1. the majority of established composers who, quite rightly, want control over how their copyright scores are distributed, 2. the unknown composers who want their music distributed by any means possible, and 3. non-composers who don’t care that much and are most concerned about accessing the music.

The Majority-of-Established-Composers camp is perfectly correct, of course. Their music is copyright and they have every right to seek control of the material. If a composer does not want his or her copyright material reproduced without permission, whether by Xerox machine or electronic files or smoke signals, whether someone is profiting or not from that reproduction, then international copyright law says that he or she has legal protection. Go for it.

Few would argue that the permission of composers should be sought and granted before copyright scores are made available on a Web site.

But, as one prominent composer so astutely pointed out, there is no real money in the scores themselves. When it comes to copyright control, it’s far more important to manage and monitor the performance of the music. CD sales, radio broadcasts, podcasts, Internet audio shows – this is where a successful composer can and should reap the monetary benefits of his or her talent. (On those notes – pun intended – budding composers should ensure that their tunes are registered with their own or another’s copyright house so that they will actually realize royalties due to them.)

So, if performance of original, copyright music is most important, shouldn’t composers, established or not, seek to have their scores made as accessible as possible? Doesn’t it make sense to encourage the trading of original, copyright music so that the stuff will actually be played?

Printed music books by established composers are great things, and more power to compilers who want to put them out. But they take a lot of money and effort to compile, typeset, edit, print, market, distribute and monitor sales. Printed books are also undesirable for an increasing number of customers when so much material is available on the Internet, and when so many books feature content that isn’t really wanted and will never be played in a significant way. So many tunes in books are filler from big-name pipers who offer up the stuff that they know is not of much monetary value to them because they know it’s pretty poor. (Again, there are exceptions, but if the contributed tune were really good wouldn’t the composer want to retain copyright and publish it himself?)

Keeping in mind the two composing camps, the established folks generally want to control distribution of their scores. But what does it take to become established? How did the Bill Livingstones, Bruce Gandys, Mark Sauls and Michael Greys of the world get their tunes out there? The answer is clear.

They cultivated a vehicle for their work to be heard. With rare exceptions, the pipe-tunes that become popular are those that get a stamp of approval by leading Grade 1 bands and top soloists who, most importantly, make recordings. I can’t think of any exceptions to that unwritten rule in the last 10 years. Without a popular Grade 1 band playing his or her compositions, the chances that a composer will have a “hit” tune are next to none. Grade 1 bands for pipe-tune makers are the equivalent of radio airplay to pop artists. Budding composers need a consistent link to a Grade 1 that in turn enable fans to hear that music on recordings.

A composer who has his tune selected as the opener or closer for Shotts, Field-Marshal, or SFU’s winning World’s medley has hit pay-dirt and, like a winner of a Highland Society of London Gold Medal, becomes an instant musical “authority.” Bands around the world will have a go at the tune and, the easier and catchier it is, the more bands will want to play it and will seek out the score for the composition.

The copyright dilemma with pipe-tune scores is not unlike that with the mainstream recording industry. For every Paul McCartney demanding copyright protection there are thousands of garage bands who just want their music heard. They want their big break, and they will take it any way it comes. The struggling artist just wants his material out there so, with luck, he won’t have to struggle any longer and eventually become a Paul McCartney, raking in the money from performance royalties. But I can’t imagine for one second that Kanye West’s lawyers are clamping down on people illegally copying written scores to their client’s music, if those printed scores actually even exist.

The thing with mainstream music download sites is that they need popular, copyright music to draw in visitors so that the unknown stuff might be accessed too. Bagpipe tunes sites need the tunes of big-name-composers for flypaper.

I’ve composed a few tunes and a few of them actually have been published, mainly by friends looking for said filler. I used to compose frequently when I was younger and wide-eyed and did it simply because I found it easy and fun. Every now and then I hear of some band playing one of my tunes and it’s still a thrill. The closest I came to joining the realm of “successful” composer was in 1996 or so when the band I played with at the time, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, had a go at a two-parted strathspey that I wrote, “Mrs. Campbell of Canna.” (I still think it’s a good tune, cut from the ultra-easy “Molly Connell” cloth.) But the band quietly dropped it when I was late for a practice or one of the band’s other composers butted in with their own tune or something. I didn’t put up a fuss or tacitly threaten to quit over it and the rest is not history.

I have also been around some of the prominent composers of today when they were first putting out their stuff. There was a common thread with all of them: the desire simply to have their compositions played. Whether that desire was driven by self-satisfaction or money or a combination of the two, I don’t know. But their desire to have their music played was strong and admirable. Again, they have every right now to try to protect their original scores.

But if I were into publishing my original music, here’s what I’d do: I would make my “book” available on the net in Adobe Acrobat format for free downloading by registered visitors to my site who 1) click a box confirming that they agree not to share the file(s), and 2) pay what they can or want for a particular tune via credit card or Paypal. I would also offer a deal whereby they could download an entire “book” for a certain amount. This a la carte approach means that, similar to iTunes and other music sites, visitors can hone in on the piece of music they want. No filler. No wasted money on needless paper.

For two years I was a busker on Princes Street in Edinburgh. For two or three hours I’d simply practice on the street with an open pipe box. I thought then that it was a very pure form of making money. People would pay me what they thought my work was worth. If I entertained and they saw some value in it then I hoped that they would toss a few coins in the box. If they didn’t, then so be it. While busking and pipe-tune scores are vastly different things, the premise is similar. Why not ask people to pay what they think the score is worth and be done with it?

Similarly, content on Piper & Drummer Online is copyright. This article is, strictly speaking, copyright. But if someone cuts and pastes it and sends it to a friend, who sends it to a friend, who sends it to a friend, that means that it’s being read by more people. And that’s good. I’d rather they just send a link to the page, but being read is really what it’s all about.

It’s when people lift this article and post it on a Web site that garners revenue from banner ads, or goes in a print magazine that sells advertising that I get peeved. My hard work and original sentences are used to make money – however small that amount might be – for lazy and unoriginal people. Don’t like that and will fight it tooth and nail.

But back to pipe-tune publishing. Ultimately, it’s the composer’s call and it is indeed just plain right for a music Web site’s developer to request permission from composers to make their copyright material available to visitors. Certainly, anyone who is profiting from online advertising or charging for unauthorized copyright scores should be stopped. They are thieves, pure and simple.

Things have changed and will continue to change. Content is accessible and, despite the continued printing of lovely, expensive paper collections, the trend toward the rapid and easy exchange of electronic copyright material will continue. Successful pipe-music composers can fight the good fight and demand that the only way to get the music is to buy the printed book, or they can exploit the evolving medium of the Internet for all it’s worth.


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