The article on BMI in the New York Times Sunday Magazine offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of a licensing executive for the performing rights organization and the tenuous relationship many people have with copyright. Near the beginning of “The Music-Copyright Enforcers” is this quote from BMI’s Richard Conlon, VP in charge of new media, about a survey that looked at how Americans feel about compensating songwriters and publishers.

“A few years back, we had Penn, Schoen and Berland, Hillary’s pollster guys, do a study. The idea was, go and find out what Americans really think about copyright. Do songwriters deserve to be paid? Absolutely! The numbers were enormously favorable — like, 85 percent. The poll asked, ‘If there was a party that wasn’t compensating songwriters, do you think that would be wrong?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes!’ So then, everything’s fine, right? Wrong. Because when it came time to ask people to part with their shekels, it was like: ‘Eww. You want me to pay?’”

Author John Bowie claims mashups created for free do not violate copyright law, so who gets paid when the creators use free music to make their money touring or doing other projects? Northern Brazil’s “tecno brega” music, which rework popular songs, is a case in point. Brazil’s copyright laws don’t apply in the U.S. so a U.S. lawyer will tell you that a free download can indeed violate copyright law and the legality of a sound recording is not based on commercial intent.

Two other examples used are Danger Mouse and Girl Talk. Music by both artists have indeed made available as free downloads, as the article said, but both have been sold through retail as well. The Gray Album was originally sold in small quantities as a bootleg CD by retailers – this fact is missed in virtually every article about the album – before EMI’s cease-and-desist letters instigated a period of online disobedience and brought the album to the world’s attention. Girl Talk’s releases are sold at virtually all download stores but iTunes. So, yes, two artists often hailed as models for a new era of copyright have indeed sold their legally questionable creations at retail. The fact that neither has been sued is probably a function of the insufficient financial resources for plaintiffs to target.

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboardbiz

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