Music copyright is shaping up to be a hot topic this year, despite being both historically overlooked and historically extremely confusing. While the actual workings of royalties and licensing policies are still as convoluted as ever, attention on them — and their dysfunctions — has ramped up thanks to the Music Modernization Act’s passage in the U.S. Congress and a controversial copyright policy overhaul in Europe that could dramatically change user-generated content platforms like YouTube.
The International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (a.k.a. Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Auteurs et Compositeurs, a.k.a. CISAC) is the world’s biggest network of author societies, representing a total of 4 million creators and publishers across fields that include music, literature and visual arts. CISAC’s president is best-selling French electronic composer Jean-Michel Jarre, who visited the United Nations in New York this week along with director general Gadi Oron to discuss the future of creator rights with Secretary-General António Guterres. Rolling Stone sat down with Jarre and Oron to talk about the biggest challenges facing artists and other music creators today — which the digitization of music and availability of content have only intensified.
Europe recently approved copyright proposals that could require sites like YouTube to be much stricter with user-uploaded content. Why is this a milestone for artists and songwriters?
Jarre: It was a very important moment for us to meet with the the Secretary-General yesterday after the victory at the European Parliament. We are expecting that will have a domino effect for the rest of the world. Creators are not trying to complain or whine against the big actors of the Internet: It’s exactly the reverse. We want to create a dynamic and positive relationship between both worlds, because at the end of the day we are very close. We can only build sustainable development if we are respecting the rights of authors and creators. Otherwise in every family you have kids dreaming about being a photographer, being a songwriter, and she or he will have to abandon his or her dream because they’ll need to survive with a different job.
Oron: We’re facing a global problem and need global solutions. The situation is that today, the big platforms — the big services that use creative content and use music — are abusing old laws that were never meant to protect them and were passed 20 or more years ago, before Facebook, before YouTube. It’s time to update the laws. The EU took a major step forward in making sure all digital services are on the same level playing field and all have to negotiate licenses in the same way.
There’s been some confusion about what music creators actually want.
Oron: The services who don’t want to pay are spreading a lot of misinformation about the impact this will have, like saying that legislation on YouTube will hurt the world’s freedom of expression. In fact the impact is very simple: Services will have to license music. This legislation prevents services like YouTube from claiming they are just hosting services that don’t have any control. It forces them to get a license as a music service and not pretend they are completely disconnected.
What brought about the European Parliament’s decision to act?
Jarre: It has been a long battle. It took CISAC probably five years to educate the members of Parliament, who were full of preconceived ideas, about how the digital world works. At the beginning of the century there was this kind of new hippie attitude toward the Internet: “Everything should be free!” But nothing is ever free for everybody. The signal by the European Parliament is very important beyond music — it’s the fact that we have to respect creators’ rights. Each time we don’t, we’re weakening our culture. The European Parliament understood that, in spite of silly arguments that we’d harm the freedom of speech.
Was your meeting with the UN fruitful?
Jarre: The Secretary-General has been very positive. He wants us to participate in a kind of think-tank group on all the digital world issues and how we can ease the process of working together. It’s a huge step for all creators.
Oron: We want to put this issue on the table for every institution of the UN that deals with culture and economic aspects of the creative industries.
“We can only build sustainable development if we are respecting the rights of authors and creators” – Jean-Michael Jarre
What are we going to see in the US and other areas of the world if European laws require YouTube to license its content, or at least police the uploading of content more closely?
Jarre: I think some people have a tendency to create opposition between the digital world and authors’ rights companies. In the European Parliament, the biggest issue was some people saw artists and creators as being against technology. Actually, we are all saying the same thing: We want to simplify all the revenues and economies of this new equation. We should stop having these kinds of dark ideas that if we are asking for regulation on the Internet, we are against freedom of expression. The ultimate lack of freedom of expression would be not to give artists and creators fair renumeration. I think what happened in the European Parliament is going to be very, very positive for artists all over the world. Lots of publishers, artists, filmmakers, script-writers are following it very closely — in the US, Asia, Africa.
Oron: If you look at the money collected in the world — and we know this because we have 239 societies and they all report to us how much they collect — only 13 percent comes from digital services, but that includes all the services. Services like YouTube, where the content is uploaded by the users, are paying very very little. When we looked around the world and asked our societies how much they collect from those services, versus services like Spotify or Apple, they usually collect between four to 17 times less from YouTube.
What is the relationship between CISAC and YouTube like right now?
Jarre: On a personal level, I am in contact with [YouTube Music head] Lyor Cohen and we are becoming quite good friends, even if we are not necessarily sharing the same ideas. The good thing is a man like him is coming from the music industry itself. I joked to him that he has been on the dark side of the force, the Darth Vader of the industry — and he is in a good position to create a link.
Oron: We look at YouTube as partners, because they need the creators and the creators need them. But what we need is a framework that forces them to negotiate fairly. With these new rules in Europe and hopefully other countries, instead of dictating the terms on which they get a license, they will now have to sit down and negotiate like any other service — admitting they are a music service, not just a storage service. It’s a fundamental shift in the way that the industry works. At the end of the day they will have to share more of their revenues, and for the music industry it’s very important and valuable.
One problem is that there is, as you mentioned, a lot of misconception about why artists and services like YouTube are angry at one another.
Oron: When the creators speak, the decision-makers listen. Jean-Michael gave speeches in the European Parliament. Our opponents are getting people out on the street demonstrating about something they don’t understand, just believing what they are told — so it’s very important for us to show the other side.
Jarre: People may think artists are just looking at the past, sitting on pots of gold. Established artists are not fighting for ourselves, but for our kids’ generation. Otherwise we will not have the next Tarantino, the next Coldplay, because we don’t have decent and fair revenues.
“We need … a framework that forces [YouTube] to negotiate fairly” – Gadi Oron
Why do you think these issues — payment on user-generated content platforms, copyright infringement — will only get worse in the future if nothing is done now? Are there other technologies on the horizon?
Jarre: Some people don’t realize we are in the dark age of the digital age. Something that is going to hit us much sooner than we think is the rise of artificial intelligence — and then we will have lots more issues to solve in terms of rights. We need to make provisions about the future of rights and the creative process regarding algorithms and AI. In a few years from now, AI will be able to create original scores, original books, original cultural content. It is a huge question for the 21st century. Right now all the engineers are interested in music that is like Johann Sebastian Bach — an ideal type of mathematic music and melody. We are at the dawn of this, at the moment, with Google and Microsoft and everybody working to improve this.
Another buzzword in the industry lately is blockchain, and specifically what it could do for music metadata and rights management. What are your thoughts on it?
Oron: This is an area where the industry is still experimenting. The industry is still learning how to use that — I’m not sure I’ve seen an application yet that’s already making changes. But it’s one way society is trying to adapt to processing huge amounts of data.
Jarre: At the moment we are in an experimentation stage with the digital world in general. So you have lots of ideas around at the moment, and that’s good. We have to be quicker and quicker. It took 100 years for publishers to get decent revenue for authors’ rights, for example. Now we have to change our habits maybe every year, every month. We have to learn to be faster regarding technology.
It’s as much a legislation problem as it is an education problem, it seems. Many music fans barely have an idea of how recording and publishing industries are even different—
Jarre: Many artists, too.
So how do you explain all of this to them?
Oron: The challenge for us is to face the misinformation, educate artists and listeners as well as legislators. We’ve become much more active in initiatives like songwriting camps, for instance. There is a big gap in what people starting out in the business think they need to know.
Jarre: Even some artists still don’t understand how rights work or what authors’ rights societies are. They think they are like, part of the public tax system, traumatizing hairdressers and discotheques. But here is an example: When you are listening to radio, you don’t pay and you assume the rights are being paid by the broadcaster. So why isn’t it the same thing here?
Oron: We need to harmonize and make sure all kinds of services pay fairly. To a large extent, it was the same battle when the broadcasting industry started. Time has passed and the industry has settled. Everything works the way it should. We just have the same challenge now with a different technology.
Do you foresee a problem trying to sell this on Gen X and millennials — people who may have grown up with the idea of free music and content everywhere?
Jarre: We should teach a course in schools about the respect of culture. As a consumer, you would, of course, prefer to have anything free rather than pay for it. But if you transfer this problem we’re facing to any other sectors of society — like if you suddenly say you will not pay for your coffee — that would be unacceptable.
Oron: I would add that free for the user also doesn’t mean the creator shouldn’t be paid. If your business model is offering content for free, that’s fine. Then, you sort our your license and pay creators so that you can offer it for free.