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Kicking songwriters for fun and profit

The EFF's ringtone jihad is cynical and synthetic

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Comment Why are the EFF and Public Knowledge ganging up with their traditional adversaries - big telecomms companies and major record labels - to screw songwriters?

The globally successful ringtone business is now on the wane, but it has made lots of people happy in recent years. Customers cheerfully handed over real money for a few seconds of a hit - resulting in a windfall for the telcos and record companies, who saw an unexpected new revenue stream for their master rights. The windfall reached $6.6bn in 2006.

But the only group to lose out were US songwriters and composers, who unlike their counterparts in the rest of the world, were excluded. They didn't have a "digital right" for public performance, something that's standard copyright everywhere else, including the UK. So they were doubly screwed - losing out not only on US performance revenue but global revenue, too, since the US exception excluded them from reciprocals.

Wouldn't you expect a "digital rights" group to come the aid of the songwriters, the original creators of the material, and little guy whose inventiveness and creativity powered the bigger industries? Er, no.

In an incredibly cynical press release, the EFF accuses the songwriters and composers' trade union ASCAP of profiteering. As you can see from above, the creators are the only group here that isn't profiteering. And it's the US that's the global exception, since ringtones are a "public performance" in the UK, the rest of Europe, and most of the rest of the world.

The current dispute is actually a fairly arcane, technical one about how songwriters get paid - via the big record companies, or via their own membership organisation. And the amounts involved are mere pennies. For example, last year in the UK, the PRS paid out just £5.7m in royalties to creators for ringtones, less than one per cent of its annual payout of £608m. That in turn is a small sum compared to the master rights, which are owned by the record companies.

While the EFF and Public Knowledge point to a peculiarity in US law, the intent of the law is still clear. Like brand trainers or gold necklaces, ringtones are something that's "worn", and it doesn't matter if a fraction of the song is performed. They're "bling", in the words of MBlox founder Andrew Bud. You only need to hear the first two bars of Sweet Child O'Mine - in fact, the first bar will do - to know what's being played. So ringtones are emphatically a performance.

The EFF's campaign is nasty, mean-minded and philistine. One must ask - why are they doing it?

I suspect the anti-creator groups hate the ringtone business for several reasons. It shows that people will voluntarily pay for music - even a few seconds of it - something freetards everywhere are loath to acknowledge. Anti-creator groups also need to keep stoking the persecution complex - the idea the plucky little outfits like er, Verizon and um, Apple are under threat from the big bad music business. This persecution fantasy needs fuel for the fire.

The reality is actually completely the reverse - as former Napster lawyer Chris Castle notes here, the consumer electronics and telecomms industries - and Google, too - are far bigger:

"It seems that the important thing for [EFF attorney] Fred [von Lohmann] is that artists must lose economic rights and tech companies must be able to free ride on their work. This is where he always seems to end up."

So even though it means taking a day off from bashing telcos and big labels, the EFF and Public Knowledge kick the smallest and most creative group they can find.

Because manufacturing a synthetic outrage using digital media is cheap and easy. In other words, because they can. ®

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