Intellectual Property Rights and the Dissemination of Dot.Org Music in a Dot.Com World


Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

No issue has been more divisive to people in the music community than the current debate over the free dissemination of music over the Internet and that dissemination’s inherent violation of the copyright laws governing intellectual property. We’ve decided to jump into the fray ourselves this month.

Intellectual property was the theme of my conversation with Carl Stone, a composer whose sample-based music is largely promulgated on the Web. We also offer comments about downloadable music by Richard Danielpour, Amy Knoles, Amy Scurria and Jeff Harrington, composers from around the country who create music in a wide variety of styles and whose music has received varying degrees of public exposure. For balance, we also offer some thoughts by Mark A. Fischer, a leading intellectual properties attorney, and for context, we offer Heidi Waleson’s HyperHistory of intellectual property legislation. We hope that you will share your thoughts with us as well.

For people in the pop music record business, the issue would appear to be pretty cut and dried. The pop music record industry makes most of its money from the short-term sale of the latest hit. People hear it on the radio, or in a store, or wherever, and hopefully millions of them run out and buy it. There has always been and will probably always continue to be artistically conceived pop music that succeeds financially as well; but the way pop music is negotiated, packaged, and marketed is a business first and foremost. This is “dot.com” music: music that is expected to make money. Allow people to freely distribute virtual-soundalike copies of the latest hit single and chances are they will never buy the record. (In the minds of record executives, this is like offering people a free three-course meal and then expecting them to still be hungry enough to pay to eat at a restaurant an hour later.)

The issue is much more complex, however, for the “other music,” the music that almost never shows up on the radar screens of the big record companies, whether it be new so-called classical music (from new orchestral works to electronic experiments), jazz, or any kind of specialty or fringe musical genres (from bluegrass to experimental rock). This is “dot.org” music: it rarely makes money from the sale of recordings and survives by people’s exposure to it which leads to commissions, ticket sales at concert venues, etc. Dot.org music doesn’t get much radio airplay and almost never gets on television. In fact, the more truly alternative or “more dot.org” it is, the less exposure it has seemed to get. Until the advent of the Internet…

The Internet has been a great equalizer of music. In fact, it is the only medium where the music of Milton Babbitt, Meredith Monk or Cecil Taylor can compete with the music of Britney Spears or ‘N Sync or whatever is currently being thrust at us as the “must-have” music of the moment. The recent rise to the Number 1 Billboard position of an album as experimental as Radiohead’s Kid A, an album widely available for complete download online, proves of the power of the Internet as does a recent report in SonicNet which states that 30% of online CD sales are for classical music and jazz. If people discover something worth hearing more than once, they’ll eventually want to have access to it in a tangible format.

A frequent problem with “dot.org” music in the past has been the amount of time it takes for it to become widely available and an even wider timeframe for it to catch on and get repeated hearings. Sometimes it takes years for a record company to release a recording of a new piece; by that time, it’s no longer new. (For example, it has taken four years for the 1996 Pulitzer-Prize winning composition, George Walker’s Lilacs to become available on a commercial recording!) In a competitive, “hot-off-the-presses” marketplace, it’s hard to call something new that’s four years old.

What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with intellectual property and free music downloads? Plenty, because if our music is to be relevant in today’s society, it must be more widely available than it has been. Until recently, a great deal of the vital music being created was not generally available to people, and what was available was hard to find unless you already knew where to look for it. Music downloads, however, are allowing people to discover a much wider range of music than standard media outlets lead you to believe is currently going on. Unfortunately, the way things are currently operated, composers who make their music available for free download may end up angering companies, musicians’ unions and the industry at large. This needs to change, as it is in all of our best interests to work together to create an environment where everyone can succeed.

We cannot allow the infrastructures of record companies, publishers, performing rights societies, service organizations simply erode, given their history of promoting “dot.org” music in a “dot.com” world. In the past, many of the greatest recordings of music by contemporary composers and avant-garde jazz musicians were prestige ventures financed by the wide profits from those companies’ pop music recordings. If those revenues are gone, so is the ability to re-channel those funds. There needs to be a balance and many of these organizations are still trying to find it.

The organizations that nurture “dot.org” music need to be encouraged and supported! Metallica and Dr. Dre are against Napster and other peer-to-peer sharing Web sites. Of course they are. Plenty of people know who they are and repeatedly buy their CDs. Many composers and players of “dot-org” music, however, have mixed feelings about Napster or even support it as a way to get their music heard. Does this make it ethical for “dot.org” music aficionados to break copyright laws? Rather, my advice to the would-be Napster-ite is to ignore Metallica and Dr. Dre and discover the infinite array of truly alternative music that is out here on the Web in formats that respect the rights of all the players in this drama. Check out the sound samples that sites like NewMusicBox have to offer. And if you like something, “do the right thing”: buy it or go to a concert.