As I dust off and start to perform my original compositions in Second Life to a potentially larger audience than they have ever had in the past, I get an email from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) announcing their call to action to sign their newly crafted Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers.
My initial reaction to the bill was, “Rah, rah, sis boom bah! You go girl!” But as it sank in I began to wonder just exactly what it was changing; what was it improving on?
I have plenty of questions I won’t go into here, but the one thing it still doesn’t address is my longstanding confusion about when money is not involved in any way with the release of my recorded version of a popular song.
The way I have always understood the traditional process to be is as follows:
• I record a song someone else wrote, of which a previous version has already been published. In this example I record it without their prior knowledge or consent.
• I write a letter of intent to the person who holds the rights to the song, or their representative (Which 9 times out of 10 seems to be the Harry Fox agency), stating my intention to burn and sell X number of copies of the song on CD. In the letter I offer to PRE-pay a reasonable percentage of royalties to the rights holder in anticipation of my own profits on the sales.
• Now according to what I understand I am covered legally and can proceed to publish the CD - even if I haven’t received a response to my letter.
Well my question has to do with the interpretation of the law: If I make money on the covered version, the original artist gets a cut. But what if I give away my version by allowing free downloads of the mp3 or by having it included in a music video being freely distributed on YouTube? I make nothing, so there is no cut to give to the songwriter. Can the rights holder demand money when none is changing hands?
Now, I have asked myself how I would feel if someone covered a song of mine and threw it out on YouTube, but I have no frame of reference to answer. I have never written a song that anyone has bought - let alone bought a million copies of. So, if someone had done that, I would be shocked and most likely flattered. There is no way in hell I could know how, for example, Paul McCartney would feel if he’d heard a version of one of his songs posted for free in a video on YouTube.
I asked my question in an email to ASCAP many months ago but haven’t received a reply. Legally I don’t know what to do because I have recorded a cover I want to make a machinima of and of course post it as usual for fun and no profit. I had essentially forgotten about the project until this Bill of Rights notice came today in the mail. Don’t know if I want to sign the petition for it. Still have to think about what it really accomplishes in this rapidly changing music landscape - for me as a songwriter or against me.