June 06, 2013

Uncertainty, Copyright and Courage


On Wednesday, June 5th, ASCAP President and Chairman Paul Williams delivered a powerful keynote to attendees of the CISAC World Creators Summit in DC. He spoke passionately and pointedly about what it means to be a creator in today’s challenging digital environment. Read the full text below. On the previous day of the Summit, ASCAP CEO John LoFrumento participated on a panel called “Visions for the Future – Different Perspectives for the Creative Sector,” which featured leaders from the creative industries discussing their visions for the years ahead.


Hello everyone. I'm Paul Williams and I'm a songwriter. I know what it means to be a creator. I know what it means to be engaged in a profession that is fraught with uncertainty. Uncertainty is part of everyone's life, but it is a profound part of the creative life.

I face a blank page. Where will the next idea come from, the next song, the next line? Will I be able to make something out of the messiness of life that did not exist before – a song, a piece of music, art? All creators – writers, composers, painters, poets – daily face the uncertainty of a blank page. We dive deep, and come back up to the light of day with a form of expression that, hopefully, will bring meaning or knowledge or joy to those who experience it.

It is life-affirming work. Completing something new brings satisfaction to most creators. Then, reality sets in. More uncertainty. Will it get recorded, published, performed? Today, creators can find easy platforms for self-publishing and distribution. But that takes more work and more hustle and more investment in self-marketing.

Whatever way our work gets before the public, we're still faced with more uncertainty. Will the days, or months or years of work that led to this piece of art – whatever form it takes – bring success? Will it help me pay the rent? It takes a form of emotional courage to stake one's livelihood on such profound uncertainty. But that's what true creators do. We face uncertainty and we say "yes."

We say "yes" I can do this, I will take this chance, because if – and that's a very big "if" – if my work connects with an audience, then I will benefit from the fruits of my creative labor. I will be able to buy shoes for the kids and pay for health insurance. And that's because I live in a democracy that recognizes and protects the value of intellectual property.

Copyright is one of the most enlightened concepts to have emerged in the history of ideas. It encourages the creation of new works for the benefit of society by allowing authors to make a living from their creative labor. It is an idea that has proved its worth to every nation that has allowed the expression of its culture to flourish through exclusive rights granted for authorship.

Literature, music and art have value to individuals, to businesses and to countries. They open our hearts and minds. They inspire. They teach. They comfort. They drive economic growth and innovation. They define our time; they define our cultures; they bring us together.

So then, why are we now in the position of having to defend ourselves against the insidious erosion of the basic principles of copyright in so many parts of the world?

Intellectual property rights are a cornerstone of democracy. As a citizen, a creator and a consumer, I should have a reasonable expectation that I live in a society where thieves and outlaws are not allowed to run rampant – even when they are operating in cyberspace. But when lawmakers in North America and Europe tried to enact legislation that would help enforce laws against online fraud and theft, the technology sector said it would break the internet. They called it censorship.

Creators are in the business of free expression. Freedom of speech is about political speech, it is not about protecting fraud or theft. They trivialized what free speech means. Forces that want to control and diminish the value of our work for their own economic benefit are systematically attacking the rights of creators. They are methodically attacking the validity of copyright laws. They are building their businesses in a way that makes enforcement of our copyrights next to impossible.

The hope that creative work will pay off for the author, composer, filmmaker or photographer if it becomes successful is no longer a given. Fair payment has become another profound uncertainty in the professional life of every creator. This is true for people at the top of their game, and especially so for those just starting out. This is true globally – not just in the United States, in Canada, in the European Union – all over the world.

Some have argued, wrongly, that copyright stifles innovation. Copyright is the very definition of innovation. Copyright is the main driver of technical innovation – because people want access to great pieces of art, literature and music. Unfortunately, these arguments have resulted in legal decisions that are depleting copyright protections and sanctioning unfair business models that hurt authors.

I urge all of you to read Scott Turow's editorial in the New York Times, titled "The Slow Death of the American Author." It was triggered by the Supreme Court decision allowing the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, at cheaper prices.

Which brings me to my next point. Wikipedia shut down for a day as a form of protest. Wikipedia could make their point to millions of people with one keystroke. They could say "no" to providing their service to everyone. Yet, we as creators have no opportunity to say "no." We cannot say "no" to infringing use of our works in any effective and meaningful way. We stand by as search engines make money from search and from advertising on illegal pirate sites. But it goes beyond piracy and it goes beyond the ineffectiveness of take-down notices as a way to enforce our rights.

In the online streaming world, songwriters and composers are being grossly underpaid for the music we write. Webcasters are rapidly becoming the preferred way people listen to music. Pandora alone – with 70% of the U.S. streaming market – just reported a 55% jump in revenues while creators are becoming impoverished – step-by-step. Even a major hit song streamed millions of times earns its songwriters so little, they couldn't hope to sustain a livelihood.

All we are asking for is honest pay for honest work. ASCAP, and I'm sure all of the collective rights groups at this conference, want to work with the digital platforms that depend on our music. We want to partner for our mutual benefit. We have successfully found our way with every new technology and delivery platform that has ever been invented – from radio to TV to cable to satellite. And we want to get there with all online streaming platforms.

But, we cannot accept payment that is so pitifully low as to be exploitative. Fair compensation in the online streaming market is probably the most pressing priority for performing rights organizations, both in the U.S. and abroad. The future of our livelihoods as creators will depend upon whether we can find global solutions that allow streaming business models to thrive without leaving us out in the cold.

We have some unique challenges in the U.S. with laws that have the effect of constraining our efforts. But we are actively engaged in finding ways to overcome these challenges on behalf of creators the world over. As PROs, we share this mission. We must continue our work together internationally to find a way forward that makes sense for digital platforms, and that ensures fair payment to songwriters, composers and copyright owners.

Creative works give soul to the machines. When our works are the engine driving huge profits for big businesses, we should expect to be treated justly and paid fairly. Creators need copyright protection and we need to be able to enforce our rights, especially when mega-corporations are exploiting them for profit.

As a member of the creative community, I am heartened to see that more and more of us are finding the courage to stand up and speak out. And it takes a lot of courage to speak out. It take courage for the many songwriters and artists who've risked the ire of the cyber-bullies when they've stood up for their right to be paid, or for their right to decide if and how they want to give their music away. All of us have to open our eyes a little wider, and we have to speak the truth a little louder. Whether we are songwriters, authors, photographers or filmmakers, we are part of the same family and we have to have each other's backs.

I am also encouraged that some lawmakers are courageous enough to stand up for creators' rights. We need their courage. Here in the U.S., we applaud the many Members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees who continue to support creators' rights. We applaud the recent creation of the Creative Rights Caucus, and the continued good work of the Congressional Songwriters Caucus. We applaud people like our next speaker, John Morton, who is doing important work at ICE.

They understand that copyright is a human right. It is about the right to express yourself freely. It is about the right to choose what happens with your creative work. It is about the right – not the privilege – the right, to share in the economic benefits of the work you do. Protecting creative rights is the moral and ethical thing to do for all citizens.

We are not against technological innovation. We are innovators and we embrace new ways to bring our creations to as many people as possible. We embrace innovation that allows the creative professions to thrive along with the businesses that provide new platforms for distributing our works. Platforms designed to depress the value of our work are not innovative. They are exploitative. They exploit creative labor for their own selfish gain.

I want the next generation of creators – who will face the profound uncertainty of a blank page – to have this certainty…

That life as a professional is possible.

That if their works become successful, driving profits for others, they too will be able to share in that success.

That they, too, will be able to put food on the table and put their kids through college – as I have been lucky enough to do.

That they too will have the economic security to make the creation of exciting new works their full-time profession.

The future of the creative profession is at stake. I don't want to live in a world that only recycles the great works of art and literature and music from the past. I don't want to live in a world where the only new works of art are made by hobbyists in their spare time. All we ask is that we are treated justly and paid fairly. All we ask is that our own governments and courts remember that authors' rights need to be at the very center of every discussion about copyright.

The U.S. Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante has called for an overhaul of our Copyright Laws. Let's hope that what we end up with are revisions that strengthen the incentives for creators in today's world. We need to be able to enforce our rights and we need to be able to earn fair market value for our works. It's that simple.

In her own remarks, Maria quoted the Supreme Court in saying: "The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an author's creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good."

If the creative professions cannot thrive, the world will be the poorer for it.

I've had a good ride. That's why I'm so passionate above giving the next generation a chance. I think about the young mother writing the next great novel at the kitchen table or composing music at a keyboard with headphones on while her baby's sleeping in the next room. Let's deliver the future to her.