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june 18, 2007:
a hot and cold report from the cisac copyright summit in brussels

On May 30, I was invited to attend the inaugural Copyright Summit in Brussels, Belgium, organized by some friends of mine on behalf of CISAC (the RIAA equivalent of the copyright societies/PROs/MROs). I moderated a panel, too, and quite enjoyed it. The funny thing about this event was that it provided a constant succession of hot and cold showers (although most of them were on the chilling side). On the one hand, copyright societies, composers, and various intellectual property lobbyists (and boy, did that label apply – even Charles Aznavour was turned into a shining example of righteousness!) constantly lamenting how badly things were going because the Internet really is just a giant rip-off machine. (This, of course, was always and without fail linked to the instant quests for more protection by the governments.)

On the other hand, some lonely but outspoken and “keen-to-help” technologists, visionaries, consultants, entrepreneurs, and Music 2.0 advocates (I guess I did fit in there somehow ;-) who tried to insert some sort of reality check into the proceed- ings. At one point I felt that one might as well summarize this entire conference like this: “Please just try to get it – the utter control paradigm of this ecosystem is over. Finished. The Past.

You need to move forward and adjust to making money in a new way. Go and do it. Now.” This thought, I felt, was somewhat echoed by Andre LeBel, CEO of the Canadian Society SOCAN and without a doubt one of the most forward-thinking people as far as rights organizations (MROs and PROs). Andre was one of the few PRO speakers who did not just dwell on “We need more protection” but instead urged his peers to change, and to change fast. Somehow it seems that Canadians are always ahead in these things... Unnervingly, at times the event felt like most people on the stage were shooting to incite a mutual love-fest with their peers in the audience, and other times it felt like a stoning incident was immanent – particularly when Larry Lessig entered the stage. I really thought he did a great job defending the Crea- tive Commons initiative considering that the audience basi- cally told him to stuff it and stop talking about it in public: “It makes life so much harder for us to have you out there saying these ludicrous things....” Still, Larry did a great job, as usual. I just wished he had more time to explain things, and a better moderator would have been nice, too.
British Telecom CEO Ben Verwaayen delivered a good keynote speech that I thought was very much spot-on and quite daring given that the audience consisted mostly of fairly upfront and ready-to-blast-you copyrightists and people who want to see “their IP rights defended.” Here is one of my favorite quotes from his speech: “Because the consumer of today is no longer the consumer you’re used to...the question is not where the value was yesterday but where it is today.”

The Hollywood Reporter commented: Verwaayen flatly rejected suggestions that operators like BT need to compensate rights owners because they provided the infrastructure for online piracy. “It’s nonsense,” he said. “It’s the same issue in many industries: Is one responsible for the problems of another? If you think someone else will solve your problems for you, forget it – it won’t happen.”

I think Ben’s speech was great mostly because he really cranked up the opposition in the audience, most of which apparently believed that the telecom companies should just shut up and pay for the music their users get on the network, and thereby solve everyone’s problem. (No, we are not talking about a flat rate here; we are talking filtering and paying penalties.) A really great contribution was made by musician Billy Bragg – recently (in)famous for his run-ins with MySpace – who highlighted some of the great advantages that the Internet has brought us, and successfully bridged the gap between the somewhat technophobic crowd and the rest of the audience. “As artists we have to find a way to get together...technology and the audience are well ahead of us,” he said. Well done, Billy!

John LoFrumento, CEO of ASCAP, delivered a good exam- ple of playing to the crowd but was otherwise unfortunately not adding much value: “This is stealing...and hurting a lot of people.” These kinds of tired observations could be heard from many panelists and speakers, over and over again, there- by, I guess, enhancing the opportunities for some good mutual back-patting: You cry for me – I cry for you. I think it would have been much better to have some honest conversations about real change, why it’s needed, and why it’s urgent (which is something I dare I say I tried during my panel; I hope I achieved it at least some of the time). Unfortunately, the second day at the conference was somewhat ruined by a über-ludicrous flyer that some ASCAP people passed out at the entrance – a bizarre cartoon one-pager called “Donny the Downloader” that depicted a freaked-out musician who is working in a fast food joint because the very people who order food from him have been freeloading his music instead of paying for it.

Sorry, ASCAP and everyone within ASCAP who is still doing a great job to bring real change into the organization, but this kind of thing is just so utterly simplified and makes you look deeply ridiculous. It’s hard to believe that you would even consider publishing something like this. It’s not the free downloading that’s hurting the composers and publishers, it’s the industry’s (and that means labels and publishers) ongoing and irresponsible refusal and/or inability to license music on different terms than it’s used to. Get with the program and enforce participation, not punishment – you can’t outlaw 90% of the population. I and many people next to me were amazed at the idiocy behind this flyer – it reads like something from 1999! Where have you guys been?

All in all, though, it was still a very interesting conference – mainly because I learned a lot (even though I had to have my flame shield on most of the time), and got to talk to a lot of peo- ple who were very sure of what they do, and that always makes for interesting conversations. The organization was flawless, even though I wished there had been fewer yes-sayers and more speakers who pushed the envelope and questioned the comfortable “We just need more protection” attitude that prevailed throughout. But then again, it was a CISAC show...right?