Swift, McCartney and others Take Aim at YouTube via DMCA

It’s becoming a unifying cause in turbulent times: The ranks of artists voicing concerns about YouTube’s impact on musicians now includes a pop princess, a legendary rock band and a Beatle. (The full list of 186 artists can be found here.)

On Monday, Taylor Swift, U2 and Paul McCartney lent their collective voices to the recent uproar over YouTube’s practices. Just last week, Trent Reznor and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys spoke out about the video site’s treatment of aspiring and established artists. Previously, David Byrne of the Talking Heads and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke railed against the website.

But it turns out the real focus of their anger, and that of more than 175 other artists, isn’t YouTube directly but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In an open letter published Tuesday morning in Politico and The Hill newspapers in Washington, DC, 180 musicians are calling on Congress to rewrite the laws governing online media practices and protections, saying the DMCA “threaten(s) the continued viability of songwriters and record artists to survive,” according to snippets of the letter published by Billboard and Recode Monday. The letter, interestingly, is also signed by representatives of Universal Music, Sony Music and Warner Music.

The DMCA set out to try and help establish laws for protecting the way the internet uses materials uploaded by artists. That sounds all well and good and fine, but it’s also given us some pretty fascinating lawsuits, including the now-infamous “Dancing Baby” case featuring a cute toddler rocking out to less than 30 seconds of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”

“In short, musicians and companies that own music are complaining that Google’s video site doesn’t give them enough money for the use of their music, and that YouTube doesn’t give them a real choice about whether and how their music is used,” Recode explains. “YouTube argues that it generates billions for the music industry (and that pirate sites don’t pay bupkis) and that it has created sophisticated tools that make it easy for music owners to control their works.”

As for the timing? “All of the big music labels are in discussions to renew their licensing deals with YouTube,” the website notes.

Other artists signing their name to the letter include Vince Staples, Kings of Leon, Carole King, Billy Joel and Vince Gill, among others. It’s this newly organized cluster of stars and recording labels that might change the conversation, manager Irving Azoff tells Recode writer Peter Kafka.

“If you (are) one of the big labels, and you continue to do business with YouTube the way you currently have, that’s a bad sign for all the people that signed the letter,” he said. “I would be shocked, after supporting all these artists in a letter to Congress, (if) these big labels would turn around and make voluntary extensions to YouTube.”

Others are saying this was a bad idea from the start.

In a piece for Fortune, Jeff John Roberts writes that YouTube uses its sophisticated tools to “not only allow the music industry to zap unauthorized videos but, if they choose, to insert ads to make money off them instead.

“While YouTube and sites like it certainly did attract users by playing fast and loose with copyright, that was years ago, and there’s no evidence they’re doing so today,” Roberts says. “Swift and her friends can argue YouTube should pay more money to artists, and no doubt some will agree. But that’s a business issue, not a legal one.”

The truth is, the music industry hasn’t yet transitioned from a market based on physical media into one that can incorporate and make sustainable money from all the ways in which music is purchased and consumed, he says.  If the DMCA were wiped from existence tomorrow, “it’s unlikely the result would be more money for artists. Instead, it would mean a morass of lawsuits and licensing fees, and more consumers turning to overseas piracy sites.”

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

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