ASCAP vs Free Culture

I read a nasty story about ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), the American counterpart to SOCAN (The Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada).  They are claiming that Creative Commons does not believe in Artist Freedom.  I was browsing Twitter on Friday night when I read it from @blocsonic, and I was recording Part 2 of my CC Sampler at the time.  It threw me so hard that it caused some “technical difficulties” during the recording.

Before I dive into this, let me just preface my article by saying that this is a largely opinionated rant.  Any facts in the article are sourced, but it is primarily a reaction to a nutty situation.

Ever since my first year university Mass Communications class, I’ve been into the whole copyright debate.  My professor – who I will grant was probably a bit biased – explained how the current copyright laws have been amended over the years to actually stifle creativity under the guise of protecting artist rights.  The short of it is that because so many works are protected under copyright, artists can’t build on pre-existing works and create new things.  Some would argue that just means that artists are free to create original works, but I say that you should look at a movie like Star Wars and explain to me what’s original beyond the setting and names.  Everything is recycled in one form or another, it’s just the packaging that is original.

So when something like Creative Commons exists, which actively promotes the free and legal sharing of creative works to create new and innovative things, I see that as a Very Good Thing.  People like Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow have the same mindset.  This blog/podcast exists on the foundation of Creative Commons sharing.  I absolutely love the “copyleft” free culture.

ASCAP, on the other hand, does not.  They see the rise of free culture as a direct threat to their business model.  And like any good corporation focused on keeping their profits healthy, they are bending facts to show that their rights and their artists’ rights are being trampled on.  Let me summarize: an artist using a Creative Commons license immediately has more options at their disposal for distributing their work, and ASCAP says this is a Very Bad Thing.

Wait.  That can’t be right, can it?  Actually…yes, it can.  Here’s a quote from the letter from the article I linked above (“ASCAP Claiming That Creative Commons Must Be Stopped”):

At this moment, we are facing our biggest challenge ever.  Many forces including Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation and technology companies with deep pockets are mobilizing to promote “Copyleft” in order to undermine our “Copyright.”  They say they are advocates of consumer rights, but the truth is these groups simply do not want to pay for the use of our music.  Their mission is to spread the word that our music should be free.

Take a minute to read over that paragraph, and you’ll realize just how crazy ASCAP is being.  It’s a prime example of how they are bending the truth to get financial support to stop Creative Commons.  They’re misrepresenting the true goal of Free Culture, which is not “to spread the word that our music should be free.”  It’s not about free in the literal sense of the word, it’s about being free of limitations.

Just because you release your work under a Creative Commons license doesn’t mean that you’re not able to sell it.  While most people do give it away for free, they also provide their work for sale.  Cory Doctorow sells his novels in book stores, but also gives them away in various formats and encourages people to “remix” them.  And wasn’t there a news story about how most fans paid for Radiohead’s In Rainbows album, even though they could enter “$0” as the price they wanted to pay? (Edit: Yes, there was; according to, 2 out of 5 downloaders paid for the album and the band “netted $2,736,000 in digital sales.”  Hardly chicken scratch.) Let’s not forget about the deluxe album set they made available to purchase.  I’m sorry ASCAP, but your arguments hold no ground here.

One positive I take out of all this – which is hard, considering a major organization with a lot of power in congress is behind this ludicrousness – is that they view Free Culture as a threat.  This means that the movement has grown a lot, and more people are realizing that they don’t need to put their artistry under stupidly restrictive licenses in order to protect their work.

It means that people are starting to listen to what advocates are saying about the awfulness of current copyright laws – and proposed bills too.  We have quite a ways to go yet, as evidenced by the thickness of ASCAP, but we’re getting there.

What would be awesome is for those who support Creative Commons and free culture to speak up, and let everyone know that we won’t stand for this kind of treatment.  Write to whomever you need, but whatever you do, make yourself heard.

Edit: I will be writing a follow-up to this.  There are a lot of thoughts I didn’t put in here that I should have.

2 thoughts on “ASCAP vs Free Culture”

  1. Basically ASCAP have let the cat out of the bag by mistake here, they (and the BPI and the other guilty parties) have spent years, since "Home Taping Is Killing Music", trying to kid everyone that it was what they describe as "Copyright Theft" that was destroying the business, whereas in fact they have correctly identified (albeit by mistake) that new models of distribution based around freedom are actually what is killing them. According to some recent statistics (which I can't source right now but I think it was in either The Times or The Guardian,) people are actually spending MORE money on music now, it's just they are spending it on going to see live shows and quality merchandise and not on the recorded product. More money is going to the artists. This is a good thing.The music publishing companies that are making the most noise about the rise of freely available music have business models that are largely unchanged since the days when sheet music and player piano rolls were in the ascendant: when they largely controlled the means of production of the "distributed media" and the distribution channels, an artist, a composer had little choice but to sign away most of the rights to their material if they wanted it to see the light of day.Nowadays, a talented and savvy individual with access to a computer and the internet can equal the quality and breadth of distribution that might come from one of the music industry mega-corporations and they can do it without giving up their rights to decide how the product is used or distributed. Of course ASCAP, SOCAN and the BPI are frothing madly like any good capitalist institution with the shareholders of their members to be worried about foremost, certainly before they artists they claim to represent and their customers.In the end of the day it should be everyone's own choice under what terms the publish their creative work. I certainly don't advocate re-distributing work for free that wasn't published for free any more than I would suggest someone should walk into a record shop and help themselves to a bunch of CDs and walk out. On the flip side the music industry should stop trying to portray me, and people like me who choose to give away our music for free as extremists or, by association with "illegal music piracy", as criminals.Sorry for the long comment, I was going to reply on my own blog, but posterous couldn't quote the original text for some reason.


  2. Thanks for the comment – you bring up good points, so it is appreciated regardless of length :)But yeah, I agree that free culture != giving your work away for free. But I think that's part of the problem, a lot of people will probably buy into that description as portrayed by the music industry and those trying to protect their income streams. They have more weapons at their disposal to get that belief out there.


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