Royalties and the Internet

In this article by Sam Machkovech on the excellent Ars Technica UK site, the old bugbear of performer royalties is highlighted.

The latest artist to speak out against what is perceived as the unfair distribution of royalties from online services is Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame.

In an interview with an Italian magazine, Yorke compares YouTube's practices to art theft during the second world war:

"They seize it. It's like what the Nazis did during the Second World War. Actually, they all did that during the war, the British, too—steal the art from other countries. What's the difference?"

While probably deliberately incendiary, Yorke joins the many dissenting voices raised by artists in reaction to the monies they receive from the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Beats Music and even the venerable Napster (which this author had quite forgotten about).

In the Ars Technica article, Machkovech sites Taylor Swift and David Byrne as artists unhappy with the way royalties are, or rather, aren't distributed. Earlier this year Aimee Mann dropped her court case against MediaNet for royalties for tracks of hers that were being distributed after licensing terms had expired. What was unclear was whether MediaNet had altered their payment practices or convinced Mann that their existing practices were just.

(As an aside, MediaNet are a white label provider of streaming services to many online music organisations.)

But Yorke's comments pertained specifically to YouTube, which as many readers will know, are owned by Google. It is undeniable that many consumers use YouTube as their go-to source for music videos (young people, I'm looking at you!), with videos uploaded by fans many millions of times. The regulation of this seems patchy and is two fold, as this child friendly video explains:

In short, if a piece of copyrighted material is uploaded by anyone other than the copyright owner or licensed user (someone who's paid the owner some money), then the copyright owner can lodge a complaint. Additionally, YouTube runs a system called Content ID which scans all uploads and attempts to identify if an upload matches materials held in a central database. This is like an 'aural fingerprint' check. Positive matches against copyrighted material prevent the video's appearance online.

While this all seems well and good, there are two distinct downsides to this system:

Firstly, the artist or their representatives need to be proactive: either filing a dispute, or uploading their materials to YouTube's CMS in order for the 'fingerprint' to be created. Proactivity costs money in labour charges.

Secondly, the algorithms that Content ID use are not public domain and are not transparent. Perhaps unsurprising, that — Google have always been, shall we say, cagey about its algorithms. Additionally, those algorithms aren't that good.

What's apparent is that there is serious disquiet from the music industry. This article by Mark Walton, also of Ars Technica, reports on the contentious claim by the BPI's boss that old school vinyl brings in more royalties for artists than YouTube.

Whether or not his claims can be held to be true (the figures released by YouTube aren't granular enough to give an accurate assessment) what is certain is that the music industry needs to stand up to large online services.

Alarmingly, governments don't seem to be able to act against the same companies — view the tax returns from global multinationals. Whether a small British not-for-profit and its members can take on the might of Google et al is at best doubtful.

Artists need distribution systems and if these are internet based then royalties need to be fair, otherwise there'll be less incentive to create and publish music. And we'll all have to listen to Taylor Swift.

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