Top RIAA Exec: There’s No More Music In Africa And The Middle East Because They Need Stronger Copyright

One of the most hilarious claims that we hear from internet trolls and the like concerning copyright and infringement is something along the lines of “but, without strong copyright, there would be no music!” It’s a silly argument that has been debunked so frequently that we’d thought that it had been relegated to living on only among uninformed internet commenters, rather than actual industry execs. Enter Neil Turkewitz, one of the RIAA’s top execs, who has been with the organization since 1987, and apparently still has the “Home Taping is Killing Music” phrase permanently imprinted on his brain, no matter how laughably false it is.

Turkewitz submitted a paper to the UN last year when it was investigating cultural rights, and that piece has now been republished by IP-Watch. It’s a fairly astounding piece of ridiculousness that argues that there’s no more cultural output in Africa or the Middle East… because they just don’t have strong enough copyright laws.

It starts off with one of those classic lines about how, without copyright, no one makes music any more:

This has been the unfortunate reality in many developing countries where the lack of effective protection has eroded the willingness of private capital to fund production of original cultural works, contributing to economic stagnation and a dearth of cultural diversity. Simply put, when a society fails to reward its own creators, such creators will cease to exist, and “access” will be limited to foreign cultural materials.

Hmm. Except that’s not what we’ve actually seen around the globe. In fact, with the rise of the internet and computers and the easy creation of works, people are finding that it’s much easier (and cheaper) to create works and to get distribution. Pull up YouTube or log into Spotify and go searching for music from basically any country and see what you find. And compare that to what those of us who grew up in the era of the “record store” had to do to find world music (which was always all lumped together in a single tiny section in the back).

And, from there, he argues that the Middle East and Africa in particular are now silent. Because they just don’t have strong enough copyright laws.

In many developing countries, the marketplace has been so dominated by piracy that there is no viable mechanism for private capital to be employed in facilitating the creation and distribution of creative works. In such instances-i.e. where copyright protection is not effectively introduced and maintained in law and in practice, the creative community is silenced. Communities throughout the globe-particularly in parts of the Middle East and Africa, bear silent witness to the devastating impact that lack of effective copyright protection has on the ability to create. Where there is no financial incentive for the creation and distribution of cultural materials, the distribution of local cultural materials ceases, much to the detriment of society, as well as to the putative creators who are foreclosed from adding their voices to the cultural mix.

Apparently, it does not occur to Turkewitz that there might be other factors that are impacting the markets for music in parts of those areas — such as civil war, civil unrest, religious beliefs, turmoil, astounding levels of poverty and much, much more. But the idea that people in those regions are just sitting around not making music because of too weak copyright laws is simply laughable.

Besides, it’s also not true. It wasn’t that long ago that the NY Times was writing about the so-called “African Invasion” of African music coming to the US. Hell, it was just a few days ago that Ebony magazine noted that African music is the “new pop gold rush” which includes this paragraph:

But now that’s all transforming. Africa is now! The Internet has democratized music and threatened the major label’s cash cows. Radio and TV are no longer the only barriers to entry, and the borders are wide open. Our blinders are off, and we are exposed to music from all parts of the globe via the interwebs.

One thinks that, perhaps, Turkewitz’s concern may be a lot more about the “threatened the major label’s cash cows” line, than the supposed and mythical lack of music in Africa.

As for the Middle East, well, there’s plenty of new music showing up there as well. Just a couple of months ago, the BBC covered the hip hop revolution in the Middle East, much of it inspired by the various revolutions in different countries. Turns out that, maybe, life events have a bigger impact on music than copyright law. Shocking, I know. The same BBC has also covered Iran’s underground pop revolution and how youth across the arab world are “reveling” in a “pop revolution” in the region.

Oh, if you’re interested in some Middle Eastern Pop or African pop music, click on those links. Or do a basic Google search, which will turn up a lot more. Apparently, Turkewitz couldn’t be bothered (perhaps it’s that whole “entertainment industry hates Google” thing).

So, uh, Turkewitz’s argument is already just wrong.

Even more bizarre, he argues that this lack of copyright means that since no one in these countries is making music any more (totally false), it means that those markets are, instead, flooded with American music. You see, it’s the lack of copyright protection that’s leading to American cultural hegemony in those regions, and the good hearted Neil Turkewitz — whose job is literally to advance the interests of the copyright holders behind American cultural hegemony — now insists that he wants stronger copyright laws around the world not to advance the interests of the big labels (oh no!), but rather because he wants to protect local African and Middle Eastern music. Because he thinks whoever’s reading this is an idiot.

Make no mistake — cultural hegemony flows not from the protection of intellectual property, but from its absence. We owe the world’s creators and societies a better deal, and effective copyright protection has well served the societies which have maintained such systems. We therefore urge policy makers around the globe to reject simplistic formulations of the public interest that are grounded only in considerations of access to creative works without considering the incentives for the production of creative works. We must ensure that policy makers ask themselves “access to what?” before adopting policies that endanger their own ability to foster creativity and innovation.

Now, we absolutely agree with the central claim that Turkewitz tries to pin his article on: that those who create culture need incentives to do so. But, as we’ve seen, there are all sorts of ways of doing that that don’t require crazy extreme copyright that hinders freedom of expression and innovation at the same time. We see it all the time where new tools like crowdfunding and micropayments are making things possible. We see how the cost of production and distribution has made it so it’s just easier for people to create and distribute music no matter what.

And, Turkewitz’s claim that developing countries need stronger copyright for their local music just has no support in any historical context. Take, for example, the story we had a few years ago about the rise of a new genre of music in Brazil called “technobrega,” which embraced sharing the music either on the internet or via passing around CDs — often instigated by the artists themselves. That helped technobrega become a cultural phenomenon — and the artists make money doing live shows. And there are tremendous parallels to the rise of Jamaican music, where an entire industry was created and built off of weak copyright laws and widespread sharing of music and reusing of riddims.

The argument that without copyright, regional and cultural music doesn’t get created is simply laughable. The idea that we’re somehow now in an era where American music is a “cultural hegemony” as opposed to a decade or two ago is similarly laughable. Turkewitz’s basic premise doesn’t even pass the most basic laugh test.

From there, we get the other silly old debunked RIAA talking point that “without strong copyright, there is no way to make money.” I’d really thought that the RIAA had retired this one, but apparently not:

An effective and functional copyright environment is not a panacea; it does not on its own create global parity in the marketplace of ideas. But it does give individual creators a fighting chance, and an opportunity to compete. The ability to generate revenue from one’s creativity — to earn a living as a creator — is central to a society’s ability to foster cultural production. In its absence, dreams and creative lives perish. The moral and economic aspects of this equation are inseparable. We simply must ensure that all creators, regardless of their location, are able to enjoy the fundamental human right to choose the manner in which their creations are used as reflected in international law.

First of all, this is bullshit. Most creators do not earn a living as a creator. This has always been the case. Unless the RIAA is suddenly promising a basic income guarantee to anyone who can sing a few notes, it’s never going to be true either. But, some artists do earn a living — and it’s rarely because of copyright. Sure, sometimes it is, and it may frequently be one important component, but arguing that it is the only lever to pull and that without strong copyright laws creativity goes away is laughable. Lots of artists make more from other ways: live performances, merchandise, crowdfunding and more.

And then Turkewitz gets even more ridiculous:

It does not serve the aspirations of developing societies to return to a system in which the voices of the people serve the whims of the private elite, or worse, to allow governments to be the sole determining body in the matter of cultural works.

A “private elite”? Really? Such as letting a tiny group of top execs at the three major labels choose what songs will be the hit records of the year, and then pay(ola) their way through millions to make sure that those are the songs that everyone listens to? Those kinds of “whims of the private elite”? Because, you know, that’s kinda been a big part of the problem with music for a while.

Yet, in the last few years, we’ve gotten way past that thanks to the internet — and, for many — thanks to file sharing.

By permitting creative genius to be fueled by market forces, we unleash the cultural power and potential of the diversity of individuals, freeing creative impulses from the tyranny of centralized controls and making creative works accessible to the public at large. While copyright may be inadequate on its own in creating fair market conditions, it remains by far the most powerful tool for fostering creativity and democratizing culture itself.

Based on what? First of all, copyright is the opposite of “market forces.” It’s a government granted monopoly to stop market forces from working. Copyright is what has allowed “centralized control” over the recording industry from the likes of the RIAA itself. It’s hilarious that a guy who has worked at the RIAA for almost three decades is actually trying to argue that there needs to be stronger global copyright to stop “the tyranny of centralized control.”

Yes, it appears the king would like to raise taxes to better help the peasants avoid the tyranny of government coercion.

Besides, we’re actually seeing exactly what happens without the “tyranny” of control under the old copyright system, and the true “marketplace” thanks to the various innovations that the RIAA has fought hard to kill, from YouTube to MP3 players to streaming music and more. And it’s allowing artists without major label connections to outperform the biggest names from the major labels at times. Perhaps we need less focus on the old system, and more of these new innovations that appear to be giving power back to the public to determine what they really like, rather than the power of Universal Music’s payola budget.

Copyright protection, while it may sometimes serve the interests of multinational corporations, is the mechanism that permits individuals to devote their lives to the creation of original materials;

It may be one mechanism, but it is hardly the only such mechanism, and what we’re finding more and more is that it is a rather poor mechanism for that — though it has been a fantastic mechanism for helping the RIAA labels screw over artists. But I digress…

If we want to foster cultural diversity (and I assume we all do), and want to ensure that diverse content is available to be accessed (and I assume we all do), then we must be more vigilant in ensuring the effective global protection of copyright.

Again, copyright may be a tool that works for some in some cases, but this ridiculous insistence that it is the only such tool and that it is the core thing that must be protected — at a time when it’s so obvious that it also creates tremendous problems elsewhere and when many other solutions to funding artists are coming on the scene — just makes Turkewitz look incredibly out of touch.

Ms. Shaver writes that “copyright protection inflates the price of cultural works.” But again, that is completely wrong. Copyright protection gives economic value to cultural works, and sustains creators. It doesn’t inflate price – it recognizes a property interest so that the creator can determine the conditions of subsequent use.

Of course copyright inflates the price of cultural works. That’s its sole purpose. That’s what monopolies do. To argue against that is ridiculous. An intellectually honest argument Turkewitz could make would admit that, yes, copyright inflates the price, but in doing so creates new incentives for the original creation of the work. Then we can debate whether or not that’s true. Instead, he makes the completely ridiculous assertion that copyright doesn’t inflate the price at all. Of course it does.

And, no, copyright does not “give economic value to cultural works.” Turkewitz, like so many others, is confusing price and value. Something may have tremendous economic value, even if it’s free. This blog is free. Yet it has economic value in generating other kinds of revenue. Turkewitz’s article is free. Yet I’d imagine he thinks it has economic value in (he hopes) convincing policy makers to bow down to the RIAA’s distorted view of copyright law.

While I’m sure that some will argue that this is just the RIAA spouting nonsense as usual, it’s important to note that Turkewitz isn’t just sending a random note to the UN with this nonsense. He’s also the Vice Chairman of ITAC-15, which is the USTR’s “advisory committee” for intellectual property in trade agreements. All that crap we’ve seen in the TPP and TTIP about intellectual property — that’s partly Turkewitz’s doing. And he is either totally ignorant of what’s happening in the market (unlikely) or he’s willing to make completely outlandishly bogus statements in order to push the RIAA’s preferred course of action, at the expense of all of the innovation and cultural development we’ve seen in recent years.

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