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ASCAP and the Girl Scouts, concluded

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This is the third and last in this ASCAP/copyright series.

According to an article written in 2002 by Jonathan Zittrain, Calling off the copyright war, “… a chastened ASCAP now charges the Girl Scouts a symbolic $1 per year. They wisely receded [sic] on attempting to collect a full profit, while making it clear that the profit remains legally theirs to collect.”

He suggests the Girl Scout disaster may have played some part in the passing of the Fairness in Music Licensing Act of 1998 and says:

At the time, copyright holders saw this law as a stinging defeat because it eliminated some aspects of a monopoly whose logic knows few limits. Indeed, once one embraces turning ideas into saleable items, there is no easy end point. One can claim that a songwriter should be paid when her song is broadcast over the radio, and again when the radio is played in a restaurant – and again when the song is sung by a listener to a group of friends.

It was this reasoning that inspired ASCAP to send thousands of letters to summer camps across the country, demanding hundreds of dollars in annual royalties from, among others, Girl Scouts, presumably for songs sung around the campfire.

If the term of copyright were closer to the 14 to 28 years the framers of the Constitution originally intended, people would become all too used to the idea that the restrictions on using ideas were truly temporary, there only long enough to convince non-blockheads to write in the first instance.

I was amused by Zittrain’s quote from Samuel Johnson: “No [one] but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Uh, hmm, I guess we bloggers, churning out words by the tens of thousands, are an exception to that rule. Blogging is not a get-rich occupation. No matter how many ads you plaster on your site.

Other no-guarantee paths include songwriting, novel writing, sculpture, macrame, and the rest of the arts. A young person inquiring about going into a creative field will probably be told: “Don’t do it unless you have to. Don’t do it unless there’s absolutely nothing else.”

Yes, certainly, somebody is going to strike it rich. More wealthy and/or famous artists will arise. But it’s like your chances of being born. On the one hand, the chance of somebody (actually, lots of somebodies) being born: 100%. On the other hand, the chances of one of those somebodies actually being you: vanishingly small.

What if your parents had watched three more minutes of tv that night? Bingo, somebody else, not you, gets born. Somebody wins the lottery, right? But it’s not going to be you, sucker. Remember:

“Lottery: a tax on people who are bad at math.”

I’ve been a musician all my life. I’ve written books and recorded cds (and cassettes and albums before there WERE cds). I used to be a little bitter when people came up to me and asked ME to BOOTLEG my OWN RECORDINGS for them, or when they innocently would show up for singing lessons with xeroxes of xeroxes of songs I had written and/or arranged clutched in their hands. But I’ve accepted it – the xerox machine is mightier than the copyright notice. How long can I stay indignant?

It’s for somebody else with more experience in the sciences to talk about the mad rush to patent every single living or inanimate thing or any function ever observed on earth, in order to lock up future profits for a given concern. We’re lucky patent law wasn’t around when they invented the wheel.

In closing, though I know this is going to sound annoying to people who actually are trying to make a living with their art, for me it’s been less stressful to live by the closing quote of the Zittrain article:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” (Thomas Jefferson)

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