Today is World Intellectual Property Day, a day to celebrate the important role that the law plays in promoting innovation and creativity across all countries and cultures. The theme of this year’s celebration is “Get up, stand up. For music,” which is a sentiment I wholeheartedly embrace.
While my artistic focus is photography, my love of music has been lifelong. It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. I will never forget listening to Sting open for the Dead at a concert years ago when then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher called me and asked me to turn the “radio” down so I could speak with then-President Bill Clinton. I am thrilled that the band is reuniting for a few final shows this summer in Chicago.
Part of what makes the Grateful Dead so enduring is the sense of community that has developed among fans. That sense of community, of sharing a love of something with other people, is at the core of what it means to be a music fan. All of us, whether we love the Grateful Dead, Emmlyou Harris, Phish, or Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, we are inspired by the music and the people we share it with. And today, music fans enjoy more ways than ever to listen to longtime favorites or discover new artists. We can carry millions of songs on our phones, and access even more through the Internet.
In many respects, the developments that have made that kind of enjoyment possible have also made it a wonderful time to be a musician. Songwriters and recording artists have ways to reach old fans and make new ones that we could not have dreamed of in the days of 8-tracks and LP records. Digital technology has also made it easier than ever for independent musicians and songwriters to create their works.
At the same time, these developments have renewed questions about the proper compensation for songwriters and recording artists. Music copyright is complicated. It involves separate legal protections for the underlying composition and the final recording of a work, and a licensing landscape that treats different rights, works and services differently. Like most music fans, when I listen to my favorite songs I’m not generally thinking about how the song was created, how the writers and performers are being paid, whether those payments are sufficient to help them write or record another song, or the efficiency of the process through which the service playing the song licensed the performance. Yet these questions are fundamentally important to the music ecosystem we know today and they are the reason that this year’s World IP Day theme is so timely.
In the past few years, there have been ongoing conversations about whether and how to fix a music licensing system that virtually all participants believe is broken in some manner.
Congressional hearings and an in-depth report by Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante make me hopeful that there is renewed interest in comprehensive solutions to improve the music marketplace for all participants. We must ensure that all music creators are fairly compensated for all of their works; that innovative, legitimate delivery methods can continue to benefit consumers and marginalize illegitimate alternatives; and that technology can bring increased transparency to the data that is essential to an efficient licensing system.
Getting up and standing up for music and the people who make it requires us to do more than think about questions of compensation and creation; it requires us to make sure that broader aspects of our copyright laws reflect our nation’s values. Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans. Even as the Court considers this question of fundamental civil rights, there is work for Congress to do.
The Copyright Act, which protects our nation’s diverse creative voices, still bears vestiges of discrimination. A provision in the Act protects the surviving spouse of a copyright owner only if the marriage is recognized in the owner’s state of residence at the time he or she dies. This means that a songwriter who lawfully marries his or her partner in Vermont or California is not a “spouse” under the Copyright Act if they move to Michigan, Georgia, or one of the other states that do not recognize their lawful marriage.
Earlier this year, I introduced the Copyright and Marriage Equality Act to close this discriminatory loophole to ensure our federal statutes live up to our nation’s promise of equality under the law. As the Supreme Court recognized in striking down key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act, it is wrong for the federal government to deny benefits or privileges to couples who have lawfully wed.
My bill would ensure that the rights attached to the creative works of our nation’s gay and lesbian musicians and songwriters pass to their widows and widowers. Artists are part of the creative lifeblood of our nation, and our laws should protect their families equally. To paraphrase Bob Marley, we need to get up, stand up for your rights. This Vermonter won’t give up the fight.
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