ASCAPs charge of the light brigade

The charge of the light brigade was caused when bad leadership sent British cavalry on a disastrous, suicidal charge against superior Russian forces during the Crimean War (1854) (Wikipedia).

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Pubishers (ASCAP) is a typical collecting society. From its about page:

ASCAP is a membership association of more than 380,000 U.S. composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers of every kind of music. Through agreements with affiliated international societies, ASCAP also represents hundreds of thousands of music creators worldwide. ASCAP is the only U.S. performing rights organization created and controlled by composers, songwriters and music publishers, with a Board of Directors elected by and from the membership.

Sounds nice, normal and peaceful. But this peaceful summer scene was shattered in June when ASCAP began mobilizing by asking for additional funds to support ASCAP’s Legislative Fund for the Arts (ALFA). Read part 1 of the letter here, and part 2 here (via BoingBoing 23 June) the letter from ASCAP’s president Paul Williams begins:

At this moment we are facing our biggest challenge ever. Many forces including Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the 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 in truth 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.

This paragraph is so monumentally misguided its difficult to know where to start.

But lets jump in with: Copyleft is not anti-copyright or against copyright. Copyleft depends on copyright for its existence. Without copyright copyleft cannot work. Copyleft is commonly used in software programs where a programmer who creates software grants others permission to modify that software with the condition that any such modifications – if spread – must be spread under the same conditions. In other words if you take the software I have created and make modifications and then spread that new software you must allow others to make modifications. If you cannot do this you cannot make modifications of my software. That is copyleft. And it is only enforceable because of copyright. In Creative Commons licensing the equivalent to the copyleft term is the share-alike requirement. The story is the same. If I create music and license it under a CC license with a share-alike requirement you can make modifications to that music and spread them but there is a condition that you must allow others to modify the music you and I have created. If you cannot allow this then you cannot use the music I created. So copyleft cannot pose any threat to copyright or to ASCAP’s members.

The organizations that ASCAP wants to fight are also a mystery. Creative Commons is the organization behind Creative Commons licenses which are dependent on copyright. The next two are even more bizarre Public Knowledge, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are consumer & digital rights groups. They fight for civil rights and technology. What is obvious is that ASCAP either does not understand the first thing about what they think they are “fighting” or maybe they are choosing to be ignorant in the hope that their members will think its sounds good in a classic scare-mongering tactic?

Naturally the replies were not long in coming. Eric Steuer (Creative Director at Creative Commons) wrote a Response to ASCAP’s deceptive claims (30 June)

Last week, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) sent a fundraising letter to its members calling on them to fight “opponents” such as Creative Commons, falsely claiming that we work to undermine copyright.*

Creative Commons licenses are copyright licenses – plain and simple. Period. CC licenses are legal tools that creators can use to offer certain usage rights to the public, while reserving other rights. Without copyright, these tools don’t work. Artists and record labels that want to make their music available to the public for certain uses, like noncommercial sharing or remixing, should consider using CC licenses. Artists and labels that want to reserve all of their copyright rights should absolutely not use CC licenses.

Many musicians, including acts like Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, Youssou N’Dour, Tone, Curt Smith, David Byrne, Radiohead, Yunyu, Kristin Hersh, and Snoop Dogg, have used Creative Commons licenses to share with the public. These musicians aren’t looking to stop making money from their music. In fact, many of the artists who use CC licenses are also members of collecting societies, including ASCAP. That’s how we first heard about this smear campaign – many musicians that support Creative Commons received the email and forwarded it to us. Some of them even included a donation to Creative Commons.

Lawrence Lessig reacted quickly (10 July) to the letter in The Huffington Post :

As a founding board member of two of those three organizations, and former board member of the third, I guess I should be proud that a 96 year old organization would be so terrified of our work. And I would be — if there were anything in this fundraising pitch that was actually true.

But there is not. Creative Commons, Public Knowledge and EFF are not aiming to “undermine” copyright; they are not spreading the word that “music should be free”; and there is certainly not yet any rally within Congress in favor of any of the issues that these groups do push.

Lessig then moves to a concrete suggestion:

This isn’t the first time that ASCAP has misrepresented the objectives of our organization. But could we make it the last? We have no objection to collecting societies: They too were an innovative and voluntary solution (in America at least) to a challenging copyright problem created by new technologies. And I at least am confident that collecting societies will be a part of the copyright landscape forever.

So here’s my challenge, ASCAP President Paul Williams: Let’s address our differences the way decent souls do. In a debate. I’m a big fan of yours, and If you’ll grant me the permission, I’d even be willing to sing one of your songs (or not) if you’ll accept my challenge of a debate. We could ask the New York Public Library to host the event. I am willing to do whatever I can to accommodate your schedule.

Let’s meet and address these perceived differences with honesty and good faith. No doubt we have disagreements (for instance, I love rainy days, and Mondays rarely get me down). But on the issues that your organization and mine care about, there should be no difference worthy of an attack.

Paul Williams posted his reply on the ASCAP website (19 July)

Anti-copyright crusaders are currently engaged in a publicity campaign to discredit ASCAP’s efforts to defend the copyrights of our professional songwriter and composer members…

Because of the respect I have for ASCAP’s members and the trust they have put in me, I am focused on those activities that will further ASCAP’s goals to work for fair compensation to music creators for the use of their music.

I don’t believe a debate with Lawrence Lessig will serve that purpose.

I am well aware of those “copyleft” mouthpieces who take a highly critical view of ASCAP’s efforts to protect our members’ rights. That will not change ASCAP’s commitment to doing so. ASCAP exists for one purpose — fair payment to music creators for the use of their music by businesses and others who seek to attract viewers and customers. ASCAP has long welcomed and licensed new technological means of performing its members works, seeking only reasonable fees for those performances. Our members have every right to give their music away for free if they choose, but they should not be forced to do so.

What I find most fascinating is that those who purport to support a climate of free culture work so hard to silence opposing points of view. They will not silence me.”

Instead of addressing any of the errors – which have been pointed out by several people -they continue to repeat the patently wrong statements. When a public person makes a error of this magnitude it is a given that bloggers who know anything about the area are going to be critical – this is the basis for free speech and open society – this criticism is hardly a “…a publicity campaign to discredit ASCAP’s efforts to defend the copyrights…”

The closing letter is amazingly weird – being invited to participate in a debate is the opposite of being silenced!! Being invited to a debate is obviously a mark of respect of ones opponent and respect for the whole open and free speech process. The lack of interest for this process and the ignorance about the “enemies” of ASCAP should be enough to question Williams suitability as a spokesperson.

Seeing the charge of the light brigade French Marshal Pierre Bosquet said “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre. C’est de la folie” — ” (It is magnificent, but it is not war it is madness) (Wikipedia)

Tennyson wrote the poem: The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.