Music icons press case for copyright protection

Singer Dionne Warwick with singer Smokey Robinson (both left) during a recent hearing on copyright protection in Washington, DC.
Singer Dionne Warwick with singer Smokey Robinson (both left) during a recent hearing on copyright protection in Washington, DC.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • It is the same iconic song - My Way - but few radio and streaming companies pay royalties for Frank Sinatra's version, though they cough up for Elvis Presley's take.

This inequality was highlighted by Mr Mitch Glazier, head of the Recording Industry Association of America, when he testified on Tuesday before a Senate committee.

"It doesn't make any sense," he said.

Sinatra recorded My Way in 1969 while Presley did so in 1973.

Under current laws, royalties are not paid to artists whose output came out before 1972.

On Tuesday, singers, songwriters and engineers, whose lifelong devotion to music has not always been adequately rewarded, also got a boost when Motown icon Smokey Robinson pressed their case to Congress for greater copyright protection.

The US Senate is mulling over a sweeping overhaul of music copyright law that would reform the way songwriters and musicians get compensated for their work in the digital age, as streaming services have supplanted traditional ways of buying and listening to music.

Last month, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Music Modernisation Act (MMA), giving it momentum - and rare consensus in bitterly divided Washington - as it headed to the Senate.

"We need you guys to come to the rescue" of songwriters, Robinson said, many of whom are ageing and lack the means to sue major corporations for adequate compensation.

The existing framework predates the Internet.

Artists now earn more from on-demand services such as Spotify and Apple Music than from selling CDs.

The MMA would extend copyright royalty protection to songs recorded before 1972.

The lack of such security under current law has set off an avalanche of lawsuits from older artists upset about non-payment.

"My message is simple," Robinson, 78, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Musicians who recorded before Feb 15, 1972 deserve to be compensated the same way as those who recorded after that date."

Several artists, including once-prominent musicians, have fallen on hard times and are not being fairly rewarded, noted Robinson, the writer and silky-voiced crooner of classics including I Second That Emotion (1969) and The Tears Of A Clown (1967).

Most of his biggest hits were released prior to 1972 and he said his bandmates in The Miracles often get no royalties for their music that is sometimes streamed 50,000 times a day.

His plea found a listening ear in Senator Orrin Hatch, who is himself a songwriter.

The latter said: "It is really unjust the way the current system works."

Several senators, Republicans and Democrats alike, seemed to agree.

The new law sets up a board led by music publishers that would handle so-called mechanical licences, which are issued by copyright-holders for the use of songs by streaming companies and others.

The move eliminates the current system done through the US Copyright Office, a complicated process blamed for delays in compensation.

Joining Robinson in the audience were music icons Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Dionne Warwick and Darlene Love, whose 1963 song Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is a seasonal staple.

"As somebody who's been in this business for over 50 years, I want them to see my face," Love, 76, said.

"They need to know we're human beings too. We're not just somebody that they listen to on the radio."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2018, with the headline 'Music icons press case for copyright protection'. Print Edition | Subscribe