Land Of No Return

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I think every engineer gets jealous when they see those working in other professions get royalty checks. Whether you're designing a bridge or complex network, I would argue there's often just as much artistry involved in our efforts as in many hip-hop songs in current release.

The father of a friend of mine jokes about his annual royalty check for being a bit player in an obscure movie. He was a last minute stand-in for an absent actor and worked on the film for about an hour. For more than 30 years now, a $2,500 royalty payment check rolls in like clockwork. Mind you, he never received a single check for his "day job" as a multiple Academy Award-winning art director.

This little story is indicative of the grip Hollywood has maintained over our culture and how odd its permutations have become. Want to listen to background music at the local car wash? ASCAP/BMI can and may sue the car wash operator if they haven't paid up.

With this in mind, consider our Supreme Court is currently debating whether or not Hollywood should control content distribution for yet another generation. Apparently, the latest bogeymen are the peer-to-peer software manufacturers that threaten their oligopoly.
I would argue that no matter how many lawyers parade across America's courtrooms, what they're doing is fundamentally wrong. The RIAA's Big Four (EMI, Sony/BMG, Time Warner and Universal) cartel claim their sales are down as a result of digital piracy. I guess they should know, as among them they distribute 95 percent of all the CDs sold worldwide. Apparently, the reduction in sales must be the fault of someone else (quickly, name 10 new artists you would spend money on).

The Motion Picture Association of America is the movie studio equivalent of the RIAA, consisting of Disney, Sony, Viacom/Paramount, GE NBC/Universal and Time Warner. They too are very much interested in the outcome of this case.

Don't even think of singing "Happy Birthday" in a public forum. I shudder to think what SCN would do if I typed the lyrics into this article. Copyright infringement, indeed!

"Happy Birthday" does indeed make for an interesting, if somewhat murky, story. It was composed by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill (originally entitled, "Good Morning to All"), and first sung in 1893. The Clayton Summy Company published and copyrighted the song in 1935, and after an additional 28-year renewal was granted to the original, the song should have become public domain content in 1991. Mind you, one of the sisters died in 1916; the other in 1946. They left no heirs.
Why isn't "Happy Birthday" in the public domain today? In 1976, our Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976, which extended the copyright retroactively to 75 years from the date of publication, effectively extending the copyright until 2010. Not to be outdone, the Mickey Mouse/Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another 20 years to the copyright, so the "Happy Birthday" copyright will remain copyrighted until at least 2030. The motivation behind all these extensions was the pending expiration of the copyright on the first talkie movies; the oldest, still profitable, copyrighted material.

This particular piece of legislation went though both the House and Senate on a "voice vote," so there isn't a written record of who actually supported it. The international version for copyright protection is formally called The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization. Both the U.S. and international copyright organizations have become a strange piece of corporate welfare.

You may ask, who owns the copyright to "Happy Birthday" today? None other than Time Warner, and the song still brings in over $2 million annually in royalty payments. It is also the same Time Warner currently paying $300 million to the SEC for AOL-related financial shenanigans without admitting any wrongdoing. Time Warner currently is charging our household 50 bucks a month for basic cable, including the HBO and CNN services they own; another 60 dollars for broadband internet access, and wants to sell us IP telephones for another 40 dollars a month per number.

Imagine for a moment being able to install your systems with songs and videos stored in the hardware you sell rather than to hook up some remotely controlled external source requiring monthly payments. That would be a nice little addition to your sales pitch. Your restaurant's audio systems could even reproduce "Happy Birthday" without fear of retribution.

Hollywood is using the canard of copyright infringement in their attempt to maintain control of distribution, plain and simple. It seems they can't control the blatant copying going on other countries, so they have unleashed their legal teams on the domestic home front. I guess you go for the low-hanging fruit first.

The digital toothpaste was out of the tube years ago, and there's no putting it back in. Let's hope our Supreme Court and Congress will recognize this with their rulings and laws over the next few years. Hopefully, they will remember the hysteria of previous technophobic movements that claimed broadcast radio was going to kill newspapers, home taping was going to kill music sales, and videotape recorders would be the death of film.

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