Thierer Against Collective Licensing

Adam Thierer has an excellent post on the pitfalls of voluntary collective licensing schemes. He makes a very convincing case for caution.

How do we determine who should get paid what under a blanket licensing system for the Net? What formula shall we use to determine why one artists gets more than another? After all, counting downloads won’t be simple, and it can be gamed. Lessig says that “there are plenty of ways that we might tag and trace particular uses of copyrighted material.” (p. 272) Really? If that was the case today, then we would have a fully functioning copyright clearance and compensation system in place already. But “tagging and tracing” is easier said than done. The fact is, the same complexities we face trying to enforce such tagging and tracing systems under the present copyright system would be present in any compulsory licensing system.

I wrote something mildly favorable about this approach a few months back that you can find here, and I even tweaked my libertarian comrades.

What plan will work best for music lovers and artists? Instead of a fake music tax, the best solution might be—sorry, libertarians—for the government to step in with a real music tax. In the book Promises To Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment, Harvard Law School professor William Fisher devised an ingenious reward system that levels the playing field for artists. At first glance, it looks a lot like the music biz extortion scheme. The feds would levy a small tax on all broadband subscribers. Musicians, signed and unsigned, would register their creations with the U.S. Copyright Office, who would then set up a massive Nielsen-style sample of music listeners to track the popularity of different songs. The more your song is played, the more you get paid. The revenue from the tax would be parceled out to the copyright holders.

But Thierer has some powerful rejoinders, including:

There are many thorny questions about the fairness of imposing a blanket fee on all online users even if they don’t listen to any music, or those who would be offended at the prospect of being forced to pay for certain types of music (think of grandmas paying for gangsta rap). On the opposite end of the equation, there’s the question of fairness to artists who may not want to surrender the rights to their musical creations at government-set terms and rates.

Ah, the Tipper Gore problem! Vexing indeed. I still think this would be the best way to go — if only it weren’t utterly unworkable!