Remember a world without collective copyright management?

Whenever I travel back to my native Costa Rica I feel like I am going back in time. I know this may sound condescending, but having experienced the efficiency of developed societies for more than a decade, some of the many aspects of life in a developing country feel like looking at a world long lost. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. On the negative side, it always infuriates me that my mobile phone works everywhere in the world but in Costa Rica; on the positive side people still talk to one another, the art of communication has yet not been lost amongst a sea of iPod ear-buds.

Costa Rica is currently immersed in a legal dispute between the first collective society and the local radio stations. Although there have been previous efforts from record companies to obtain money from commercial music providers, the Costa Rican radio market has remained completely unregulated. Because up until now radio stations did not have to pay royalties, the Costa Rican dial is choke-full of radio stations playing any genre imaginable. But now copyright has arrived to the small tropical nation, and the vibrant radio scene is threatened by the prospect of increased expenses.

First some facts about the parties. Fonotica is a collective society that brings together multinational music giants like EMI, Sony BMG, and Universal; and smaller local record companies like DIDECA, Papaya Music, and La Butaca. The radio stations are represented by the powerful radio cartel Camara Nacional de Radio (CANARA). Fonotica demands payment from radio stations ranging from 2-3% of their advertising revenue, while CANARA has launched a wide-ranging radio campaign designed to get the public on their side by stating that such figures are excessive, that radio serves to promote music, and that radio is a free service, and therefore should be exempt from such charges. Interestingly, Fonotica is also set to ask for royalties from public performances from bars, discos, and other commercial establishments that play music to the public. CANARA has latched on this fact, arguing that all sort of public events that charge a fee will have to give music to the collective agency.

As far as I can tell, the public seems to be on the side of the radio stations. Music is very important to the Latin way of life, and everyone organises events where a “discomovil” plays music to get everyone dancing. The radio stations have been very effective in highlighting this fact to gather public support to their cause.

I have to say that I am largely with the music industry on this one. Public performance of music for commercial gain is an exclusive right of the owner, and it seems unfair that for a long time artists have gone unrewarded while countless radio stations have made handsome profits from advertising with minimal investment. However, I am against an excessive application of copyright law. There should be a threshold in what constitutes commercial activity, so an impromptu event designed to get some funds for a local charity could be exempt from paying fees for public performance. The cost could be given to the many enterprises making a living from other people’s music. Radios and mobile discos should therefore have to pay some fees.

While the law is on the side of the copyright owners, one of the interesting aspects of the debate is that there are questions about legitimacy. In a strategy that reminds me of the various cases involving collective societies in Spain, radio stations have been wondering if the music industry even has the right to ask for fees on behalf of artists they do not represent. This could prove to be more troublesome for the music industry, as they may be shackled with the burden of proof.

The era of free-for-all music might be over. While this will mean that many marginal radio stations will cease to exist, this would be keeping with copyright practice elsewhere.

Comments 3

  1. "and it seems unfair that for a long time artists have gone unrewarded"

    Since when did artists actually see any money collected by collection societies? That sentence should read: "… for a long time record companies have gone unrewarded".

    Yes, public performance for commercial gain is a copyright owner's exclusive right, but let's not confuse the artists with the copyright owners. $$ for record companies does not mean $$ for artists, regardless of what they tell you.

  2. Andy, good point. However, the Costa Rican market is slightly different because of its size. I have friends with bands who are signed to small, independent local labels, who do not see any money from being played on the radio. They are heavily involved in their labels, so it is in their best interest to get some form of payment for public performance. Smaller labels translate into better chance that the musicians will actually see some of the money collected.

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