Extending moral rights

A number of musicians in the UK have sent a letter to The Times objecting to the use of their music by the British National Party (BNP) in order to raise funds. The problem appears to be that the BNP has legally got hold of several compilation CDs of folk and patriotic music, and it is selling them on their website to bolster their funding efforts in the run up to the European Parliament elections. Several musicians object to the use of their music in this way, but have no legal recourse against such actions. Moral rights only cover two situations, attribution and integrity. Musicians have the moral right to be attributed as the authors of those songs, and they also have the right to object to their works being subjected to derogatory treatment. The letter’s signatories believe that it may be time to have some more protection. They argue:

“We would, therefore, on behalf of our joint membership of more than 31,000 members, like to have our opposition to the BNP’s politics and morals formally noted. In doing so, we would also like to raise awareness of the terribly low level of moral rights accorded to musicians in this country and we call for these to be reassessed so that musicians are able to object to their music being used in situations which contravene their beliefs and morals.”

As much as I sympathise with their position, going down the road of creating a new moral right of inappropriate use would lead us to a slippery slope from which it would be difficult to climb back from. If you give authors the right to object to inappropriate use by people they disagree with, where would you draw the line? Could authors stop libraries selling their work? Could musicians object to their music being played at events they dislike? Blur drummer David Rowntree has written a piece in The Guardian to make this very same point. He says:

“On the face of it then, this seems like a prime candidate for legislative reform, but as ever there are problems. The main one is the drastic shift in music industry economics it would entail. If I could object on moral grounds to the BNP using my work, then why not to other organisations? I might convert to some obscure religion and object to the sale of Blur CDs in any shop run by those who don’t share my views. I might stop sales in HMV or iTunes over some real or imagined sharp business practice, or impose all kinds of conditions on the sale or use of my work. In other words, I would be able to do all the things the copyright owners currently can. At a stroke of the legislator’s pen, the copyrights would have effectively returned to the creators, and the record industry would find itself neutered. The industry has millions to spend lobbying to defend its position, and won’t give an inch. In fact right now it is pushing extremely hard in the other direction, pouring money into EU legislation that restricts artist and consumer rights even further.”

This is quite true, such a system would be unworkable, and an enforcement nightmare. This issue brings to mind a similar discussion that we had while drafting the UK versions of the Creative Commons licences. At the time we considered whether to include a clause to object to treatment with which one could not agree on. This was particularly important for institutions and organisations who would not like to be seen as endorsing some objectionable enterprise. However, we considered that such a clause would be not only unworkable, it would seriously restrict the freedoms that we were trying to give. You cannot give someone the freedom to use your work, and then begrudge them for using it in ways you may find distasteful.

The public should be clear about the intricacies of endorsement. Just because somebody uses a song at an event, it does not mean that the musician agrees with whoever plays this. This is basic stuff, but in our celebrity-enamoured culture, it bears repeating.

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