Monday, September 27, 2010

God Save WRVU

Typically in this, my little window to the world, I have been writing about legal and economic issues concerning the music and intellectual property industry. Today I want to narrow my focus on a radio station: Vanderbilt’s WRVU.

VSC (Vanderbilt Student Communications, Inc.), the governing body of Vanderbilt University’s student media, recently announced that it is considering moving the venerable radio station to an internet address and selling its broadcast band. The presumptive rationale is that data shows that a large number of college students only listen to radio on the internet.

I am not sure if the student population is relevant here. When I was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, we routinely ignored the programming on WRVU, although the station did produce local luminary Fred Buc of Lightning 100 fame during that time. It was only after I graduated from Vanderbilt that I discovered the great service that the station offered the Nashville community. Over the past quarter of a century, I have enjoyed the station’s programming, from blues to bluegrass (“George the Bluegrass show”), from jazz to funk (thanks, Doyle), from honky-tonk (thanks, Heather) to politics (thanks Mary and Freddie), from Ken Berryhill (the world’s oldest country DJ) to 91 Jumps, the Friday morning R&B show (a staple of my listening diet).

I cannot begin to tell you how much new music I have been exposed to on 91 Rock. I first heard some of my oldest friends and clients on WRVU. Nashville first rock scene in the 1980’s would not have happened without WRVU. I was reminded the other day that a bunch of us young (at the time) local music biz types were instrumental in helping WRVU with benefit albums and concerts back in the day. I still discover great new and old music, local and otherwise, on the station.

The idea of listening to radio on the internet reminds me of ham radio enthusiasts using their hobby to dial in strange and wondrous lands. The data be damned. This data ignores most of us adults who, for better or worse, do most of our serious listening in the car while commuting and running errands throughout our day. To ignore such an important facet of the Nashville community seems to be an abdication of the station’s not-for-profit charter, and foolish for a university that already has a difficult time relating to the city at large. We always took WRVU for granted, but it may have been the university’s best ambassador to the Nashville community at large.

For what it’s worth, we should all take a minute to urge Vanderbilt Student Communications, Inc. to reconsider this intemperate move. The University is still soliciting public commentary at the bottom of the page of this link:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Copyright Office Gives Some Guidance to Documentary Film Makers and Professors

The Copyright Office has finally issued regulations on what activities can be properly classified as Fair Use when it comes to using audio visual work. Specifically, the Copyright Office states as follows:

(1) Motion pictures on DVDs that are lawfully made and acquired and that are protected by the Content Scrambling System when circumvention is accomplished solely in order to accomplish the incorporation of short portions of motion pictures into new works for the purpose of criticism or comment, and where the person engaging in circumvention believes and has reasonable grounds for believing that circumvention is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the use in the following instances:

(i) Educational uses by college and university professors and by college and university film and media studies students;
(ii) Documentary filmmaking;
(iii) Noncommercial videos.

Basically, what this means is that college professors (but not high school teachers?), documentary filmmakers, and makers of non-commercial videos can use certain software programs (such as Mac The Ripper and Handbrake) to copy portions of copyrighted motion pictures and other works in the same way that copies of works in other formats (VHS, for example) may be used for scholarship and criticism. This basically expands the existing law to include new areas of technology. What is more interesting about the new regulations is that they include documentary filmmaking and non-commercial videos. For years, I have been uneasy advising documentary filmmakers as to their rights due to the uncertainty in this area of law. Also, the other exception, “non-commercial video” would presumably cover “mash-ups” and other works that young filmmakers create. This seems like another example of the law playing catch-up with technology, and it is a most welcome advance.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Publishing in the Digital Age

As someone who advises authors from time to time and grew up in the retail book business, I was happy to have the opportunity to attend a panel called The New Age of Book Publishing: A Digital Revolution” at the Americana Music Association convention yesterday. The panelists, including attorney Randy Smith and my friend renaissance man Tommy Womack, were uniformly informed and excellent. I confirmed my hunch that the book publishing world is like the music world was about six or seven years ago and if anything the atmosphere is even more like the wild, wild west than the music business.

We know that brick and mortar stores are probably going away; we know that sales of traditional media (i.e. BOOKS) are diminishing while sales of electronic media and their delivery devices are increasing. I learned that there is a huge debate over the aesthetic and quality elements of books on demand and that, not surprisingly, most authors still want to be published in nice hard bound books.

The most interesting question for the future is whether a writer wants to go the self published route, which is as open today as the DIY route in the music business, or whether they want to go the traditional route of finding an agent, who can hopefully place the book with a reputable publishing house. I suspect that this is still the goal of most authors even in the face of evidence that it may not matter economically in terms of overall sales potential. It still comes down to what type of book you are writing, what your potential market is for that book and what your platform is for accessing that market.
Strange days indeed.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Myth of The Poor Man's Copyright

For the past 15 years, I have taught copyright law at a local college. Every year, without fail, I wind up in an argument with a student over the legitimacy of a so-called “Poor Man’s Copyright.” Folks, the Poor Man’s Copyright does not exist.

However, the myth is so pervasive that many of my students have told me that they were been advised by other professors of the important merits of this method.

Basically, the strategy is this: you take whatever work you have created that you want to protect (song, novel, epic poem, etc.) and mail it to yourself (sometimes the myth suggests certified or registered mail but I am not sure of the distinction for this purpose). The belief is that this somehow proves you created the work. In actuality, this proves that you mailed yourself a package.

The problem lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of copyright law. Our law provides that one’s copyright exists in an expressive work as soon as it is “fixed in a medium of tangible expression” (i.e., this is what creates the actual “copyright.”) The second step is registration of the copyright. Registration is not required to sustain a copyright. It is advisable, though, for purposes of proof AND it is a prerequisite to any sort of copyright infringement litigation. For those purposes, there are no short-cuts or alternatives to copyright registration; one must follow the procedures laid out in the Copyright Act.

I am not sure what the historical background of the Poor Man’s Copyright is. A quick Google search reveals that it is a system recommended to this day in several European countries where there is no central copyright registration authority. It also may date back to the days before the Copyright Act of 1976, when there were legal concepts like “common law copyrights” and other anomalies.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with mailing yourself a package, but please do not rely on that action as any sort of substitute for proper registration.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Americana Music Association Conference

To my friends in the Nashville area, or anyone who might be attending the Americana Music Association Conference this week, I am on a panel tomorrow (Thursday September 9) at 9:00 a.m. with my friends Webb Wilder, David Wykoff and John Allen. The topic is "Protecting Your Intellectual Property in the World of Indie Labels and Publishers." Speaking for all of us, I know we have some terrifying stories. Come by if you can. There are a number of interesting panels starting today and, of course, lots of great music between now and Saturday.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Straight Outta Cashville: the Young Buck Saga

As my teenage daughter will be the first to tell you, I do not know enough about the rap genre. My appreciation crested at NWA and Grandmaster Flash. However, I have always been intrigued by the business side or rap and hip-hop, with its Byzantine system of allegiances, turf wars, conspiracy theories, and (on a more mundane level) some unusually structured record deals.

I have been following the recent stories about Nashville’s best-known rapper, Young Buck (David Darnell Brown). His story is well-known; he dropped out of high school to sign with Cash Money Records and ultimately signed with mega-rapper 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records. Young Buck was featured on 50-Cent’s very successful debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and had his own releases, Straight Outta Cashville in 2004 and Buck The World in 2007. However, at some point he apparently had some sort of falling out with 50 Cent, which led to a hiatus in his recording career. All of this is detailed in a recent article in the Nashville Scene. Shortly after the article was published, Brown’s home was raided by IRS agents seizing assets because of his failure to pay taxes. All this lead to his filing bankruptcy in August. The bankruptcy itself is instructive. Mr. Brown, at 29 years old, owes over $212,000 in back taxes, two mortgages totaling around $685,000, and miscellaneous other debts. I really don’t know how successful Young Buck was in his big earning years, but this is some serious debt. He listed assets of $5,095,293. However, upon examination, $5,000,000 of this figure was apparently the expected recovery from a lawsuit he has recently filed against his former business associates, including 50 Cent. I do not know all of the intricacies of bankruptcy law, but I know this will not count as a tangible asset until he receives a judgment against the defendants. I do know that bankruptcy law allows a debtor to reject executory contracts and Mr. Brown will presumably use this to get out of his uncomfortable alliance with G-Unit. What also came to my attention was Brown’s intention to pay his creditors $12,500 per month from his “employer” Cashville Records. I could not find much information about Cashville Records, but from press reports, it sounds like it is Brown’s own label. I don’t know how his distribution works or what kind of money his label Cashville is netting on a monthly basis, but I do hope he is indeed able to pay his creditors $12,500 per month and have a successful Chapter 13 bankruptcy. A lot of Chapter 13 bankruptcies fail and are converted the Chapter 7 bankruptcies. The real moral to this story can be found in Mr. Brown’s recent statement to MTV News:

“I have a new team in place, but I am also paying full attention now," he added. "Nothing like this will ever happen again. This is a huge wake-up call for all entertainers to stay on top of your own trusted employees and team members, and replace anyone that was put in place by your record label if the situation you have goes sour. This IRS situation came about because I trusted accountants, lawyers and managers to handle my business for me while I focused on making music. From now on, I am going to stay on top of my own business.”

This is a true and important message for artists, no matter what genre or where they are on the income strata: pay attention.