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Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville

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Friday, August 6, 2010

The Music-Copyright Enforcers

This week's New York Times Magazine has a fascinating article about the business of enforcing music copyright.  The author travels with a BMI employee, Devon Baker, as she knocks on the doors of dozens of bars and restaurants to inform the owners that (1) the music they've been playing is copyrighted; (2) BMI has been designated by the copyright holder to collect royalties; and (3) it's time to pay up.

Not surprisingly, it's not welcome news to the owners -- and not just because no one likes to discover an unpaid bill.  The ease of sharing music through technological advances has both made its presence ubiquitous and altered norms regarding its free use.  Bar owners who would never would have dreamed of stealing an album from a record store because doing so would violate their sense of right and wrong see nothing wrong with attracting patrons by playing karaoke discs -- royalty-free.  But those norms are misaligned with federal copyright law.  That gap between norms and law regarding property rights creates some very interesting and difficult problems for BMI and employees like Ms. Baker.

BMI, recognizing the gap between norms and law with regard to paying royalties, has taken a patient suasion approach with these business owners, since an agressive approach creates indignant resistance and simply doesn't work.

Ultimately, BMI and the business owners both know the law is on BMI's side.  But whose side is time on, if the gap between norms and law remains?  

My article Acceptable Deviance and Property Rights, forthcoming in the Connecticut Law Review, explores that very gap, so it's exciting for me to see it addressed in the New York Times.

Mark Edwards

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