September 10, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
The internet has unleashed an amazing new era of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. From Tik Tok micro-videos to the Etsy “everything store,” thousands of Californians are finding new ways to share, connect, and deal online.
But for artists and creators, it’s a uniquely double-edged sword. On the one hand, we have more ways than ever to share our work and find new audiences. But on the other, the ease of digital scraping and copying also makes it open season on our work. Photographers, designers, and composers like me end up dealing every day with people ripping us off, copying our work, and paying nothing for it. It’s an ugly truth, but scratch the surface of that Etsy craft shop or that art house film soundtrack and you are likely to find a lot of uncredited, unlicensed, and un-paid-for designs, images, and sounds.
And the most frustrating thing of all is, we really have no remedy. Copyright claims can only be brought in federal court, which takes forever and costs a bundle. It’s really no use when someone has swiped your photo and slapped it on a Café Press t-shirt or ripped your composition to score their spec film. You’d spend more than you could ever recover, even though taken together all these small bits of piracy and misuse of our work cut deeply into creators’ livelihoods and undercut what is already a pretty tenuous career.
It’s like being stuck on the wrong side of a window, watching a crime go down but helpless to do anything about it.
Fortunately, Congress is now considering a solution that would create a copyright small claims court that creators could use as an alternative to federal court. This “CASE Act” would give small businesses and independent creators access to an informal, no-lawyers process to quickly protect their creative works.
The bill protects people accused of stealing creative works as well by requiring impartial expert judges and capping damages at a relatively modest amount. The new process would also be completely optional – defendants who wanted the full process available in federal court would have the absolute right to opt out of the small claims procedure.
The bill would go far to eliminate “copyright trolls” who game the system for a fast buck and assume no one will bother to shut them down, creating a reasonable check and balance to a system that currently lacks one. Over time it will send a clear message to copyright infringers in all areas of the arts – including authoring books, shooting photos, creating graphics, as well as songs and musical compositions – that every creator’s work must be respected by licensing its use. And if you want to using something, simply ask the creator and pay market value.
As a composer who has done documentaries, TV shows and commercial music in the United States and in Europe, I am not part of the “1 percent” of wealthy musicians, nor are many of my colleagues and fellow members that comprise The Society of Composers & Lyricists. There are thousands of us who earn middle-class incomes by supplying music to cable channels and digital service providers. And sadly, we have watched our incomes diminish over the last several years with little to no options to fight the battle of infringement.
Congress has a great opportunity to restore some balance to the internet and the creative economy – something that is especially vital here in California. At a time when our government seems to do so little for ordinary people and spend so much of its time bogged down in pointless political controversy, the CASE Act is bipartisan legislation that everyone should be able to support.
I urge California’s senators and representatives to help artists defend our work and livelihoods and support this vital tool.
Jonathan David Neal is a freelance composer (Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus; Film Maker’s Son); CEO of ScoreSmith Productions Inc. ; and the recording secretary for The Society of Composers & Lyricists.
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