CISAC The first collective license for music was conceived almost a century ago, and their heirs - all the world's collection societies - met for a Copyright Summit in Brussels this week.
Collection societies exist to raise money for 'performers' where it's too tedious and expensive to count every 'performance'. They draw lots of small sums of money, for example from hotels, hair dressers and pubs, in exchange for what's called a blanket, or collective license. (And not just performers, obviously, but authors and composers). This is then handed back, typically in small amounts too.
So it was suprising to hear the Collection Societies director general explain to us why a blanket license was a really bad idea. Surprising, because his members were all here to celebrate what a fantastic idea it was. Quite literally, they wouldn't be here without it.
This made the stance against a digital blanket license odd. For a few cents a week from every broadband user, a license would compensate artists for the use of their music, just as it has for every other technological innovation since the invention of electricity.
Eric Baptiste, in an interview with us, explained that for digital music downloads, however, a blanket license would wreck the world of music as we knew it - with the other creative industries following into ruin in short order.
Why was this, then?
Eric said that he believed that if a collective license was introduced - then physical sales of music would vanish overnight, destroying the recorded music business. Then the small blanket fee - would have to go up, and people wouldn't accept it. And everyone else affected by digital technologies would want one too - and the world would be a smoking ruin. That was the logic, as we understood it.
"The enforcement has been weak so far," he said. "But you have to know that if you infringe, we will prosecute you:"
But it's a tall order to require people to pay, when the alternative is free?
"I agree, it's very difficult to coomete with free... but we need more compelling offerings as well as better enforcement. The killer app is not there yet."
Therefore he favoured education about copyright infringement, stiffer penalties and DRM. He compared casual infringement to speeding - we all want do it, but we know we'll get caught.
I asked him what kind of gigantic technical surveillance infrastructure would be required to police all the private digital exchanges we do - but he thought it was achievable.
Or maybe the "killer app" is here - it just doesn't have a blanket license on it yet? No, said the director general. While CISAC favoured levies on copying material like tapes, a levy on copying material like broadband-connected PCs was a step too far.
When his members receive not one penny from digital exchanges, wasn't it worth considering?
"It would be like stepping from the frying pan into the fire," said Baptiste.
"If you do the maths, you realize it's a small fraction of what the copyright industry is getting today. If everybody in the creative business - musicians, scriptwriters, lawyers ... everyone has to live off fat fee - the fee would have to be very high."
Lawyers? I wondered how many Reg readers would agree that lawyers were entitled to a living?
"Sometimes lawyers are a necessary evil," he smiled.
Again, I was baffled that a mechanism that was invented because it reached parts other mechanism couldn't reach, was deemed to have finally met its insurmountable obstacle. But he was adament: there could be no blanket license that legalized, and therfore monetized, the home computer.
Eric had analogy.
"What if all the restaurants in Brussels had a blanket license?" he asked, "and people could go anywhere and eat what they wanted?"
This seemed an inapposite choice of metaphor: you can't instantly copy a Three Star Michelin meal at zero marginal cost. But even if you could make five loaves and two fishes feed a city, you'd still need to buy new property to get everyone seated. And people here aren't in the habit of rampaging through Brussels gorging themselves on "free" Three Star food.
Then the thought struck me that if Eric's digital nightmare really could be applied to high quality cuisine, then it would't really be a nightmare at all. Yes, hordes might then be rampaging through Brussels restaurants, but this would make the restauranteurs very happy - because no cultural intermediary likes to see an empty house. The chefs and the food producers would be happy, because with a blanket license increasing demand, for them too, they could be assured of making more stuff, and selling more produce, knowing they'd be paid. And the market would sort out the really good chefs from the poseurs. There wouldn't be a happier city on earth that I could imagine.
So I was about to tell him that a blanket license for (digital) food was the most fabulous idea I'd heard all week, when I realized that this would be facetious raised to the power of facetious: f-squared. So I just nodded and kept taking notes.
Have mercy on your reporter, dear readers.
Out on the floor however, Eric's members are beginning to realize what a fabulous idea it could be too. ®