Royalty collection agencies are known for going to extremes as they go about their business claiming money on behalf of artists and music composers.
They target schools and kids’ community centers, charge charities for the singing of Christmas carols without a license, and even crash weddings if they have to.
While these copyright collectors are very strict in forcing their rules onto others, they often fail to live up to their own standards. This attitude was brilliantly exposed by the Belgian TV-show Basta when it exposed local music royalty collecting agency SABAM for charging people to pay non-existent artists.
This week, German royalty collecting agency GEMA made the headlines with a similar mistake. The group is claiming money from the nonprofit organization Musikpiraten, for releasing a compilation CD featuring the winners of its Creative Commons competition “Free! Music! Contest.”
Musikpiraten received a 350 euro invoice for five tracks listed on the CD, a false claim for which the pirates are considering filing a copyfraud complaint.
“GEMA’s claim that they hold these rights is demonstrably false. All artists have explicitly declared that they are neither members of GEMA nor of any foreign royalties collection society. The demands are therefore clearly a copyfraud,” Christian Hufgard, chairman of Musikpiraten explains.
The false claim appears to have been sent because some of the authors have names similar to registered GEMA members. But even then, the mere notion that the CD features work from a Creative Commons competition should have made GEMA reconsider their claim. That didn’t happen though.
According to the Musikpiraten chairman, GEMA and other royalty collectors simply assume that all artists fall under their wings. This is an outdated assumption, especially in the digital era where many artists allow people to share and redistribute their work.
“Internet portals like Jamendo.com with more than 52,000 albums published under Creative Commons license are a proof that the principle of ‘all rights reserved’ is outdated. If an artist verifies to us or to another publisher that he or she is not a member of GEMA, this certainly must have more weight than the blanket assumption that every author is a member of GEMA or a similar society,” Hufgard says.
This is not the first time that a royalty collection agency has filed a false copyright claim, and some artists have even cancelled their membership because they do more harm than good. Michael Koch, singer and guitarist of “the.princess.and.the.pearl,” one of the bands who GEMA falsely claimed royalties for, is one of them.
“We don’t think highly of GEMA. I used to be a member, and our band actually lost a couple of gigs, because the organisers of small festivals were unable to afford the GEMA fees, of which hardly anything flows back to the band in terms of royalties,” he says.
“The fact that we, as non-members, must prove that our music has not been composed by a GEMA member, demonstrates that the society has too much power – and that it abuses it ruthlessly,” Koch adds.
A testament to the ruthless stance of GEMA is the fact that they didn’t immediately send a credit note when the mistake was pointed out to them. Instead, the royalty collecting agency suggested that the artists probably forgot to register the tracks with GEMA, and they asked Musikpiraten to convince them that the identical names are a pure coincidence.