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It's a question of creator's choice

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Feargal Sharkey | 11:43 UK time, Thursday, 30 July 2009

(Feargal Sharkey found fame as lead singer in The Undertones and later as a solo artist, before successfully transferring to the business side of the industry - holding posts as A&R manager, record label MD, Member of the Radio Authority and Chair of the Live Music Forum. He is currently CEO of UK Music, the umbrella organisation that represents the collective interests of the UK's commercial music industry - from artists, musicians, songwriters and composers, to record labels, music managers, music publishers, collecting societies and studio producers. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Feargal's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

Let's all just come down to earth for a minute. And take a deep breath.

As with all debates tagged 'digital' 'music' and 'piracy', this one needs a bit of context.

For me, the key issues are not copyright versus creative commons or 'corporate oligarchies' versus the 'mash-up masses'.

These are artificial battle lines, usually drawn by digital ideologues. It's black or it's white. Or, in the immortal words of George W Bush: 'You're either with us, or against us.'

Ideologues tend to shoehorn exceptions into rules. Which is fantastic for the purpose of theorising, debate and the general production of hot air, but of less practical value back here on Planet Earth where things tend to be a bit more complex. As Aleks rightly notes, the fly in the ointment for digital utopians occurs when human beings enter the equation.

For me, the burning issue - and this is equally relevant to newspapers, games, TV, film makers, authors and software manufacturers as it is to music - is how creative individuals can commercially reconcile their activities both online and offline.

Both are vital. Most artists need to sell CDs and downloads, they need to play live, their music needs to be distributed to a huge variety of digital stores, they need a web presence, they need to be played on radio and they need to be marketed to 'traditional' media. And on and on.

They also need time and space to create.  

This is a balancing act.

Ideally, the emerging digital market can complement existing incomes, which in a lot of cases are meagre enough, and not completely displace them. As seen with the likes of Spotify and We7, the music business is working with tech companies to develop sustainable music 'businesses' (as opposed to unsustainable music 'services') that incentivise creator and fan alike, as well as everybody in between. Like the other IP-based businesses above, music must continually evolve and respond to customer demand.

Of course, some artists are doing pretty well in reconciling online and offline activities - witness the growing list of 'heritage' acts reconnecting on comeback tours with their old fanbase - but it's an awful lot of balls to keep juggling, particularly for an emerging artist.

Creativity is not confined to an online vacuum. Most songwriters, composers, artists and musicians don't make distinctions as to where their creative labours will be heard and enjoyed. They don't care if it's on download or vinyl, via terrestrial radio or online stream. They simply create. (Although most like to get paid and have a keen interest in how their music is presented.)

Copyright allows this. It encourages creativity and offers the creator freedom of choice. (Want to sign to a music company? Strike a sponsorship deal with a brand? Give your music away for free? Copyright gives you the option...)

It also offers the creator a degree of moral rights as to how their work is used.

How this is exercised is very much down to the individual.

Working on the proviso that one person's meat is another's poison, each individual artist will have their own personal take as to what is 'permissible'.

Many will encourage fans to post clips to social network sites or give away the odd track in exchange for an email address (and let's face it, 'unsigned' artists have always given their work away for 'free', usually in the form of a demo). However, a line will probably be drawn when it comes to an unlicensed Russian website selling their work or if it's appropriated by a political group whose views they fundamentally disagree with.

This is a 'horses for courses' scenario. But, for me, the creator should always retain the opportunity to decide.

One final thought, in getting hung up on side issues, we potentially miss the elephant in the room: quality. The potential of digital distribution is great, but fundamentally our business is still focussed on the pursuit of great music, great songs, great entertainment and great art.

Whether online or offline, this is what draws a crowd.

If we lose sight of that, we lose everything.


  • Comment number 1.

    I work, I enjoy my job, but unfortunately - in my job I do not have legal protection (i.e. legally created monopoly) to exploit the work I do today for the rest of my existance - nor will my family be able to exploit this work after my death. Patents & copyright themselves are not a problem - but near perpetual patents & copyrights stifle competition, creativity and (especially with patents) the development of the human race as a whole. So, why do you feel that your work is worthy of a perpetual monopoly where as mine is not? or are you suggesting we should all be paid for our work perpetually? At the very least copyright and patent law should be ammended to only allow a short time to exploit your works (say 5 years), but in my view if this society wishes to play at capitalism then all monopolies, including copyright and patents should be abolished.

  • Comment number 2.

    An obvious question for kiakanpa (above). Do you do anything work-wise that could be copyrighted or used to support your family after your death?

    I am a teacher and like to think that I have improved the knowledge and skills of those that I have taught, and that this will be of benefit to them during the course of their lives.

    Teaching itself involves several (often under-appreciated) skillsets understanding of subject, the ability to transmit complex information in a clear unambiguous fashion, interpersonal and organisational skills and so on.

    But unfortunately I can't see any way I could copyright my teaching style or abilities or how my family could benefit from them after my death. The same goes for many jobs no matter how good your administration, management or any other skills may be.

    However, if I produced a series of instructional DVDs that would be a different matter; the individual titles, series (brand) name etc could be copyrighted. But unless they contained information or ideas found absolutely nowhere else I couldn't attempt to copyright that, nor the style of presentation.

    If I did produce such a series of DVDs I would want some protection against someone copying and selling them in such a way that I received none of the proceeds (a straightforward rip-off) or attempted to pass them off as their own work.

    There are good reasons (I believe) for having copyright laws.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Jay, I hope I can explain my point a little more by using the situation which you are in. As you said, if you created an instructional DVD you could copyright it, and any derivative works could also only be created with the agreement of you - the copyright holder. The ONLY reason this situation exists is because of the monopolistic law of copyright granting you this 'right'. As you have said your teaching style and abilities cannot be copyrighted (though you now find that many companies are being granted patents on processes and procedures, which is only a fine line away from 'styles' of teaching), if however a new law was created which meant that anybody you have taught had to pay you royalties whenever they applied the knowledge you had passed onto them - people would call it crazy, but that 'law' would be no different than somebody creating a derivative work. If one of the people you teach went on to become a teacher themselves, and used the styles and abilities you have taught, that would be a direct violation of this new law - no different from a direct copy of an 'artistic work'.

    If copyright had never existed, and somebody tried to introduce it now it would be dismissed out of hand - in the same way as this 'imaginary' law above would be.

    I hope my point is a little more clear now - even if you still disagree with me. :-)

  • Comment number 4.

    If copyright had never existed, and somebody tried to introduce it now it would be dismissed out of hand... Kiakanpa.

    I disagree; I think most people's sense of natural justice would support the principle of copyright.

    There's also a major difference between being influenced by someone and directly copying their original work for profit. We all have influences, some conscious, others unconscious. I've been influenced by those that trained me, that I've worked with and also by people in other professions.

    Let's say you were a talented graphic designer, photographer or writer (or musician, film maker etc) and you found others could simply take anything you had produced and reproduce it to make a profit from it, without any permission being sought or payment to you made; I doubt you'd be best pleased. (Even less if it were being used in a way you actively disapproved of.)
    Where's the incentive to produce more? How could you make a living from it? Some public recognition may be nice, but it alone doesn't pay the rent.

    You mention that you work; would you continue to go in to work if your wage was abolished? Where would your incentive be?

    I believe Creative Commons licenses has been mentioned in a previous thread; these do allow original work to be licensed (at the discretion of whoever made the work) in ways that allows others to use it, usually for free if for non-commercial use. But it is up to the originator of that work to choose the terms under which they licence their work; there are a variety available.

  • Comment number 5.

    "I think most people's sense of natural justice would support the principle of copyright"

    A lot of people would support it, but not the law we've got now.

    I don't think creators should have absolute control over every single copy of their work, that's why Creative Commons Licenses are necessary.

    At the moment we've got the equivalent of a bunch of kids playing football and one saying it's my ball, so you've got to let me score all the goals or I'm taking my ball home.

  • Comment number 6.

    ParkyDR, above. Creative Commons licences are really only useful if the originator is prepared to let their work be used non-commercially.

    It's commercial use that is the real point of contention.

    If someone wrote a popular song 45 or 25 years ago and someone has a chart hit with it today (think of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', a chart hit twice this year for 2 different artists), why shouldn't that writer benefit financially from it. The same applies to any author, poet, photographer, film maker, designer.

    Japan's (an 80's band) song 'Ghosts' was a hit in 1981, and again recently when used in the TV series Ashes to Ashes. Why shouldn't its original writers/performers benefit?

    If you like a particular song by a band, or a book by an author, or a film etc. then why shouldn't you pay to own a copy (or use in your work) and they receive payment for their work or contribution.

    Yes, it is their ball - if they had a hand - individually or collectively - in creating it.
    No, not everyone is capable of such creativity; but that is not a reason to penalise that that are.

  • Comment number 7.


    I'm not complaining about commercial use, I'm not against creators making money.

    I am against them believing they have the right to control every non-commercial use as well.

    I'm not so sure they they should have the right to decide what formats of their work are allowed e.g. J K Rowling not allowing e-books.

    Another example is out of print books - the majority of the books ever written are out of print, the author makes nothing, getting a copy e.g. scan is illegal but you aren't even allowed to buy them.

  • Comment number 8.

    Creative Commons is a recurring offer here. So do people think this provides the fix for content creators in the new media with its new rules?

    I'm reminded a little of the recent Banksy exhibition. Like him or no, you have to admire the chutzpah of this piece.

  • Comment number 9.

    Creative Commons seemed to be acceptable in the early days of sharing your work with others, but now if you look at sites like Flickr more users are going for the Rights Reserved approach. I wonder if this is to do with the fact that people uploading their work have cottoned onto the fact that they can make money (or get some other reward apart from enjoyment) from what they do - no matter how little that may be? I know you don't neccessarily make money from the fact that something is rights reserved, but it's almost like saying, "I'm a professional. I'd like something back for the work I've done." It seems as if web communities are changing. You participated for fun at first, but then it becomes serious and then money comes into it.

    I also wonder how much the opportunity of money/reward changes what people do or say on the web, compared to what they would do or say before they found that they could be rewarded? Do they act more professionally and hold back on what they say to ensure that their web image isn't damaged? Do they hold back the best of their work for gain rather than letting the rest of the world see/use it for nothing?

    On a related note, a techy example is the use of open source software and providing code freely so it can be shared. There's currently some concern in the library community about an open source library system where one company is releasing code to paying customers (in the form of a library system) and is not passing the code on to the wider community. I know people/companies do need to make money, but it seems as if it goes against of the spirit that open source was originally intended and is a change to the way these communities have worked in the past.

  • Comment number 10.

    (From my blogpost Publishing, Filesharing & Revolution)

    A shift is occurring which we have all been made aware of by the frequent cries of injustice from several members of the music industry. With the rise of Internet file sharing existing publishing establishment revenues are being undermined, though this has now largely come to be accepted, with those companies concluding that they will subsist on the profit generated by their back catalog of work still under copyright. Digital distribution removes the third party publisher from the loop, allowing more profit to go to the artist, perhaps a result that the majority of those in music publishing are secretly happy about.

    This same transition is beginning to occur in the sphere of book publishing. With the arrival of Amazon's Kindle e-Reader, Sony's e-Reader, again the artist will be given the opportunity to enjoy increased revenue and liberated from the leeching publishers. Whilst we will always have film production companies, completely digital distribution of video rental is in the offing in the UK and already available in the US, with television soon to follow.

    Many artists complain of the threat to their income created by the ease of digital copying and the rise of peer to peer file sharing, I personally welcome the prospect of having a home free of the various boxes, cases and shelves required to store transient human art forms. There are many advantages to the publishing revolution, with the UK in particular being so resistant to change, the opportunity to turn over the existing publishing aristocracy is very welcome.

    The ease of digital duplication is often sighted as a setback, but to who? After all what is wrong with a dynamic that brings wealth to those artists whose art inspires pathos or edifies in such ways as to make us want to give our money?

    Whilst many are currently bemoaning the pseudo-politicisation of the celebosphere, the removal of the publisher from transient art forms brings to the fore the question: is this art worth paying for? In time, perhaps redefining who our celebrities are.

    Would future generations of children be raised expecting never to have to pay for books, music and films? Surely teaching your children to pay for what they like is a constructive tenet? After all we ourselves expect to be paid for work in the career we choose, so this initial instruction in the determination of excellence can only be mutually beneficial.

    If all else fails the Internet provides the artist with a way to maintain a relationship with their audience, providing incentives to purchasing. Ultimately then the artist will be brought back into direct communication with their audience, as it was before recorded music or the printed press.

  • Comment number 11.

    Oh dear, Feargal, you still don't get it, do you?

    I'm old enough to remember The Undertones. In those days, artists that wanted a wider audience were pretty much dependent on word of mouth, shared mix tapes, or, if they were very fortunate, picked by John Peel and have one of their songs declared as his all-time favourite. Back then I'd try and see all my favourite bands' gigs in the south east and would always buy their albums. In some cases I'd buy two copies of the same album; one for home and one for taking to parties.

    Sadly John Peel is no longer with us. Word of mouth and shared tapes are still here but in a different form: the Internet. Thanks to the Internet I still discover unknown artists and I still buy their CDs. I also buy DVDs, books and games. I have one room at home that is literally floor to ceiling in bought-and-paid-for IP. I'm the sort of bloke that Big Media should love and cherish but they don't.

    If The Undertones had started in the pre-copyright era your attitude would have been very different. As a travelling minstrel you'd have played songs that were public domain. You wouldn't have "owned" any of the material you played and you'd have been happy to earn a crust from the efforts of others without paying them a penny.

    Today is very different for the audience too. I can buy a physical copy of a performance but if I make a backup copy (essential where I live as the climate rots CDs and DVDs) or do a format swap from CD to something I can listen to on a portable media player I am branded a common criminal.

    You may think the artists and Big Media hold the moral high ground but the majority, the people that stump up the cash to pay you all, think otherwise.

    There you go, a big cultural clue. It's not copyrighted and I don't require payment for it.

  • Comment number 12.

    Apropos this post, it's well worth watching Feargal Sharkey's interview with Mark Thomas on the Culture Show, where he outlines the challenge facing musicians and the industry, and the potential outcomes of the Digital Economy Bill. The Culture Show clip also features Billy Bragg offering an alternative take on the filesharing dilemma facing the music industry and musicians.

  • Comment number 13.

    Bragg is great but Feargal Sharkey starts with an stat about P2P traffic of an unknown ISP at 70% - yeah so what.... What technology does he think Spotify uses to distribute legal music ! PLEASE!! I don't even need to mention the other services that use this tech for legit reasons ! I don't even then feel the need to get drawn into conversations about copyright extensions destroying cultural artifacts when interviews start with stupid comments like that !

  • Comment number 14.


    Sorry for taking so long to reply but I've been busy of late and am just catching up with things. I watched the Culture Show interviews and it just confirmed the thoughts I posted before: Feargal doesn't get it.

    By the way, the Culture Show link you kindly referenced is another "Not available in your area" clip. Thankfully, the Internet has no respect for geo-blocking and I am able to keep up with cultural trends happening in Blighty ;)

    I've also finally caught up with The Virtual Revolution and it's probably the best doco I've seen on the subject. Congrats to all the team.


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