PICASSO SAID ‘ALL ART IS THEFT’… BUT HE WASN’T DEALING IN DOWNLOADS

Originally published at alphabetpony.com.au

Like many other creatives, my artistic contributions are built in the times between desk jobs, full time employment, and/or current freelance opportunities. I write music (and articles) because I love to, and because I can’t imagine living a life where I do not create – and as such, I protect my work. Or at least I thought I did. 

Most relationships are two-way, unless you’re Tom Hanks in Castaway – and even he had Wilson. So it doesn’t come as any surprise that writers want people to read their work (thanking you currently), that painters want viewers, and that musicians desire listeners. Granted, there are people who keep their gifts to themselves – but for the sake of this article, I’m looking at creative endeavours where the natural feedback loop is to create and share, create and share, create and share – and not have your idea/baby/brain seed that represents your soul stolen from under you!

I remember it like yesterday. I was walking and simultaneously checking my Facebook messages, like every other Londoner bumping into me on the street, when I saw a private message linking me to a newspaper’s website. Frustrated with my mobile viewing, I scurried home, opened my mac, and sat alone on the couch with my mouth hanging open in disbelief as I watched what was in front of me.

There was a 30-second tourism commercial on the newspaper’s website, accompanied by an original song I wrote some years back. Flattery and confusion filled my mind as I struggled to comprehend the sequence of events. After quickly checking the inboxes of MySpace, Twitter, Soundcloud and more, I noticed a message I had previously missed, from a girl in Eastern Europe asking if I had Jake Deamer’s* contact details, as she could see that I had shared his song Scarlet Fever.

His song? That was my song! Surely this girl was confused. I innocently Googled “Jake Deamer + Scarlet Fever”, and watched in horror as the search engine performed the online equivalent of hearing nails on a blackboard. Hundreds, if not thousands of hits emerged. There were free downloads, YouTube videos of models frolicking in fields and more, all set to this one song of mine, which was now being credited to Jake.

Basic research didn’t assist in tracking down Jake, apart from a YouTube account, and so I channelled my anger-fuelled efficiency into the crafting of a firm, yet pointed email, addressed to the creators of said commercial. Their careful and rapid response contained a link to yet another website, where Jake had released an album (complete with two of my original songs), which was being downloaded for free (thousands of times) under a creative commons license.

By this stage I was ropeable, and reaching out to any and all friends with musical/legal knowledge, and speaking as fast as is humanly possible to a lawyer who gave me a “free 15 minutes” over the phone. The conclusive consensus was “to go where the money is” and negotiate with the creators of the commercial, which I did.

Now while I am happy that I was eventually acknowledged as creator of the work, I won’t be travelling internationally on the profits anytime soon. Granted, I didn’t begin this detective game with a purely financial aim but it was pretty frustrating, considering that heavyweight tourism bodies pay in the tens of thousands of dollars to license music commercially.

I regularly write songs and all of my work is registered with APRA/AMCOS, but in this day and age, promoting music means sharing your work – and in most cases, streaming it, on a multitude of websites. Understandably, putting your music out there is a personal decision and you do run risks, however, choose not to do this and you may be viewed as hurting your career, in some cases which hasn’t even taken off yet. The widely used argument in the music industry is such that you shouldn’t be too precious about your work if you’re an unknown.

Ask questions about protecting your music and you will be routinely met with rhetoric about the importance of exposure over anything else, and that apart from registering your songs, you should only worry about serious copyright issues if and when they occur.

Well, it happened to me and apart from the emotional cost, it’s a huge amount of admin to deal with – and unless you have cash to spend on a lawyer, you’ll find yourself working through the nitty gritty alone, and you won’t necessarily “win” in the large sense (unless of course, this piece of exposure proves me wrong).

Not everyone who writes songs wants to do it professionally and not everyone makes large sums of money from sync deals, however, just because creative work isn’t bringing in the big bucks, it doesn’t mean it is of lesser quality and therefore, free (literally) for the taking. The currency of creativity is growing, and there have never been more seminars, books and blogs on “how to be creative”, and yet, we still seem to put little financial value behind the fruits of what is often elaborate labour.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, and as an artist, I generally want to share my work, however, this song-stealing scenario made me rethink my model. I hope sharing the story makes others protective of their work, because it is worth something – if only a credit to your name.

And sometimes a name is all you have.

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TIPS TO PROTECTING YOUR WORK ONLINE:

  • Register all works (new and old) with a PRO (performing rights organisation), whether it is APRA/AMCOS in Australia, or PRS/PPL in the UK.
  • Consider creating a video for your work so that if it appears on YouTube in any other format, you can prove that yours was the first thanks to a date stamp.
  • Try to put your music on a recognised and paid download site before it goes anywhere else. Again, if something happens, at least you have a dated record of when you first uploaded it.
  • Research music unions and shop around for various membership options – some bodies offer free legal advice.
  • Don’t let ‘em get you down, continue to create your work – if it’s good, maybe it will get stolen and hey, at least you know (thousands of) people like it!

*names have been changed to protect the guilty.