ONCE upon a time, it might have been true, as the Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher wrote in 1704, "If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation." Today, the American ballad maker must be as concerned with the laws of a nation as the notes on a scale.
The one law that affects him most directly is, of course, his copyright law, which covers his legal rights to have his songs published, sold, recorded, and performed publicly for profit. Recently, because of certain inequities in the law, intensive studies have been made to determine the best means of modernizing it, with particular attention to the field of public performance rights. The law is pretty definite in stating that a composer and lyricist must receive adequate compensation every time their songs are sung or played for profit. Every radio and television station and network, motion-picture studio, restaurant, bowling alley, skating rink, or dance hall that uses music to contribute to its solvency must obtain a license to play copyrighted works. Every commercial user of music, that is, except jukeboxes.
Perhaps the lawmakers really couldn't have foreseen in 1909, the year the copyright law was passed, that there ever would be such a universal dispenser of culture as a jukebox. With rare shortsightedness, they passed a special amendment specifically exempting coin-operated music machines from being considered as a public performance. In those days, such machines were no more than novelty gadgets, but they have since burgeoned into big business. Dimes and quarters are being swallowed up in ever-increasing amounts, to the nonlicensed tune of over $500 million annual profit. Yet no matter how often a song is played, its composer and lyricist receive no royalty.
Let us take a simple example. Frank Sinatra made a hugely successful recording of a song called "Witchcraft," written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. Under the copyright law, the two-cent royalty per record pressing is divided fifty-fifty between the songwriters and their publisher, the Edwin H. Morris Company: Mr. Coleman receives one half cent, Miss Leigh receives one half cent, and the publisher receives one cent. When a person decides that he cannot live without this record and buys it, the composer and lyricist expect no further royalty. But when a jukebox operator buys Sinatra's recording of "Witchcraft," he buys it for one reason only—to make a profit. A single recording may possibly be played as many as 5000 times on one machine; at ten cents per play, the dealer grosses $500 on an item that cost him less than one dollar. As for Mr. Coleman and Miss Leigh, well, if they're not spendthrifts, they still have their half cent each.
Take the example one step further. When the record is purchased for use on the radio, it is subject to the copyright law, and its performance is taken into account as part of the fee ASCAP collects from broadcasters to distribute among its members. If a tavern owner uses a radio to entertain his customers, he, too, is subject to a licensing fee. But if he decides to replace the radio with a jukebox, neither he nor the dealer need pay for a copyrighted work.
Alarmed by this injustice to composers and lyricists, a group of citizens headed by Carl Sandburg has formed the Creative Arts Committee for Better Copyright Laws. Its chief purpose is to spread the word about the iniquity of the current laws, particularly with reference to the jukebox amendment, and to urge Congress to enact laws that would be more equitable. One of its most powerful arguments is the report of the Register of Copyrights, which states unequivocally: "Jukebox operators are the only users of music for profit who are not obliged to pay royalties, and there is no special reason for their exemption." Others backing the repeal of the exemption are the Librarian of Congress, the State Department, the American Bar Association, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the American Patent Law Association, as well as the rival performing-rights groups, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.
This year, those who are supporting the change in the law have reason to be optimistic. Representative Emanuel Celler of New York has introduced a bill "to stop the legalized piracy of copyrighted music by the jukebox syndicate," and a vote will be taken at the current session of Congress. As for the Senate, its Judiciary Committee has already recommended a similar bill in a previous session. Supported both by the Sandburg group and by the public's growing awareness of underworld domination of the jukebox business, the current bill has an excellent chance of passing. If it does, the usually unsung songwriter will finally be able to give less thought to the nation's laws and more to its musical needs. Who knows? With added financial security, he may even write better songs.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.