Why Taylor Swift Is Asking Congress To Update Copyright Laws : All Tech Considered It's an ongoing standoff between musicians and Google's YouTube: Who should be responsible for removing unauthorized copies of songs posted online?

Why Taylor Swift Is Asking Congress To Update Copyright Laws

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Some of music's biggest stars recently sent a message to Washington. On this week's All Tech Considered, why Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and dozens more are urging Congress to reform copyright laws.


SHAPIRO: Some of this fight is about money. And as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, it is also about artists' right to control how their music gets used.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It may be hard to feel sorry for an artist like Taylor Swift, who doesn't seem to be hurting for money, but you might feel bad for Sam Rosenthal, a musician and producer who runs a small independent label - Projekt Records, spelled with a K, not a C. He's been making a living as a musician and producer of electronic music for 30 years. Over the last decade, he's struggled to keep his business alive.

SAM ROSENTHAL: It involves continuously finding more ways to save and downsizing and trying to keep ahead of the decline, basically. I mean, I had 11 people working for me in the '90s, and now I have two part-time people working for me.

SYDELL: Like a lot of people in the music business, Rosenthal puts the blame on rampant online piracy. Here's the music of Steve Roach, an artist on Rosenthal's label.


ROSENTHAL: He's pretty much lived his life to create art. He is really dedicated to it. He puts a lot of time into his work, and also money into the studio to have the best possible album.

SYDELL: And according to Rosenthal, Roach's albums regularly sold 50,000 to 60,000 copies. That was before the days of massive file sharing on the internet. Now a quick search on Google will take you to sites where you can download a copy of Roach's music for free. And here's where Rosenthal gets angry about copyright law - Google is not responsible for taking down links to the pirated song unless Roach or his label let Google know it's there. Producer Rosenthal says it's tough to play internet detective for all the artists on his label, especially since every time one illegal link gets taken down, another one pops up.

ROSENTHAL: And it's a really unreasonable expectation that I would have the time to chase people all day when I should be running a business and making music.

SYDELL: The problem, says Rosenthal, is the safe harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It was written when Congress was revising the copyright laws in 1998 to account for the growing presence of the internet.

JIM BURGER: It was a system designed for a different age. It's like traffic rules for carriages with horses, and you have autonomous cars now.

SYDELL: Jim Burger is a copyright attorney who represented several tech companies when the law was being drafted. In 1998, Google had just been founded and there was no YouTube.

BURGER: The concern that Congress clearly had in mind was it did not want to throttle or chill innovation and expansion of the internet. And they didn't want the overhang of copyright lawsuits.

SYDELL: Of course, now Google is one of the most valuable companies in the world. That's why producer Rosenthal and many other artists think Google and other internet giants should be made legally responsible for finding unauthorized files and taking them down.

ROSENTHAL: Google could solve this problem - 90 percent of this problem - with one switch. And if they were really on the side of the creators, they would do something about that.

SYDELL: Actually, Google's YouTube says it does do something. Artists can register their songs with Google's Content ID, which locates uploads of their music, and artists can run ads over the video. Katherine Oyama is legal counsel at YouTube.

KATHERINE OYAMA: And 95 percent of the time they're choosing to monetize it, which means they share the revenue. We send the majority of advertising revenue associated with our content out to rights holders. So we're actually seeing this become a very serious, real economic revenue stream.

SYDELL: Serious to the tune of $2 billion paid out since YouTube launched Content ID a decade ago. One billion of that has come in the last two years. But according to the Recording Industry Association of America, last year revenue from Google-YouTube went up 17 percent while the number of plays on YouTube went up over 100 percent. And Content ID doesn't work for Google search, which artists say continues to bring up links to sites that list pirated versions of their songs. Congress is in the midst of a process of evaluating the copyright laws and is expected to unveil an outline for reforms in the fall. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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