Bill Henderson: Voluntary music file-sharing fee would benefit songwriters and fans

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      By Bill Henderson

      Our federal government has been hosting public hearings, looking for input on the revision of copyright law in order to make it more functional in the Internet age and beyond.

      Copyright is generally considered pretty dry stuff. The easiest way to get interested is to get angry. Check out Michael Geist’s blog on the subject to see how passionate some consumers can be about it, and see if you can Google up a rant from Graham Henderson of the Canadian Recording Industry Association to get a sense of the temperature on the other side. Amazing how interested we all get when our blood starts boiling.

      So, let me see if I can get you upset.

      On the other hand, maybe you’d be just as happy with a few quiet words on the subject from a songwriter. Songwriters are interested in copyright because we create copyrights for a living.

      Yes, the Copyright Act does need to be brought up to date. But as a songwriter, my first priority is to be sure we don’t lose our rights.

      It’s important to understand that unlike most workers, songwriters are not paid for their work. The agreement Canada made with songwriters a long time ago was that we could have certain rights by virtue of which we could get paid when our songs are used—not written, but used! Copyright law is the foundation of that deal. It’s how we earn a living.

      My second priority is to find a way to deal with that huge unpaid use of our work called music file-sharing. About 40 billion music “file-sharings” take place each year, with no payment to music creators.

      The Songwriters Association of Canada believes—and Internet technical experts agree—that unauthorized file-sharing cannot be stopped without actually shutting down the Internet. Attempts to sue it out of existence are futile. They alienate our audience, and earn us no money.

      Canadian songwriters don’t want to sue file-sharers. In fact, we like file-sharing. It’s the most efficient distribution system of the largest repertoire of music ever assembled, and it’s available to virtually everyone. What’s not to love about that? We don’t want to stop it; we just want to get paid for the use of our work. We think that most music fans agree with that, and that millions of Canadians would welcome a legal way to share any and all music files.

      The Songwriters Association has proposed a way to do just that. It would be voluntary for consumers, voluntary for songwriters and rights holders, and it would be administratively light. A small fee from file-sharers would be collected and distributed on a pro rata basis to all the creators and owners of the music shared.

      The amount of the fee would be set by the copyright board, which would hear from all the major stakeholders including consumers, and, as long as a person isn’t sharing for financial gain, paying the fee would authorize the activity.

      Many people would benefit from this system.

      Songwriters, performers, record companies, and publishers would be paid for this huge use of their work and property.

      Internet service providers would be able to load up their own servers with all the most popular music and save a great deal of money in bandwidth costs by providing their subscribers access to their databases of songs.

      Consumers would be authorized to share copies and streams of any song in the world’s repertoire of music, at any time and on any platform, using the most up-to-date technology and could do so with one simple payment. With that payment, the shadow of illegality and threat of penalty would be removed.

      Industry Minister Tony Clement and Heritage Minister James Moore should work with songwriters to implement a plan like this so that we can put the drama and hysteria behind us and allow people to enjoy music the way they want to, while ensuring that the creators of that music can earn a living.

      Bill Henderson is the vice president of the Songwriters Association of Canada. The long-time singer, guitarist, songwriter, and record producer is a member of the band Chilliwack.




      Aug 19, 2009 at 9:48am

      The only problem with systems like this is they tend to only reward established artists that don't need the money as much. In the same vein as FACTOR grants. I'd like to see something that helps indie bands that are starting out and could really benefit from a couple extra bucks a year for recordings and touring.


      Aug 19, 2009 at 10:14am

      Ironic, isn't it, that right beside this article on the Straight website is their "Instant Playlist"..

      John Lucas

      Aug 19, 2009 at 11:09am

      vcinbc: We have been running Instant Playlist since last April and we have never had a single complaint about it from a copyright holder. That's because we are encouraging music fans to check out songs and artists they might not have heard yet, and we don't provide readers with full downloadable tracks. We're certainly not encouraging people to illegally download the songs. You can compile your own playlist by buying the songs from iTunes or your music provider of choice. Or you can do what I do most weeks and download free tracks that the bands or their labels have released to blogs like Stereogum and Gorilla vs. Bear for exactly that purpose.

      Don Quarles

      Aug 19, 2009 at 12:54pm

      Hey Cardeo

      Great thing about this concept is that singer / songwriters that don't normally benefit from usual music sales / distribution methods would benefit from this model. Payment would be on a pro rata basis and tracking would be done effectively by companies who do this now.

      It's an amazing way for music creators to realize revenue from music file sharing, where they haven't been able to up until now. I'm all for it!

      Martin Melhuish

      Aug 19, 2009 at 3:50pm

      In response to Cardeo and the thought that this tends to reward established artists that don't need the money.

      Isn't it amazing how people channel their inner "communist" when talking about creators. Name me another profession, including your own, that would sit still in the society we live in for a comment like that. I am not speaking for fellow creators of intellectual property on this, but if you want to take this idea to its logical conclusion, then let's come up with a government agency (OMG!!) that sets limits on what people in various professions are allowed to earn by law. How far do you think this proposal would get? How many seconds would it take for the howling to begin, starting no doubt by the legal departments of the major corporations.

      If you want to test your "socialist" philosophy, by the way, walk into a bakery, pick up a loaf of bread and refuse to pay with the explanation: "I think you make the most amazing bread in the world. I just don't think what you do is worth anything!" You may, following that statement, need recourse of a lawyer who will definitely not be negotiating his $450 an hour rate!

      Robert Smits

      Aug 20, 2009 at 7:28am

      I think the idea that we must find another way forward is good, and I'm happy to see this proposal. On the other hand, we must NEVER let the copyright board set anything, given their greedy grasping ways - demanding fees, for example for a dentist to play background music when he's already paid for the CDs.

      Patrick Lepage

      Aug 20, 2009 at 7:48am

      Excellent! Artist working toward a greater distributing model to be free to use their work has they intended.

      I am all for it. Copyright should not be sold. Copyright should be the exclusive right of the Artist. Copyright cannot be bought, it is not a product, it is a right!

      Has long as the copyright can be bought or transfer, the meaning of the copyright is lost.

      Go on Artist, I am sure you can establish the greatest real legal P2P network for the new centuries.



      Aug 20, 2009 at 8:58am

      In my opinion songwriters are putting copyright on it's head. Looking from business viewpoint - you deal with artists and that's where your many should come from. In most cases people buy music not because lyrics were written by a specific songwriter, but because it was performed by a particular artist. Copyright should protect your works from performers. It should not give you right to milk people listening to music. Should I pay a fee to guitar maker whose instruments were used in performance?

      Howard Knopf

      Aug 20, 2009 at 9:12am

      I've outlined more than a dozen big problems with this scheme....ranging from privacy, treaty, the "me too" effect on other copyright industries, the fact that it won't help emerging artists, and the proven problems of the existing levy scheme in Canada.

      It would also likely be the death of remaining record stores and even online sites such as iTunes stifle any innovation in the business end of the music industry for a long time to come.

      Anyway, the recording industry won't let it happen. They see this as "socialism".

      See my analysis at:

      Jean Hébert

      Aug 20, 2009 at 11:07am

      Despite my view that music should be free, the efforts of the SAC should be lauded for developing something that, perhaps with some amendments to account for film and software, seems like a compromise worth developing.

      A voluntary levy (& I'd pay it!) has been the obvious solution since the first MP3 files started trickling across broadband lines in the late 90s. Convincing ISPs to adopt the strategy might be the biggest challenge.

      The point above about remuneration equality, though, is a sound one, inflammatory charges of socialism aside. In the past, a very small number of CDN artists have received a larger share of royalties because of the oligopolistic nature of the music industry (high concentration of ownership and vertical integration in distribution networks, broadcast outlets and performance venues). The web levels some of that, but not all of it (advertising revenue still drives some sites, like An open and transparent data policy needs to be applied to music providers on the web (, myspace and others) who would ostensibly report download statistics to collection societies. Currently, no standards of data transparency are applied to said sites.

      I've got a twtpoll going about how artists should be remunerated, in which you can vote: