It's tempting to open with a caveat -- "performance rights organizations (PROs) can
serve a valuable purpose" -- before heading off towards the blithering insanity they've devolved into in recent years. It's tempting, but I won't do it. What I will
say is that the notion of collecting public performance royalties isn't necessarily wrong, but the way it's been handled by everyone from GEMA to ASCAP has been a farce -- proof that the narrow line between stupid and evil can easily be erased with a small hit of officiousness.
When PROs collect fees from bars, restaurants and nightclubs, it does make a certain amount of sense. Even if I don't necessarily agree that these "rights" are baked into people's musical creations, there's something to be said for music being an integral part of some of these public venues. But the notion that a public performance right exists at all
runs at odds with common sense, as do the actions of the PROs themselves. Any band playing a concert venue will be subject to
PRO fees (usually hidden somewhere in the venue's deducted costs) even though they're playing their own music
. Somehow, this money will make its way back to… well, generally not the band itself. The money is pooled and divvied up into smaller piles of payouts that rest comfortably on the larger earnings of the top few bands
on the PROs' rosters.
Because the PROs will cease to exist without steadily increasing collections, they have branched out
. It's no longer limited to BMI shaking down local pubs for high-dollar licensing fees, even if said pub only hosts local, indie artists. No, now it's actions like charging the Girl Scouts
for singalongs, charging small auto shops for the personal CDs played in the garage
by their mechanics, charging companies
for allowing employees to listen to radios in their cubicles and charging hotel rooms for the "public performances" performed by seldom-if-ever-used in-room clock radios
Now, there's this, via TorrentFreak -- a Swedish PRO going after car rental companies because rented cars contain publicly-performing radios
Each car rented out by Fleetmanager contains a stereo radio and CD player so that the customer can enjoy broadcasts of all kinds, including music. STIM (collecting society Svenska Tonsättares Internationella Musikbyrå) says that to do so legally Fleetmanager needs to obtain a license but to date has failed to do so.
According to SVD, STIM is arguing that the inside of Fleetmanager’s cars contain members of the public and therefore amount to public places. On this basis the company needs to obtain a public performance license. Fleetmanager disagrees, noting that any music played inside a car is only heard by a limited circle of people.
In its defense, STIM cites previous madhattery by other PROs.
The collection society says that previous cases involving hoteliers have ended with licenses being obtained which enable hotel guests to listen to music while on the premises.
It also trots out the weak game theory routinely deployed by other non-trustworthy entities -- like cops seeking to coerce a confession or your peer group's insistence that a vodka-soaked tampon is a great way to get hammered.
Furthermore, other car rental companies in Sweden have already agreed to pay a per-stereo levy so Fleetmanager should also pay, STIM argues.
The proper response would be to ask if STIM finds mugging weak and stupid people enjoyable. Fleetmanager's response isn't noted in TorrentFreak's article, other than the obvious hints that it's not interested in paying flat-rate fees for one of the worst public performance arguments ever deployed. An in-car stereo is not a public performance, even if it is a rented vehicle. If you take a bunch of friends on a road trip in your own
vehicle, you have not created a public performance no matter how many times the radio is turned on. Renting it from a third party doesn't change anything but the name on the vehicle's title.
Without a doubt, PROs are proving to be endlessly creative
-- albeit in ways that do nothing for them or a large majority of their artists. Instead, it makes the agencies look like low-rent thugs whose best shakedown ideas are hammered out over amyl poppers, jello shots and Powerpoint decks.