DJ Ethics: What Are the Copyright Laws of Purchased Music?

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by Stu Chisholm – The Complete Disc Jockey

Last November, I discussed some of the ethical challenges that we encounter as DJs. Today I want to address another aspect of ethics that is legally blurry around the edges and–as evidenced in many DJ forums–completely misunderstood by all sides: the ethics of copyright.

“Some will rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen.” – Woody Guthrie, “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd”

During a discussion about a shady character offering hard drives filled with music, an obvious no-no under copyright law, a bit of a dust-up erupted because of differing opinions over what copyright law does and does not do. While we all understand that making copies of music recordings and selling them, also known as piracy, is against the law, confusion exists over what we can do with the music we legally purchase.

What rights do you have when you purchase a track or an album?

If we follow the exact letter of the law, we would place our downloaded music on the hard drive we were actually going to perform with, and no back-up would be allowed, as this in itself constitutes an illegal copy. Yet having a back-up is essential, as hard drives can and do fail. Software is also protected by copyright, and yet you’re usually encouraged to back it up by the very literature that accompanies it! To date, however, there exists no examples of a DJ being convicted of this particular “crime.” Indeed, if the exact letter of the law were enforced, the entire concept of the digital DJ would be nullified, since we would be guilty of the prohibition against “transmit[ting] or otherwise communicat[ting] to the public the sounds or sounds and images of a live musical performance…”

Indeed, even the equipment we commonly use is technically illegal, yet tolerated by the industry, due partly to the lack of a “serial copy management system,” which is incorporated into consumer devices to prevent duplication of recordings, as well as being literal electronic “retrieval systems” for playback. But again, as long as you’re operating with legally purchased music and not selling or giving away copies, an ethical DJ should not sweat these technicalities. Just be aware of them, as the law and attitudes are constantly changing.

Before the Digital Music Era

“It’s in the air, man!” – John Lennon, when asked about home recording

One concern that I brought up, however, was the value of our music. When sound recordings were confined to tangible media, such as records or tapes, nobody thought anything about selling old records in a garage sale, or giving them away as gifts. They were objects, and yours to do with as you pleased, just like any item you own. Some even increased in value due to interest by collectors. (I have one notoriously collectible record that I’ve been offered $1,500 for thus far.) If you sold your DJ business, you could also sell your library. Nobody questioned it.

At one point, there were legal concerns about home recording of music and other programs, as record companies thought that FM radio listeners would simply record music off the air and not buy records anymore. The same concerns erupted over home video, when the Sony Betamax landed on store shelves. In both cases, such fears were shown to be unfounded, instead spurring music purchases and movie ticket sales. Today, the DVD has created a secondary market for movies long after their release in theaters. Music, too, is selling briskly, apparently bolstered by legal downloading options such as Amazon and iTunes. Given legal and illegal options, it seems that the public will choose the legal most of the time.

Copyright Regulations of Digital Music

The main difference to the DJ industry, though, is that our music is now technically worthless once you download it. Even though the industry no longer has to produce an object, invest in sales and distribution channels or even come up with cover/album artwork, you’re still paying the rough equivalent of what you did back in the ‘90s. (Artists, too, make far more money from touring than they do from music sales because their “labels” consume the lion’s share of the pie, just as they did back then.)

Yet if you sell your DJ service in 2017, you’re legally prohibited from selling your legally purchased music library along with it. Apparently under U.S. copyright law, you are guilty until proven innocent of retaining copies of your downloaded music, simply because we now treat music for what it is: data. And data is easy to copy.

“It was the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” – Benjamin Franklin (attributed)

The bottom line, then, for the ethical DJ of 2017 is to be aware of the law and follow it to the best of your ability. As long as you’re not stealing the intellectual property of others, and no one is harmed, then you’re doing your part. That said, my own personal opinion is that your legally purchased music should retain its value, too. If you decide to sell your business, and you legally transfer the music licensure of all music to the new owner, then you should be allowed to do so. Today this is simply my opinion, and I hazard to guess the opinion of the vast majority, but would no doubt draw the ire of the Powers That Be. Ethics works both ways, though, and I would call on the industry to work together to bring change to this facet of copyright law.

Until next time, safe spinnin’!

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