Copyright Enforcement Run Amok

Apology for singing shop worker:  The agency responsible for collecting copyright royalties in Scotland warned Sandra Burt, a food-store employee, to stop singing while she worked or face thousands of pounds in fines.  First the Performing Rights Society notified the store it must have a license “to play a radio within earshot of customers.”  The owner ditched the radio and Mrs. Burt broke into song “just to keep me happy because it was very quiet without the radio.”   The PRS’s threat provoked a “furore” (love those U.K. spellings!) and the agency reversed course, sending Mrs. Burt flowers and apologizing for its “big mistake.”

It’s a silly little story with disturbing elements.  That an organization involved in copyright enforcement believed Mrs. Burt’s singing warranted bullying and punishment makes copyright holders look foolish and obscures the real issues at stake in the copyright wars.

7 Replies to “Copyright Enforcement Run Amok”

  1. Brian Chin

    According to the Scottish Bill of Rights, Article 9, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” Sandra Burt was should not be punished for singing in public even though singing for one’s enjoyment could be copyright infringement. The Performing Rights Society should have known that this was more of harassment than a copyright enforcement.

  2. Mike Curtin

    It's a little scary to think we live in a world where humming or singing your favorite song in public can result in the threat of legal action. Obviously this is an extreme case, but this shows the lengths to which some of these organizations will attempt to go to suppress even the most minor of copyright infringement. Sadly the RIAA and the lawsuits they have handed out have put a damper on an emerging digital music industry (with the exception to iTunes, Apple's biggest money maker) as most digital music service providers eventually get sued by the record labels, like in the cases of iMeem and GrooveShark. It amazes me that the creators of websites like Pandora and Project Playlist are still running their sites and not having their homes reposessed.

  3. Anish Kanabar

    It's almost comical that the Performing Right Society would even attempt to prosecute Sandra Burt, when you consider the rampant copyright infringement of music online. Doesn't PRS have bigger issues to deal with?

    On a related note, doesn't karaoke qualify as copyright infringement? Do bars and other places that have karaoke obtain a license for that?

    Finally, I noticed that the PRS website advocates sending yourself a copy of something you produce in order to prove that you own the copyright…which I found strange based on Prof Randall's response to a question about that on Tuesday.

  4. Vidhi Kumar

    A person cannot be punished by law for singing in public because she is violating copyright law. Sandra Burt would have been violating the law if she perhaps pretended to be the original singer and fooled the customers into thinking she was the original singer. Singing for one's own enjoyment cannot be illegal. The music industry has to deal with the many illegal means of transferring music to listeners, but the radio is not one of those means. The radio is one of the original media through which people have listened to music for years. A radio station has the right to play a song on its station but that right would be useless if people were not allowed to play the radio. The Performing Rights Society was trying to abuse its power by threatening Sandra Burt when clearly she had done no wrong.

    • drandall Post author

      Singing for one's enjoyment could be copyright infringement if it could be construed as the unauthorized public performance of a copyrighted work. Radios can play copyrighted music because the law specifically allows them to do so. Compare the treatment of Internet radio stations, which recently faced imposition of mandatory licensing fees that could have driven most of them out of business. The regulators relented on imposing the draconian fees, but public performances of copyrighted music take place within clear boundaries established by law. A bar cannot legally play music for its customers–even music on the radio–without complying with these requirements. The question in this case is whether playing the radio or Sandra Burt's singing in the grocery store constituted the types of performance that fall within the scope of the law.

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