The Toronto Star
Thursday, February 4, 1999

Copyright chill grows on Internet

by Robert Wright, fastforward@tsnl.com

Most people have a hobby, whether it be collecting stamps, hockey cards, recipes, gardening, Hot Wheels, or Elizabethan art. Pascal De Vries, of Switzerland, likes to collect song lyrics.

And for De Vries and others, one of the great things about the Internet is that it allows true hobbyists to indulge their passion on a larger scale and share it with others around the globe. In the past few years, thousands of dedicated hobbyists have set up Web sites to display all manner of minutiae, collectables, and memorabilia, etc.

Since the sites are rarely commercial in nature, it is clear the people behind them are not in it for the money. In most cases, it is simply a labour of love; albeit usually an expensive and time-consuming one. But the joy of meeting like-minded people around the globe makes it worthwhile.

This is why it disturbs me greatly to see large institutions and corporate entities take aim at hobbyist sites, threatening to sue them for copyright infringement unless they cease and desist immediately.

We've seen it from movie companies and TV networks in the past. And now the U.S.-based National Music Publishers Association is taking aim at De Vries and his International Lyrics Server (http://www.lyrics.ch). On Jan. 14 police raided De Vries' home, charged him and confiscated his servers, which stored the lyrics to some 100,000 songs. Other lyrics sites on the Net were similarly warned.

The NMPA, which represents more than 600 publishers including biggies like Warner/Chappell Music and Polygram Music Publishing, says it is concerned because De Vries isn't paying any royalties to the copyright holders.

What makes this charge absurd is that he's not making any money from the site. People are free to download as many lyrics as they like. (The money from the site's sole banner ad doesn't come close to covering his costs.)

Virtually all of the lyrics were collected manually by him or other collectors who post them to his Web site. The site is remarkably well run for a hobbyist site, with songs lyrics organized and searchable by title, album or artist.

In my opinion De Vries provides a useful and selfless service, and should be left alone.

After meeting with NMPA officials last week, De Vries was hopeful some agreement could be reached to satisfy both parties. Let's hope the NMPA shows a little maturity and moderation in this matter and backs off from its extremist tactics.

In the meantime, you can help by visiting De Vries' site and signing an electronic petition.


Another area where the heavy hand of the NMPA's entrenched copright interests has emerged of late is over the posting of MIDI (musical instruments digital interface) files on the Net.

Unlike the MP3 files that are getting so much attention these days, MIDI files are not sound files. They are a kind of digital shorthand version of the original that must be constructed from the ground up note by note.

Their quality ranges from utterly dreadful, to extraordinary, depending on the skill of the creator/interpreter.

Their appeal is that they are small, so they work well on the Internet and on multimedia software. And they offer musicians a chance to analyze songs, edit and change them, play along with them, change the key or speed without affecting playback, etc.

They do not have a consumer appeal per se. Yet, in the last few months, a number of MIDI hobbyist sites have been forced to make drastic changes or shut down all together. The latest to be affected is Laura's MIDI Heaven (http://laurasmidiheaven.simplenet.com).

Although the issues are somewhat more complicated than in the case of De Vries' lyrics server - as it is possible for users to import the files into an expensive music notation program and, with some time and effort, print out music scores - I still think the NMPA is overreacting. The vast majority of sites are hobbyist run, and no money is exchanged. When that's the case, they should lay off.

As a journalist and music hobbyist, I am well aware of the need to protect copyright in the digital age. But this is a bit much.

Such trends promise to create a copyright chill that will undoubtedly stunt the growth of this wonderful new medium, whose strength is in grassroots participation.

Copyright © 1999 by The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.