What’s the deal with the IRFA?

Photo by JGroup

Musician David Lowery, founder of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, has become one of the most vocal defendants of artists’ rights in the digital age. A co-founder of The Trichordist, Lowery and his colleagues write some very detailed, professional assessments of the state of the music industry since digital file sharing, streaming, and purchasing have become a reality.

Presently under fire by Lowery and others is a bill called the Internet Radio Fairness Act, which appears, for now, to benefit one company — Pandora.  I haven’t had a chance to read the bill yet, but analysis from a few sources sounds an awful lot like new-era business seeking a very old-school model for profitability — free labor.  To the generalist glancing at some post about the IRFA on social media, it sounds progressive and reasonable, namely the headline that states “the Internet Radio company wants to pay the same rates as terrestrial radio.”  No surprise, it ain’t that simple. In addition to Lowery’s piece, I would read some of the analysis by Chris Castle, who has been following the details fairly closely.

The most disconcerting criticisms I’ve read is that the bill is a union buster, designed to weaken or destroy the collective bargaining rights of artists. One paragraph in the bill is particularly troubling:

 “Nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to permit any copyright owners of sound recordings acting jointly, or any common agent or collective representing such copyright owners, to take any action that would prohibit, interfere with, or impede direct licensing by copyright owners of sound recordings [including artists who own their own sound recordings] in competition with licensing by any common agent or collective, and any such action that affects interstate commerce shall be deemed a contract, combination or conspiracy in restraint of trade in violation of section 1 of the Sherman Act (15 U.S.C. 1).’.  [For which there are both civil and criminal penalties.]”

Like I say, I haven’t had a chance to read the bill in full yet, and I’m not a lawyer.  What I do know is that Internet companies do not deserve a free pass when it comes to the question of influence peddling. If Pandora cannot turn a profit without a law that strips artists of collective bargaining rights, then so long Pandora.  It wasn’t that long ago when industrialists claimed they could not build important infrastructure without treating American workers like virtual slaves.  The right to bargain for the value of one’s work cannot be recast in this technological era as a barrier to the innovation of entertainment any more than it ought to have been claimed as a barrier to building a railroad over a century ago.  And considering how often the Internet industries cry foul every time a member of the creative community goes to Washington, this bill sounds more hypocritical and lopsided than it does “fair.”

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