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Collection Society Demands Copyright Fees From Music Schools For Teaching Music

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While collection societies should often go the extra mile to liberally interpret copyright laws in order to get money for content creators and licensees, one company in Japan has taken things a step further, insisting music schools pay up for teaching children how to play music.

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Guest post by Timothy Geigner of Techdirt

A brief review of our past stories about copyright collection societies should paint you a fairly complete picture on how these businesses operate. While they pimp themselves as proxies for content creators to police the known world for unauthorized use of that content, as well as operators working to license the use of that content, instead these companies work as syphons sucking money from both sides. They will be genuinely creative in their attempts to find infringement everywhere, liberally interpreting copyright law and what constitutes requirements for various licenses for things like art and music, while at the same time often being found to feign brain-death when it comes to paying the copyright holders' share for the money they collect.

While the tactics used by collection societies regularly flirt with absurdity, it's not terribly often that they behave in a way that will garner broad disdain. One collection society in Japan, though, has decided to cross that line, unilaterally informing music schools that they must now pay up for daring to teach students how to play music. The schools, it seems, are not taking this lying down, having banded together and planning to sue the collection society.

The music school operators said they planned to file a lawsuit against the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC) with the Tokyo District Court as early as July, a representative told The Japan Times. In February, JASRAC informed several hundred private music school operators it will begin collecting copyright fees for the use of sheet music under its management.

It claims the use of music to teach piano or other instruments infringes on the “right of performance” under Article 22 of the Copyright Law, which stipulates the composer has the exclusive right to perform their work publicly. JASRAC plans to revise its regulations, enabling the organization to collect 2.5 percent of all annual fees charged by the music schools.

You can immediately see what I mean about liberal interpretations of the law. Only in the mind of someone working at a collection group would a private school teaching a student how to play a song constitute a “public performance." For the collection group to suggest that this liberal interpretation entitles it to 2.5% of the gross revenue of a music school is plainly absurd. Japan's exceptions to copyright law do include exceptions for non-profit educational institutions, but these schools appear to be private. Those exception provisions also appear to be more geared to works like educational software than music.

The schools are trying to get the government to fill in this gap.

In response to JASRAC’s move, Yamaha Music Foundation, Kawai Musical Instruments Manufacturing Co. and five other musical school operators initially set up a group advocating for the right to educate using musical works without copyright consent. The group, which now has 350 members, has collected over 10,000 signatures demanding a halt to JASRAC’s plan, which it plans to submit to the culture ministry in July. It remains unclear how many companies will join the lawsuit.

“We want the court to confirm that performances at (music) schools do not need JASRAC’s consent,” said a representative for the group.

For it's part, JASRAC points out that there is no definition of a “public performance" in Japanese copyright law. But that likely doesn't mean that JASRAC can simply interpret what a public performance is any way it likes, including in the teaching of a student. Instead, it seems likely that this dispute will give the Japanese government the impetus to flesh out the law. That will ultimately be a good thing, assuming the government doesn't suddenly lose its mind and decide to pretend that educating students is a public performance of music.

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