Friday, March 11, 2005

ASCAP made the Girl Scouts zip their lips

In the wake of copyright and "Creative Commons" discussions lately, I hauled out this old Wall Street Journal clipping, story 1996 by Lisa Bannon, on an overeager ASCAP crackdown on the Girl Scouts. Here are excerpts; find the whole thing at U. Missouri/Kansas City School of Law site. I have two more posts on this subject coming later.

Something is missing at Diablo Day Camp this year. At the 3 p.m. sing-along in a wooded canyon near Oakland, Calif, 214 Girl Scouts are learning the summer dance craze, the Macarena. Keeping time by slapping their hands across their arms and hips, they jiggle, hop and stomp ... in silence.

"Yesterday, I told them we could be sued if we played the music," explains Teesie King, camp codirector and a volunteer mom. "So they decided they'd learn it without the music."

Starting this summer, the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers (ASCAP) has informed camps nationwide that they must pay license fees to use any of the 4 million copyrighted songs written or published by ASCAP's 68,000 members. Those who sing or play but don’t pay, ASCAP warns, might be violating the law. ... camps, including nonprofit ones such as those run by the Girl Scouts, are being told to ante up. The demand covers not only recorded music but also songs around the campfire.

"They buy paper, twine and glue for their crafts - they can pay for the music, too," says John Lo Frumento, ASCAP's chief operating officer. "If offenders keep singing without paying," he says, "we will sue them if necessary."

No more "This Land Is Your Land." An ASCAP spokesman says "Kumbaya" isn't on its list, but "God Bless America" is. ... Another composer group, Sesac, Inc., which owns copyrights to such tunes as Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," says it plans to ask camps for another set of royalties in the fall.

... Diablo's regional Girl Scout Council in Oakland is low on cash and decided its 20 area camps can't afford the extra expense. Rather than risk a lawsuit, the council told camps to scratch copyrighted songs from their programs.

"At first I thought, 'You guys have got to be kidding,'" says Sharon Kosch, the council's director of program services. "They can't sing the songs? But it's pretty threatening. We were told the penalty can be $5,000 and six days in jail." So the camp's directors have scrutinized its official "Elf Manual" and, in the section headed "Favorite Songs at Diablo Day Camp," have crossed out the most popular copyrighted tunes with black Magic Marker....

... "Is Row Row Row Your Boat' copyrighted?" ... "Row Row Row Your Boat" might float, the directors decide, but "Puff the Magic Dragon" is out. "How about Ring Around the Rosie'?" another Elf asks. The directors veto it.

Even harder than figuring out which songs are which is explaining it all to the younger Brownies. "They think copyright means the 'mean people,'" says Debby Cwalina, a 14-year-old Elf Holly explains it to them this way: "The people who wrote it have a thing on it. A little V with circles around it. There's an alarm on it. And if you sing it, BOOM!"

... ASCAP began notifying large music users, such as hotels, only a little over a decade ago and more recently has worked its way down to small users, such as rodeos and funeral homes. This year, it negotiated a reduced annual fee of $257 with camps enrolled in the American Camping Association. For camps, such as Diablo, that aren't association members, the fees range from $308 to $1,439 a year.

Penalties for noncompliance can be stiff. The law sets fines up to $25,000 or a year in prison, or both, for major infingements. ASCAP, which sends monitors around the country, has successfully sued restaurants, retailers and private clubs. ...

"If you make an exception for the Girl Scouts, you could set a practical precedent," says Russell Frackman, a copyright lawyer. "You give the impression that a particular use is not an infringement, and that can be used against you in the future."

... today is the sixth birthday of David Warneke, a camp volunteer's son. "We're not allowed to sing 'Happy Birthday,'" warns a codirector.

Huddling with the Elves, the directors come up with a plan: Sing a modified "Happy Birthday" to the tune of "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall." But Jansen is worried. "I hope that's not copyrighted, too," she frets.

Also see part two and part three of this series...

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