July 11, 2007 | By Fred von Lohmann

How Copyright Law Talks to Fans

Without fans, there would be no music industry. Most people in the music industry understand this -- certainly the artists do.

But apparently not the lawyers who work for them.

An ardent fan of the New Pornographers (a great Canadian indie rock band that includes Neko Case, among others) recently posted a copy of a forthcoming B-side to his blog page on MOG, which permits users to upload songs for streaming to others. He then received an email from Web Sheriff, an online copyright enforcer hired by the record label, Matador.

The message essentially accuses the fan of being a pirate and makes a veiled legal threat, all the while pretending to "appreciate" what it means to be a fan.

On behalf of the artist?s label, we do appreciate that ? of course ? you are a fan of / are promoting The New Pornographers but, by the same token, you must also appreciate that, by posting a pirate copy of the album or tracks from the album ? or, as in this case, a special ?bonus? track ? pre-release (or linking to pirate copies), you are potentially causing considerable inconvenience and we are sure that you would not want to be personally responsible (or liable) for all of the resulting damage and disruption.

The message (along with a follow-up) is redolent with condescension, putting on a faux apologetic face while threatening escalating legal action. It is disrespectful, shameful, and outrageous.

My point here is not to debate whether Matador has a right to send notices like this -- they do. But this is no way to talk to a fan who bought the album (that's how he got access to the B-side in the first place) and took the time to share his enthusiasm by posting one song. I'm sure a polite request (like the one sent by The Decemberists just before their last album), explaining how the band feels about this, would have done the trick.

This is a symptom of a larger problem -- this is how copyright law (and too many copyright enforcers) thinks of the fan. The law treats fans as if they are to be cattle-prodded into line, as if the fan should be grateful for the privilege of being a fan, a privilege granted at the sufferance of copyright law.

That's completely, utterly, obviously, precisely backward.

Here's my question -- does the band know what is being done in their name? Have they signed off on these emails being sent by Web Sheriff to their fans? Are they getting copies of the responses that the fans send after getting threatened like this? (For that matter, are the label's own marketing people even seeing these?) I suspect not.

That's the problem. No artist would talk to a fan like this (and if they did, they should be ashamed), to the person who just bought their forthcoming album. But the copyright enforcement lawyers are on auto-pilot, without any accountability to the artists or to the fans, threatening people, suing people, and all the while insisting that this is just how copyright law works.

Pardon my French, but that's bull****.

So I'd like to ask the members of the New Pornographers -- Dan Bejar, Kathryn Calder, Neko Case, John Collins, Kurt Dahle, Todd Fancey, Carl Newman, Nora O'Connor, and Blaine Thurier -- are you cool with this? Is this how you would ask someone to take down the song, if you met them at a show, if they had just told you how much they love your music? If not, call Matador and make them fire Web Sheriff. At least get someone who respects your fans, who doesn't leave them feeling "forever disenchanted with all of you."

UPDATE #2: NPR's Digital Culture segment did a nice piece on this controversy, with interviews of the blogger, the record label, a member of the New Pornographers, and Colin Meloy.


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