Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Slate piece: 'Born To Sue: Bruce Springsteen's lame effort to back out of a copyright lawsuit'

You may have read about Bruce Springsteen's lawsuit against a bar in New York that allegedly refused to pay its ASCAP fees -- and his subsequent running for the hills. Slate just posted this piece I wrote, which urges The Boss to stay and fight:

It was a classic piece of music industry journalism: Rapacious Big Music beats up on hapless Little Guy, with The Artist, who just wants to make ars gratia artis, caught in the middle.

This time, Big Music was ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, which collects licensing royalties for songwriters, composers, and music publishers. The Little Guy was a humble Irish bar called Connolly's Pub & Restaurant. And The Artist was none other than New Jersey's own "rock & roll working-class hero," Bruce Springsteen.

As first reported by the New York Daily News, The Boss sued Connolly's last week for copyright infringement after the bar allegedly failed to obtain a license from ASCAP to publicly perform his songs, including "Growin' Up" and "Because the Night." But shortly after the story about the lawsuit broke, Springsteen's flacks claimed it was all a big misunderstanding, blamed ASCAP, and said he was ditching the suit.

"ASCAP was solely responsible for naming Bruce Springsteen as a plaintiff in the lawsuit," said a Feb. 4 statement from his PR reps at Shore Fire Media. "Bruce Springsteen had no knowledge of this lawsuit, was not asked if he would participate as a named plaintiff, and would not have agreed to do so if he had been asked. Upon learning of this lawsuit this morning, Bruce Springsteen's representatives demanded the immediate removal of his name from the lawsuit."

Sorry, Boss, but if you say you really believe all that, then it won't be you that's on fire—it will be your pants. And since small-time songwriters rely on big-timers like you to enforce these copyright protections, you shouldn't try to back out of this lawsuit anyway. (As of this writing, Springsteen still hadn't withdrawn.)

Please go read the whole thing.

Update: Bruce really did bail. Plaintiffs filed a First Amended Complaint Feb. 5, which was just made available on PACER today. The complaint is now completely Springsteen-rein. Isn't that unusual? My recollection is that the caption (which originally included Springsteen) stays the same even after amendment, unless a change is ordered by the court. Am I wrong?

And another civ. pro. conundrum: the sole remaining plaintiff is now Clinton C. Ballard, Jr. D/B/A Beardog Pub. Co. But Ballard apparently died in 2008. Can he still be a plaintiff?Ballard v. 121 W. 45th St. Restaurant


  1. Hi Ben!

    Getting set for our third major snowstorm of the winter ... and I am here in Ashland,Virginia ... just an hour or so south of D.C. This kind of weather is VERY unusual for us. The schools might be closed for months!

    Bruce Springsteen and I are just about the same age. I totally agree with your comments in this article. It is not just his personal points of view that he now represents (he is already a gazillionaire), his voice speaks for all the young and struggling Springsteen "wannabes" out there, as well. Bruce knows how important adequate copyright protection is to his chosen and beloved profession.

    Unlike Bruce, I tried to retire early. I failed. I practically bored myself to death. There was still work to be done. For the past 3-4 years, I have been concentrating on cleaning up digital piracy and counterfeiting activities in the "visual arts" industries. Our industries produce more new and original copyrighted works each year than the music industry and all other copyright disciplines combined.

    Our digital piracy rates are also among the highest in the world, as well. What a shame! Even higher than music, books, and movies.

    As noted before, my tiny little graphic arts development company has finally figured out how to gain the edge back from these pirates. We are now succesfully using "image recognition" technologies to find and document infringements at a fraction of the time and cost of performing the same activities over the past decade or so. We are very excited.

    You'll learn more about how these recent discoveries can help other copyright owners when we officially join the new Copyrights:Code(Red) campaign and organization at the end of this month.

    Keep your eye focused on the big picture, Bruce. Don't withdraw. Connolly's will survive. It's the small, yet determined, under-financed new copyright producers that I am most worried about. They represent our creative future, and, without them, we'd all be lost in the woods.

    Thanks for keeping up with these "issues", Ben. Your articles are intelligently presented and I'll bet well-received by both sides of the critcally important copyright debate these days.

    George Riddick
    Imageline, Inc.

  2. I really feel you've made some good points. As Metallica took such a PR hit for going after Napster, Springsteen doesn't want the same liability. He's gotta decide which side of the "regular working guy" fence he's on. It's clear he doesn't want to be perceived as the big bully rock star. One shouldn't just cave to the PR pressure, but do what is ehtically right, regardless of the hits taken. Jim Skafish

  3. It's the Congressionally mandated rackets of the three PROs (performing rights organizations: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) and the protection that those three "non-profit" organizations have under the 1978 Copyright Act that's at fault here.
    BMI sued our small music venue a couple of years ago for "copyright infringement," after BMI sent in one of their spies, who "caught" our bluegrass guys picking a few bars of "Rocky Top" during our weekly Bluegrass Jam. BMI sued us for $40,000, complete with Interrogatories, threats, the whole shootin' match, even though their local attorney here actually likes us and comes to our shows. What a nightmare, not that we don't have a business to run.
    After I threatened to sic national media on BMI, including TIME magazine, I got our Congressman (Bob Inglis, R-SC) involved. He managed to get a conference call with our company's attorney, BMI's honchos and me. Via phone, we beat the crap out of them, for their hostile and "covert" activities, which are aimed primarily at small business, the ones they think will back down, the ones they can threaten and cajole and litigate.
    The PROs' lack of universal enforcement; their willy-nilly calling of "rules" that only they seem to know, i.e., who gets royalties and who doesn't, and how much of our venue's "licensing" money actually goes into which artists, etc. etc. -- we covered all of that in that conference call, for about 45 minutes. And we tore them apart. Yes, we managed to settle the suit, so now we pay some $1,500 a year for original artists to perform THEIR music in our venue, while precious little, if any, of that money goes back to those original artists. Instead, we know, through the PROs' own website, that all the money from places like ours goes to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce and other big-name acts (who, what?, need the money?), while our baby-band performers -- most all of whom are members of at least one of the PROs -- have never ONCE received a royalty check from any of them. Just look at BMI's glass mansion at the foot of Nashville's Music Row, a towering, shining testimony to the Mafia-esque like greed that has been and will be the demise of the rest of the music industry.
    Bottom line: The entire system needs to be revamped, perhaps the way Canada does theirs (it seems to work, according to Canadian artists I've talked to). Congressman Inglis sits (or did sit at the time) on the House Committee that oversees copyright, and he understands the need for massive overhaul, but it's not going happen until artists like Springsteen grow the stones to do what his art says he does: look out for the little guy.
    Until then, everyone but the thugs who are greedy enough and powerful enough to cow the rest of us into submission will win --especially in this new age of Live Nation/Ticketmaster monopoly. And until then, the racket will go on and on, and only a venue like ours that gets on the radar screen of those who want to rip us off, will fall victim like Connelly's did.
    I'm all for revenue sharing, which is what the Copyright laws are intended to do, but when I see one of our artists not making a DIME off the money I send to the PROs, I gotta wonder: that money's going somewhere.
    Enjoy it, Boss-man and BMI, because nobody lives forever. And since you guys make a ton more money than I ever will supporting live music, just keep ripping us off. Whatever makes you feel good.

  4. Regarding George Riddick's comment... Whatever he's promising to do at the end of the month should be weighed against his website at imageline2.com which still sports: "Major web site upgrade coming in November 2009!"

    I remember when it said "July 2008." He usually changes the date on that message by the time it's this stale.

    The "More" link on the page is newer, though. It leads to a press release with a typo in the first sentence ("announcfing"). The press release *announcfes* initiatives set to drop in Fall 2009. Welcome to Winter 2010.


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